Golf is a power
game, a point driven home by a recent confluence of events in Ohio that rocked
a sport that has always been resistant to change. In Springfield on Aug. 22,
the Ohio Golf Association held a tournament in which competitors were compelled
to use identical balls that had been engineered to fly roughly 10% shorter than
the average rock. (dead-ball golf is what headline writers at The Columbus
Dispatch called the attempt to put the toothpaste back into the tube.) Then, in
Akron last week, Tiger Woods took time out from winning his fourth straight
tournament, the WGC- Bridgestone Invitational, to stump for the implementation
of performance-enhancing drug testing in professional golf. It was a public
rebuke to PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem, who has staked out a see-no-evil,
hear-no-evil position on steroids.
off the steroid controversy when he said at a pretournament press conference in
Akron that there is no need to test his Boy Scouts in spikes. He cited "the
culture of the sport, the history of the sport: It's just as important to a
player that he is playing by the rules as it is how good he hits the shot."
Added Finchem, "The fact that players [in other sports] take steroids is
not evidence to me that players in this sport are. I have no evidence of
players taking steroids in this sport."
It was a curious
statement. In the absence of testing, what kind of evidence could he have?
Locker room gossip? There is already documented steroid use in high-stakes
golf. A 2005 survey by the NCAA found that 1.3% of its golfers had juiced,
allowing them to potentially enjoy the twin benefits of an increase in clubhead
speed and a greater ability to endure and recover from the rigors of hitting
hundreds of balls a day on the driving range.
Woods, who came
out of Stanford 10 years ago as skinny as a one-iron and built up his body
through countless hours in the gym, is wary of competitors who might take
shortcuts. Last Thursday, when Woods was asked about Finchem's steroids
statement, he said, "I think we should be proactive instead of reactive. I
just think that we should be ahead of it and keep our sport as pure as can
be." Woods offered to be the first in line to be tested.
The man who
ushered in the era of the long ball has spoken out against unnatural power
before. In 2003, when his distance advantage off the tee had been largely
eroded by players who were quicker to embrace technological advances, Woods
called on Finchem to institute testing to catch drivers that were hotter than
USGA limits. Woods got what he wanted, sort of. By January 2004 such a test was
in place, though in typical Finchem fashion, player participation is
It was an
open-minded band of volunteers that showed up when the OGA staged its one-ball
tournament, bringing to life an idea that for years has been kicked around by
everyone from Jack Nicklaus to recently retired Masters chairman Hootie
Johnson, who grew weary of annually having to tear up his golf course to keep
pace with advances in equipment. ( Augusta National has grown more than 500
yards, to 7,445, since Woods's overpowering victory in 1997.) OGA president
Hugh E. Wall III said that maintaining the relevance of older, shorter courses
in his jurisdiction was the primary motivation for testing the
restricted-flight ball. "[We have] great courses, but many don't have the
resources or the real estate to expand to 7,400 yards," Wall told
GolfWorld. "[We want] our member clubs to see there may be another option
... other than bulldozers."
competitor at Windy Knoll Golf Club received a dozen balls with an OGA logo and
a side stamp of CHAMPIONS 08222306 (the name of the tournament and its dates).
All other details about the ball were supposed to be top secret, but by
tournament's end word had leaked that it was manufactured by Volvik, an obscure
Korean company. (A U.S. manufacturer examined the OGA ball for SI and reports
that it was a three-piece, dual-core construction with a Surlyn cover and 446
dimples.) These instant collector's items left most players pining for their
regular ball. Derek Carney of Dublin, Ohio, typified the conflicted attitude:
He agreed that something has to be done to protect older courses but said that
he didn't like the OGA ball "because it doesn't benefit me."
merely previews the howls of protest that would accompany any efforts to roll
back the ball on the PGA Tour, where players have spent years using launch
monitors and computers to find optimal combinations of balls, shafts and
clubheads. The irony of the OGA event is that it is PGA Tour pros who threaten
to make a mockery of classic courses. Yet bifurcation is a dirty word in golf.
Differing rules for pros and amateurs would destroy the business model of the
$4 billion equipment industry, which is built on stars like Woods being paid
handsomely to peddle their gear to weekend hackers.
Golf is still
grappling with the ramifications of the boom-boom ethos that has redefined the
game, but the almighty buck remains the sport's most influential force. When it
comes to reigning in the power game, steroid testing will be an easier sell
than dead-ball golf. Especially when Woods is the salesman.
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