It's not hard to imagine young Winston Churchill flailing at a gutta-percha ball buried in ankle-high gorse before finally flipping aside his long-nosed baffing spoon and majestically proclaiming golf a game with "weapons singularly ill-designed for their purpose." But if Sir Winston had been able to heft a perimeter-weighted metal-headed driver with a titanium shaft and whack an icosahedron-patterned dimpled ball down a carpetlike fairway, he might have saved himself a lot of blood, sweat and tears. After years of only gradual advances in golf equipment, manufacturers have recently taken giant strides toward making this exasperating game a little easier to play. The average hacker, of course, is hardly complaining, but technology's effect on the PGA Tour has prompted the most intense self-examination since the steel shaft replaced hickory nearly 60 years ago.
With every round of 64 come cries that souped-up balls are carrying too far and that fancy clubs are turning bad shots into good ones. Traditionalists are worried. Will run-of-the-mill pros using space-age equipment ravage all but the most severe and tricked-up courses? Have technological advances created a kind of shotmaking parity that can make a Hogan out of every Tom, Dick and Calcavecchia?
"Damn right, high tech is affecting performance," says Mac O'Grady, one of the Tour's most ardent students of the subject. "I've never hit the ball this far. I've never gotten so much spin. The game is easier, and all of a sudden, everybody is confident. We're almost to where you can put a computer chip inside the golf ball."
Golf's officials aren't quite ready to declare a new age. They point out that while overall scores may be lower, Sam Snead's record average of 69.23, set in 1950, still stands. "The players are saying that the world is coming to an end, as they tend to do periodically," says Frank Hannigan, senior executive director of the United States Golf Association, which sets the rules and the equipment specifications. "I don't think golf can stand another quantum jump in equipment like the one it made from hickory shafts to steel, because we would simply run out of real estate. But nothing is telling me anything like that is happening. And I think the safeguards are in place to prevent it."
Yet there is no denying that many pros are abandoning their once-cherished persimmon drivers and classically forged irons for clubs that look funny and clank instead of click. More players now use metal woods—the most readily accepted oxymoron in the English language—than the kind made from trees. The most popular iron is the perimeter-weighted Ping club-golf's version of the Prince tennis racket—with an oversized head and grooves that produce increased spin and superior control from difficult lies. Also gaining acceptance are graphite shafts and titanium shafts, which are lighter and stronger than those made of steel. And the materials and dimple patterns being used to make golf balls descend from the advances that put men on the moon.
In the last three years, more and more players have switched to irons with square or U-shaped grooves. The result of what Hannigan calls a "crazy, really unfortunate, accident," square grooves have become Exhibit A for those who say technology has gone too far.
First, some background. From 1942 through 1983, the USGA had three fundamental requirements for the grooves, or scoring, of irons: Grooves had to be V-shaped, could be no more than .035 of an inch wide from edge to edge and could be no closer together than three times the width of the adjacent groove. Manufacturers had no problem with the requirements, mostly because tests kept indicating that the depth or width of grooves had little to do with how far or straight a golf ball flew or how much it spun. For decades, millions of V-grooves were stamped, rolled or milled into irons following the forging process that was the almost exclusive technique for shaping iron heads. But in the 1970s, more manufacturers began using the investment-cast process, which is similar to lost-wax casting, to shape irons.
USGA technical director Frank Thomas, who keeps track of such developments, noticed that investment casting tended to create U-shaped, rather than V-shaped, grooves. So in 1981 he recommended a change in the wording of the rule to allow for a groove the shape of a three-sided box, and two years later that change was adopted.
Karsten Solheim, the innovative 75-year-old founder of the Karsten Manufacturing Corporation, jumped at the chance to use box-shaped grooves for his 1985 Ping Eye 2 models. Solheim says he had a hunch that grooves with more volume than the conventional V-shaped grooves might help a player attain "repeatability" in his shots. He is quick to add, "I didn't think it was any big deal."
But the results were. The Tour underground immediately began to buzz about the increased spin that the Pings produced, which to a professional means more control. The trouble was that the sharp edges on the new grooves were tearing up the soft-covered balls professionals prefer. Solheim solved that problem by rounding the edges of the new grooves. But when Thomas saw the new clubs in late 1985, he determined that the rounding process had put the now-wider grooves closer to each other, in violation of the three-times-the-width rule.