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Rarely has there been a stronger display of the USGA's authority and determination than that shown the other day when it banned from tournament use four of the most prestigious golf balls made in America. Outlawed for failing to meet velocity and/or weight limitations set forth in the Rules of Golf—i.e., they were souped up—were: Acushnet's Titleist DT and DT 100 and Spalding's Black Dot and 100 compression Black Dot, as well as a lesser-known ball, the Bristol Advisory 100. The Titleist is the country's best-selling golf ball, and Spalding's premium ball, the Dot, has had a major share of the market for 30 years. It was as if GM and Ford had been ruled off the road.
The USGA, which is responsible for keeping "hot" golf balls out of tournaments and, it hopes, off the market, first became suspicious during its annual check of balls last March. It had picked up several dozen of every make in pro shops across the country and shipped them to the United States Testing Company in Hoboken, N.J. After being "cured" for three days in an incubator, they were put through the USGA's velocity-testing machine. When substantial numbers of the Titleist, Spalding and Bristol balls failed to meet specifications, dozens more were tested. The previous results were confirmed.
In early April the manufacturers were notified that their balls did not conform. The companies asked that more balls be tested. By mid-May there was no significant change—substantial numbers were still exceeding the 250 feet per second allowed, as well as a 2% tolerance above that which the USGA permits. In addition, numbers of the Spalding Dots were still above the allowed weight (1.620 ounces avoirdupois), and added weight often helps distance, too.
"We had to do something," says USGA boss Joe Dey. "Using one of these balls was just as much breaking a golf rule as moving a ball with your toe." The ban was ordered. While this was going on, there had also been some very quiet mutterings on the pro tour, which follows the USGA's golf ball edicts. "I noticed this spring that guys hitting the Dot were driving 20 yards farther than they used to," Arnold Palmer told a friend. "I figured something was wrong."
What has gone wrong, contend Spalding and Acushnet, is the USGA's testing machine, a 25-year-old device that does have an antiquated look about it. Acushnet Vice President William Bommer said the problem is "in the area of testing technique," but Acushnet has also shipped a new batch of balls to the USGA for testing, hoping to have "the difficulty resolved" before the U.S. Open. Howard Nannen, national sales manager for Spalding, says the USGA machine is not consistent, that it is "walking."
At the companies' request, the USGA tested all parts of the machine, found nothing wrong and said, in effect, that its machine was not walking but the golf balls concerned were sure galloping, and, incidentally, there was nothing wrong with its scale either—the one it weighed the Spalding Black Dots on.
About the only apparent way for Titleist and Spalding to get back on the PGA tour and into amateur tournaments quickly is for the companies to put out a ball that does pass the USGA tests and give it or the box it comes in a distinguishing mark.
Meanwhile, golfers have crowded pro shops seeking the hopped-up balls. "The companies may have a quick sale," Joe Dev says, "but a stigma will probably become attached to their products if they do not conform. I like to think and I do believe that most players want to play golf by the Rules."
Reaction on the PGA tour, where the-banned balls have not been used for two weeks, varied. Short-hitting Doug Ford was outraged. "It's the silliest thing I ever heard of," he said. "We're pros playing amateur rules." Another pro, one who normally uses a Black Dot, said, "It doesn't matter. I'll play anything I can get for nothing."
But for Acushnet and Spalding there was plenty of concern, and not just about the balls. Acushnet likes to say that more pros play Titleists in major tournaments than any other ball. And Spalding has a slogan that now cuts two ways: "Born to fly...Black Dot rewards you with a little more distance than you thought you'd get."