Trying to Drive Debate Home

Special to The Times

Former United States Golf Assn. president Bill Campbell calls the recent technology-fueled driving-distance gains "indefensible."

Retired USGA executive director Frank Hannigan says the distance issue is so far out of control that the problem is "insoluble, given the USGA as it is."

Frank "Sandy" Tatum Jr., who has been trying to bring the distance issue to the forefront since he was USGA president in 1978-79, said, "The governors of the game have a responsibility to govern the game, and the governors have not been doing so."

Esteemed former leaders of American golf's governing body hope the tough talk may finally lead the USGA and its counterpart, the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, to take control of the sport's increasingly obvious distance predicament.

Although a new and improved USGA ball test is set to take effect in June, a more dramatic and unprecedented rules modification is under discussion behind closed doors, one that would allow for a distance-regulated ball to be introduced under the rules of golf.

For some, it's time the discussion gets serious.

"The recent, ongoing increases in driving yardage seem to be exponential and are indefensible and not in the game's best interests," said Campbell, the only person to serve as president of the USGA, in 1982-83, and captain of the R&A.;

"It is apparent that most par-five holes are now easily reachable in two shots by most tour pros and top amateurs, and even by some college and high school team players, and that longish par fours have become drive-and-pitch opportunities for many, and lesser par fours are drivable by some. Unless and until something is done about it, this trend will continue. How can this be good for the game? Must top-rated courses extend to 8,000 or more yards? And then, what next?"

In a year when distance gains were supposed to be negligible, the PGA Tour had an extraordinary seven-yard increase in average driving distance.

By suggesting that the ball is traveling far past an acceptable limit for accomplished players and classic courses, Campbell implied that USGA testing policies have failed. The problem, he said, "is more easily corrected by just shortening the ball, putting a governor on it."

"Though politically challenging, this cure isn't rocket science or U.N. diplomacy. The issue cries out for concerted attention, resolve and action -- all with a sense of urgency."

In May 2002, a newly updated "statement of principles" designed to guide the USGA and R&A; in formulating future equipment rules stated, "any further significant increases in hitting distances at the highest level are undesirable."

The USGA statement of principles says that "any additional distance gains will not be due to design or construction changes in the ball itself."

According to Tatum, "It was an achievement to have a joint statement of principles," but that statement "had an out with the use of the word significant." He said, "There has not been any development since that says the statement will have any practical effect. Holding the ball where it is does not solve the problem. The game in its present form is clearly out of control."

The governing bodies in July announced a revised golf ball test with a "prospective implementation" date of June 2004. The announcement signaled the unlikely return of the once-retired "Iron Byron" testing device instead of the more complete "optimization" indoor test developed by the USGA in the late 1990s. That comprehensive test has never been implemented, in part, some contend, because it would have put a cap on the distance balls could travel and resulted in making some balls now on the market illegal.

"The revised ball-testing techniques are impressive on the surface -- greater clubhead speed in the robotic device, use of an up-to-date metal driver," said Hannigan, who was executive director from 1983 to 1989. "But buried deep in the USGA spin job is the news that, no matter what, no ball currently approved by the USGA and R&A; will be struck from the list. Nothing will happen."

In a July op-ed article for the Scotsman, Hannigan wrote that "the tenor of the announcement was that it will constitute the ultimate drawing of a line in the sand, but the mind turns to 'Comical Ali,' the former director of information for Iraq, when he announced that American troops were nowhere close to the Saddam Hussein International Airport."

Hannigan favors an overall distance rollback because he fears a tournament-only restricted-flight ball might create as many problems as it solves.

"A rollback in distance is not a difficult technical problem: It can be done with club or ball, or both. But a rollback is a legal and political problem."

Marty Parkes, the senior director of communications for the USGA, said of the idea that a separate tournament ball be used: "That idea has been kicked around."

Hannigan said that "more distance results from changes made to drivers and, more recently, to balls that are designed to react with clubs by departing at a higher launch angle, and with less spin." He said that recent technological improvements do little for the average golfer and that "a player must be exceptionally consistent" to reap significant benefits.

"[Those at the USGA] fear that core constituents, American amateur golfers, would revolt because they believe that springy clubs and new balls matter."

Thus, Hannigan points out, no action is taken by the USGA "because of an illusion" that average golfers would be harmed by a rollback that genuinely affects only top players.

As for a tournament ball scenario, Hannigan points to PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem as the person most likely to act to protect his "product." Hannigan believes there is "no case to be made" that technology has made the sport better.

"It leads to greater expense, to slower golf and robs us of the meditative pleasure of comparison," he said. "Finchem would infinitely prefer to play rules enacted by the R&A; and USGA because it takes him and his players out of the line of legal fire. But he may have no alternative if the traditional bodies continue to cower."

In February, Finchem hinted that if the USGA and R&A; could not come to a ball-testing agreement, the tour would look at a system of "bifurcating the equipment specs for amateurs and professionals," meaning the pros would play a different ball from the one used in amateur play.

Since the July announcement of a joint agreement by the governing bodies, Finchem has indicated he will not intervene unless they fail to have their testing in place by June 2004. At the Tour Championship, Finchem said that he believed the new test "essentially caps the distance on the golf ball."

Manufacturers, who were not pleased with the USGA's now extinct "optimization" test, still see room to grow with the return of an updated but not complete Iron Byron.

"There's still some room for the balls being played on tour to get a little faster under this proposal," said Taylor Made Vice President Benoit Vincent in an interview with Golf World.

Parkes said of the Iron Byron test, "The hope is that we're going to have an updated test procedure, and that it's going to be a good one."

Several former USGA presidents offer different views.

"The technical staff at the USGA has gotten to a point where it can control the future distances of the golf ball," said Reg Murphy, USGA president from 1994 to 1995. "You just don't put lead in track shoes when better athletes are going to always come along. They're better-conditioned, and they will continue to hit the ball a long way. It's the nature of every sport to change over time."

Former president Judy Bell (1996-97) is "intrigued" by the idea of rolling back technology-enhanced distance gains via a regulated competition ball, but she has concerns and wants to study "all of the ramifications." Bell says it's the governing bodies' job to preserve the game, which "doesn't mean going back to hickory-shafted clubs, but we all hate to see it get away from us and not be a complete game anymore."

Trey Holland, who was president from 2000 to 2001, believes the distance issue might be a "good thing for Mr. Finchem to address." As for a tournament ball, he warned, "It appears to be an easy solution to a difficult issue, but it creates many problems."

Holland points out that professional and recreational golf have always been played under one set of rules, and any break from that tradition could create more problems than it solves.

Grant Spaeth, whose presidency ran from 1990 to 1992, has been "totally frustrated" by the USGA's handling of the distance issue and the "critical failure of leadership." But he believes that under a tournament ball scenario, "things would fall into line rather attractively."

Tatum has long been opposed to "bifurcation" that splits the sport with different equipment specifications for professionals and amateurs, particularly if it means putting the PGA Tour in the rule-making business. But he suggests that the PGA Tour also has an interest.

"Clearly, they're in the entertainment business, and they are being affected by this," Tatum said. "The game is beginning to become a bore to watch."

One scenario being discussed would include the USGA's accommodating an additional rule similar to its "one-ball condition," which was added in 1979 to prevent players from using harder-covered balls on long holes and softer-performing balatas on holes where accuracy was more vital than distance.

An additional provision in the USGA rules appendix of acceptable local rules could allow a tournament committee to require that a ball with unique specifications be used for the competition in question. This would permit the committee to still contest its event under the current rules of golf.

Current Executive Director David Fay and other USGA officials have suggested the idea of such a clause to several prominent figures in golfing circles. The concept is nearly identical to a suggestion floated by his predecessor Hannigan in a series of 2002 Golf World commentaries.

Since newly nominated USGA President Fred Ridley and Vice President Walter Driver are members of Augusta National -- with Driver reportedly looking for ways to address the distance issue -- it may not be long before the home of the Masters would have the ability under USGA rules to tell invitees that they must play a ball that conforms to specifications they deem necessary to keep Augusta National and the USGA relevant.

"If technology brings about change in the next several years like we've seen in the past several years, then we may have to consider equipment specifications for the Masters," Augusta National Chairman Hootie Johnson said in 2002, long before this year's record increase in driving distance and before manufacturer comments suggesting that the USGA's new "Phase II" ball test can still be skirted.

Although the comments from Campbell, Hannigan and Tatum may have pushed the USGA to consider action, former president Holland doesn't believe past USGA leaders should speak out because "we all had our kick at the can to work on the problem."

Instead, Holland says the issue should be addressed by the USGA's 15-member executive committee.

That might happen in 2004.

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Geoff Shackelford is the author of "Grounds for Golf: The History and Fundamentals of Golf Course Design," (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martins Press).

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