The moment F. Morgan (Buzz) Taylor Jr., a veteran golf administrator, assumed the presidency of the USGA in January, he said that he intended to get a handle on the accelerating technological advances in golf equipment. That was good news to those of us who feel the premium on skill has been lessened, specifically at the highest level of the game, by new—and USGA approved—equipment.
But we wondered how Taylor would proceed. Before he came along, the USGA, bloodied by its battle with Ping over square grooves, had chosen not to confront manufacturers. Now, goaded by the likes of Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman, Arnold Palmer, Nick Price and Tom Watson, the organization has taken the first shot in a new war on technology, but it has misfired, a mistake that not only is bad news, but also brings into question whether Taylor is a loose cannon unfit to lead golf's governing body.
The USGA has selected an issue to battle over that's even more arcane than square grooves—the possibility, raised in a USGA-funded study, that titanium-headed woods produce an illegal, trampolinelike effect at impact. This study was shown to the leading manufacturers of titanium clubs several weeks ago, and subsequent public statements by Taylor sparked a series of threats and counterthreats by the regulators and the regulated.
How did Taylor expect clubmakers to react? Their job is to push the envelope and create new products. In this age of publicly held equipment companies, clubmakers are under intense pressure from stockholders to increase profits. When their bottom line is threatened, they fight back. Callaway took the lead. Already reeling after three straight poor quarters and with its stock trading near its 52-week low, it's not surprising that the company came out swinging.
The trouble with Taylor is that while his mission to protect the game is a laudable one, his methods are ham-handed. Here are the three ways he has bungled this case:
First, he has chosen confrontation over compromise. A former football player at Princeton, Taylor, 66, has a pugnacious style that has made him as politically tone-deaf as Kenneth Stair. Explaining last month that he intends to preserve the game's traditions, Taylor combatively added, "and there's not one lawyer in the world who is going to get in our way of doing that." Those are fighting words.
Second, instead of focusing on the obvious solution to the equipment imbroglio—it's the ball, stupid—Taylor started on the periphery, with titanium woods. The study cited by the USGA is unpublished, and the methodology and the results are widely disputed by industry experts, who insist that no one has ever been able to create a trampoline effect that would violate Appendix II, 4-1e of the Rules of Golf. Even more troublesome is the fact that the USGA has already approved the clubs in question and millions of golfers use them.
Finally, by going off half-cocked on the most expensive piece of equipment in the game, Taylor invited a counterattack by the biggest player in the industry. Callaway launched a public-relations blitz that paints the USGA as a group of blue-blooded bogeymen hopelessly out of touch with Joe Duffer. The speed and intensity of the Callaway campaign sent the message that Taylor won't be going up against only one lawyer should the USGA decide to take action against Big Bertha.
Although the signs of trouble are everywhere, the USGA has, in the past, been able to soberly suck the urgency out of tough issues. For now, no one's talking. "It's button-up time," says executive director David Fay. A meeting of the USGA executive committee, scheduled for June 13, on what to do about the spring-effect data will probably diffuse the situation. No real harm has been done.
However, if Taylor is to make a positive mark on the game during his two-year term, he must stop the saber-rattling and employ diplomacy. The equipment world is a tinderbox, and Buzz has to get with the biz. His challenge should be to find a middle ground that allows championship golf to be decided by skill while also not taking any of the fun out of the game for recreational players.