"Actually, we regret we had to give the manufacturers a cushion for the extra 15 or so yards," says Hannigan. "Legally, we had to set the standard slightly beyond the market that was there. I think we'd be better off with a slightly lower number, but there is no question that we have limited the distance that the ball can travel."
"Balls are going a little farther, with a tighter dispersal pattern, yes," says Uihlein. "But the biggest thing is that they are being made more consistently. There are no more bad balls—that, and customability."
To Uihlein, "customability" in golf is roughly the same as a second baseman's using a small glove so he can turn the double play better. A player who propels his shots from a low launch angle would probably want a ball that spins more to compensate for the relatively shallow angle with which his approach shots hit the green, while someone who has trouble keeping the ball straight would probably want a ball that spins less, because the more spin a ball has, the more off line poorly struck shots tend to go.
Differences in grooves or ball design may be hard to discern, but it's easy to tell that clubs have changed. In the 1960s, when Solheim developed his now famous Ping putter, the major improvement in the design of the putter was "heel-toe" weighting, a concept that widens the effective hitting area, or "sweet spot" on a club. Solheim soon expanded heel-toe weighting to perimeter weighting and began making investment-cast irons, placing most of the club's weight on the outside edge and at the bottom of the club head, with the least weight in the hitting area. The resulting center of gravity is directly behind where the club should strike the ball. This means that a club with perimeter weighting has less rotational torque, or will twist less, as it enters the hitting area than traditional forged irons, theoretically allowing more solid hits. Today, virtually every manufacturer makes perimeter-weighted irons, which have also become known as "game-improvement" clubs.
Perimeter weighting was carried one step further in the late '70s with the metal woods marketed by Gary Adams of the Taylor Made company. When Adams saw that the combination of the two-piece ball and irons produced greater distance, he decided to try to make a metal driver. The Taylor Made club head is filled with foam; its weight is in its extremities. Players using the club reported they were hitting more par 5's in two, and because of the improved weight distribution, they could hit their drivers solidly from the fairway. One trade-off is that soft-landing shots are more difficult to hit with a metal wood than with a traditional one. Since 1979 the number of pros using the club has risen from three to more than half the U.S. Open field.
Some of the game's top players argue that these changes are damaging the game. "There used to be a greater separation between the talented and the not so talented," says Tom Watson. "The new equipment is reducing the element of shotmaking and consolidating the talent. Yes, equipment advances are part of the game, but I think there has got to be a point where you say, no more."
"It's harder for the cream to come to the top," agrees Jack Nicklaus. "The equipment is putting everyone at one level. Good golf is not necessarily rewarded."
And who are these people who might be whipping the cream? Well, Mark Calcavecchia, for one. This year he has won the Honda Classic and more than $380,000 while using a metal-headed driver and a Ping three-wood with titanium shafts as well as a set of Ping irons, amid audible whispers that he would be caddying without high-tech equipment.
"They think the only reason I'm winning is that I'm playing Pings," says Calcavecchia, whose big but sometimes erratic game is just the kind that critics say profits the most from the greater margin for error in high-tech golf. "That's their problem. Equipment might help a very small amount, but 98 percent of it is that the young guys out here are just better. If everybody used the same clubs and the same ball, you'd still have the same results—the young guys winning."
The critics of high tech point out that the stats show it is the average player who is making the biggest gains. Thirty-six-hole-cut scores are declining. In 1976 there were two tournament cuts under par. In 1980 there were four. Last year there were 12, and this year there have been 9, with one third of the season to go. Another illustration of the depth is the average score of the past two U.S. Opens at Olympic in San Francisco—the field averaged 76.2 in 1966, compared with 73.7 this year. Yet the winning score of 277 was only one stroke lower than in 1966.