I went out today—Oct. 1, 1998—and burned the warranty card for my oversized titanium driver. I stood in the driveway, where the neighborhood kids could see me, and pulled the trigger on my grill lighter, producing a flame. "This is to send a message to America's golf club manufacturers," I solemnly intoned, causing a bunny to freeze at the edge of a flower bed. "I don't want this war, and I won't fight this war!" I put the yellow flame to the corner of the little cardboard rectangle and watched as the card curled and blackened and dropped from my fingers to the ground.
So here I am: the first conscientious objector in golf's nascent technology war. Call me a coward. Label me a Luddite. Accuse me, if you must, of blue-blazer envy. I don't care. I'm sitting this one out.
Who started this war? The clubmakers blame the U.S. Golf Association and its president, Buzz Taylor, for promoting an alteration to Rule 4-le. This alteration, if approved, would establish a protocol regulating the springlike effect of club faces acting upon balls. The manufacturers claim that 4-le, while ostensibly designed to protect the integrity of the game, is actually a sinister plot to stifle innovation and discourage high-handicap golfers.
Personally, I can't listen to five minutes of this debate without dozing off, but the clubmakers make it sound as if the new rule were written by Willie Horton with help from the child-pornography lobby. "Profoundly disturbing," Callaway Golf's founder and chairman, Ely Callaway, called the protocol in a Sept. 28 letter to the USGA, adding, "The game will lose its appeal to all but a handful of diehards who view the game as the private province of the privileged." So disturbed was Callaway by this prospect that he boycotted last week's USGA town meeting in New Jersey and joined a group of other industry executives who have threatened lawsuits if the USGA doesn't back down.
Is the situation so dire? No currently available clubs will be banned if the USGA approves the protocol. No broad restrictions will be placed on innovations, and clubmakers will still be able to advertise their products as longer and straighter, even when there is little evidence to support their claims. The USGA will merely have asserted its role as the preserver and protector of the Rules of Golf.
Forgive me if I question the industry's motives. Ely Callaway may sincerely believe that he's taking on a snobbish elite by challenging the USGA, but it was Callaway, not the folks from Far Hills, who made $500 the benchmark for a titanium driver. Similarly, John Solheim, president of Karsten Manufacturing, may be right when he says that "no one except a few influential members of the USGA" is demanding a limit on technology. But those influential members are supposed to police the game. They're not there to pimp for Ping.
No one goes to war to enrich the munitions makers; it's always for the mother country. That explains why the equipment companies say they're fighting for Joe Six-pack, the American flag, soccer moms and every golfer's right to a mulligan. It's why they get so nasty when one of their own turns dovish. When Taylor Made broke ranks and supported the USGA at the town meeting, a Callaway exec scornfully dismissed the current top seller of metal woods as a company no longer interested in innovation. "Wishful thinking," retorted Taylor Made CEO George Montgomery.
The clubmakers' biggest conceit is that they are responsible for the game's current popularity. They claim that performance-enhancing technology has made the game more rewarding for beginners and hackers, and that's why so many people have taken up golf. Historians will probably credit the golf boom not to bubble shafts and titanium clubheads but to demographics (a flood of aging, prosperous baby boomers) and social change (the impact of Tiger Woods, feminism, etc.). Clubmakers haven't caused the boom; they have profited from it.
That's why I won't enlist in their army, and why, if drafted, I will not serve. I admire the clubmaker's craft, the designer's art and the marketer's savvy, but the essence of the game is not hardware. It's software—as in grass, wind, muscle, nerves and those little gray cells.
Let's say it together: Hell, no, we won't go! The whole golf world is watching.