Technology remains a driving force
Golf's ruling bodies may have had enough but manufacturers always want better equipment
It's time to listen for alarm bells when golf administrators begin using language favoured by populist politicians. Like the Royal and Ancient's contention that their "line in the sand" has been crossed, in the matter of the distance the golf ball is now being propelled by tournament professionals.
There's almost a comfort in seeing this followed up by the benign announcement from the same source of a world handicapping system by 2020. For all its faults, handicapping has proved to be far more manageable than keeping a rein on the creativity of golf equipment engineers.
The key point in recent disclosures from the R and A was that 68 players are averaging more than 300 yards off the tee on the PGA Tour this season. This compares with the situation 20 years ago when such exploits were limited to Tiger Woods and John Daly.
It happens to be a subject dear to Irish hearts. Our talent for smashing the ball prodigious distances was very much in evidence at Portmarnock in 1949, when a special long-driving competition was held in conjunction with the Amateur Men's Home Internationals. On the basis of distance carried, the Irish swept the boards, led by Jimmy Bruen on 280 yards, followed by Joe Carr (265), Billy O'Sullivan (250) and Jimmy Carroll (250). John Burke, Max McCready and Brennie Scannell were each measured at 235.
As it happened, all of the English players, including Gerald Micklem and Laddie Lucas, came in at 235 yards, the same as the leading Scots. And the best from the Welsh was 230.
Though Carr became a fader of the ball during the 1950s, serious length remained available to him on returning to his low hook for a specific challenge. As he did in 1961 in a long-driving event held on the eve of the Martini Tournament at Sundridge Park, Kent, where he smashed the ball 311 yards, two feet and three inches. This was more than five yards ahead of the longest professional, Tony Coope from Wigan. Two years later, using the standard persimmon driver and core-wound golf ball of the day, Jack Nicklaus hit a drive of 341 yards 17 inches. Which remains formidable, even by current standards.
This brings me to a fascinating experience I had in June 1998, on a visit to the Callaway headquarters in Carlsbad, 20 miles from San Diego. There, I met Callaway's CEO, Don Dye, whose candour about the challenges facing the industry remains remarkably relevant, 20 years on.
Our meeting took place in the wake of an American magazine article in which Nick Price, a three-time Major champion, talked of the trampoline effect in new-fangled drivers, whereby the club-face bends inwards on hitting the ball and then springs back, propelling the ball farther. "If the USGA decides to step in and regulate equipment, I would be their No 1 supporter," Price said
His close friendship with the USGA president made him, effectively, an informed source, adding weight to his views. In the event, the USGA promised an official statement on the matter, while R and A secretary, Michael Bonallack, publicly voiced his dislike of such clubs.
All of which led Callaway to claim serious losses on the stock market. "We have seen our stock price drop, leading to a loss of between $200m and $300m as a direct consequence of this action," said Dye. "We were trading at $25 dollars a share; we're now trading at $18 since the announcement."
He added: "That's seven dollars per share and we've got 70 million shares out there, so that comes out at almost $500 million in lost market capital. We have no doubt that a good portion of that drop is due to the possibility of action by the USGA." He warned that a ban on over-size, metal drivers could force Callaway to "seek recompense".
Potentially, this represented a far more serious situation for the game's legislators than Ping's litigation over square-grooves in 1989. According to Dye: "The difference is that Ping dealt with a issue of grooves and how you spin the ball and it did not affect more than two per cent of golfers." By 1998, however, Callaway's Big Bertha alone, had sold 14 million units worldwide.
F Morgan Taylor, then president of the USGA, was an interesting character, not least through the fact that his father, Morgan, a three-time Olympic medallist, finished third behind Ireland's Bob Tisdall in the 400 metres hurdles at the 1932 Los Angeles games. "I'm not here to worry about lawyers," said Taylor. "We have to do what we feel is right for the game."
Meanwhile, Dye confessed: "We have been seeking the Holy Grail, as we call it, the club that will deliver the trampoline effect. But we haven't been able to achieve it. If it were possible, we'd have done it."
The Callaway official went on to argue that when the Big Bertha was launched in 1990, two years before the company went public, the USGA could have declared the club illegal. "Instead, we were in a position to go to prospective shareholders telling them we had this great club which was approved by the USGA. Now they're trying to change the rules of the game in the middle of the round."
This, however, was to overlook a point which is critical to the latest moves. In the appendix covering equipment in the Rules of Golf, it states that the R and A and the USGA reserve "the right to change the rules and make or change the interpretation relating to clubs, balls and other implements, at any time."
And however impressive the legal firepower that the equipment companies bring to bear, they would appear helpless to challenge this. Yet Dye was sufficiently prescient to predict the next equipment challenge down the road, in the shape of a sphere 1.68 inches in diameter. It materialised when Titleist marked the millennium by putting a soft cover on their Pinnacle ball to deliver the ProV1. Which is essentially at the root of the current hand-wringing.
Back in 1998, Dye predicted: "I'm not sure the USGA have the good science to deal with the golf ball issue. As I understand it, they're seeking a standard where a golfer who can swing a golf club 109mph won't hit the ball further than 285 yards.
"But their tests didn't take into account wind and atmospheric conditions and many of the manufacturers have been able to improve the dimple pattern to achieve better lift and reduced drag. For our part, we believe that given the ideal launch angle and a minimum of spin, our golf clubs will carry the ball a lot further in the hands of more consistent players."
In October 1998, The New York Times reported that Callaway dismissed 700 employees, or nearly a quarter of its work-force, including chief executive, Donald H Dye. A month later, it was announced that the USGA had adopted new regulations to limit the trampoline effect.
Under ferocious lobbying by manufacturers, however, they added that virtually all existing clubs conformed to the new standard.
If the events of 1998 taught us anything about the golf industry, it's that the power of money will ultimately prevail. And a preponderance of the stuff is unlikely to be found in coffers around St Andrews and Far Hills, New Jersey.
Sunday Indo Sport