The USGA won't start a war over high-tech equipment
For drama, it rivaled the opening of Al Capone's vault. That was empty, too. At a press conference before the U.S. Open, the USGA's top officials scotched weeks of speculation about the game's immediate future. Rather than outlawing titanium drivers, as many had feared they would, the rule makers gave Big Bertha their blessing.
Before a hushed crowd of reporters—plus a curious John Daly—USGA executive director David Fay read a statement promising that the association will design a test to define the "effect at impact of a spring" prohibited by Rule 4.1(e). "Until now, it has just been a clause, a phrase," Fay admitted, noting that every club from Bobby Jones's driver to Daly's Biggest Big Bertha deforms and rebounds somewhat, technically violating the rule. In coming months the association will decide precisely how much spring, if any, will be allowed in new clubs. Fay said the standard, which will become part of the USGA's conformance tests for new equipment, will be determined with help from equipment manufacturers.
The primary consequence of the USGA position is that it has no consequence in the marketplace. "We do not believe that the springlike effect in clubs presently in use has lessened the skill required to play the game," said Fay. "We are not uncomfortable with what we see in the market today. The concern is what is around the corner."
That view is far milder than the recent rhetoric of USGA president F. Morgan (Buzz) Taylor, who seemed to be an enemy of high-tech clubs. Callaway, Karsten Manufacturing and Titleist had taken out magazine and newspaper ads assailing the association and threatening to sue if their clubs were outlawed. Players including Daly and Tiger Woods, who began using a graphite-shafted driver this month, anticipated fireworks. "I don't see how they can ban them, because people are making so much money off titanium drivers and graphite shafts," Woods said. "These companies are not going to stand for it." At the press conference Fay said the uproar had been based on "exaggerations...a rush to judgment." Asked if he was making peace with manufacturers, he said, "I didn't know we were at war."
Clubmakers suddenly breathed more easily. "We were scared" before the announcement, said John Solheim, president of Karsten, which makes Ping clubs. "We were in the dark, but the signals we were getting had us all worried."
Did the USGA back down, fearing legal retaliation by equipment manufacturers? Fay said no. "That doesn't influence how we go about doing our business," he insisted. Industry types, perhaps with one eye on the tests to be performed this fall, resisted the urge to gloat. "What happened today is good for golf," said lawyer Leonard Decof, who helped Karsten beat the PGA Tour in a multimillion-dollar lawsuit over square grooves and recently signed on with Callaway, the firm whose founder came closest to crowing last week.
"Some members of the USGA seem to think that golf is their game, but calmer heads and wisdom prevailed," said Ely Callaway. "We are happy that the USGA listened, and learned."
If the association sprang forward to challenge wealthy Callaway and other clubmakers only to fall back to the status quo last week, at least it finished in the right place. Wednesday's announcement was vintage USGA: methodical, public-relations-challenged, but in the end, sensible.