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Conflicts surrounding the Callaway ERC driver

In a glass case at the PGA Merchandise Show, the U.S. Golf Association displayed 11 examples of clubs that do not conform to its rules. One was a putter with wheels. Another had a Velcro grip.

Missing was the one non-conforming club that has everyone talking -- the ERC II driver by Callaway Golf.

Perhaps it belongs in a glass case all to itself, an example of a golf club that has caused so much angst for the USGA and has spun such a sticky web of conflict.

Callaway is at odds with the USGA. The USGA is at odds with Arnold Palmer, an ardent supporter who now stands in Callaway's corner. The USGA and the Royal & Ancient Golf Club, the game's two governing bodies, can't agree whether extra distance is really a threat.

"The real issue, due to regulatory suffocation, is that the No. 1 story going into 2001 is a non-conforming product,'' said Wally Uihlein, the chief executive at Titleist. "That's a sad editorial on the aggregate state of affairs in the golf club product category.''

Callaway isn't the only company to make a driver that exceeds USGA limits for how quickly a ball springs off the face. But the initials of founder Ely R. Callaway have become synonymous with perhaps the biggest controversy in the equipment industry since steel replaced hickory shafts in the 1920s.

And neither side is backing off.

"There's one game and there's one set of rules,'' said USGA executive director David Fay, scoffing at the idea there should be different standards for different levels of play. "We're not inclined to treat the Rules of Golf as if it were some buffet line where you pick and choose.''

Callaway says he has no plans to file a lawsuit "as long as the public continues to buy a reasonable amount of our product.''

"If it gets to the point that they're defaming us so severely ... we have to take another look,'' he said.

The USGA developed a test for spring-like effect in 1998, believing that too much extra distance off the tee would make courses obsolete and corrupt the game. The ERC is one of about two dozen drivers it has deemed non-conforming.

Callaway believes the long ball is good for golf, especially for the majority of amateurs who play only recreational rounds and not formal competition.

The USGA drew a line with its new standard. Callaway went storming across it with the ERC and ERC II.

Leading the charge was Palmer, who shocked the industry by endorsing the ERC II in October as a club the masses could enjoy.

The USGA felt betrayed by Palmer, the honorary chairman of its Members Program since 1975. It recently removed his signature from letters sent out to recruit new members.

"The King'' became known as "Benedict Arnold'' by some golf purists, who were appalled he would support a non-conforming club. While Palmer says the ERC should not be used in formal competition, he sees no harm in using it for fun.

"It is my view that the use of the ERC II adds to the enjoyment of the game and is in no way detrimental to it,'' he said in a position paper on non-conforming drivers.

Palmer said his position was consistent with the R&A, which refused to go along with the USGA's spring-like effect standards and declared in October that its research did not conclude extra distance threatened the game.

Now, equipment companies are divided. Do they sell only clubs approved by the USGA and risk letting Callaway, Dogleg Right and other renegades have the non-conforming market all to themselves?

"Someone took advantage of a slight difference between the R&A and the USGA to market their clubs,'' said John Solheim, chairman and CEO of Ping Golf. "It's too bad they had to sacrifice the game for financial goals.''

Ping feels its titanium driver is as good as anything. Titleist has yet to join the fray, although Uihlein hinted he might have one in the works.

But others are falling in line.

Taylor Made, which initially applauded the USGA standards for spring-like effect, recently began selling a non-conforming driver overseas. Wilson Golf has two versions of its new Deep Red driver -- one that conforms to USGA rules for the U.S. market, one that doesn't for its customers in Japan.

"In the long term, everyone will have to be in the market,'' said Jim Baugh, president of Wilson.

Eli Callaway with the ERC driver. Allsport.

The controversy reminds some of the lawsuit Ping filed against the USGA some 20 years ago over square grooves in irons, a case that eventually was settled out of court.

In Ping's case, the USGA made its ruling after the club was on the market; Callaway willingly exceeded regulations. Ping lost momentum in the marketplace because of the controversy; Callaway is thriving on it.

"Ping felt they were right, stopped production and fought their case,'' said Barney Adams, who has refused to put his Adams Golf Co. in the non-conforming market. "Callaway, brilliantly so in my opinion, found a way to make money while they're fighting the battle.''

The week of the PGA Merchandise Show was a time for Callaway to shine. He joined Fay in a spirited debate on The Golf Channel, then stood his ground during a presentation that had the feel of a tent revival.

Callaway preached for nearly 45 minutes against what he claims are inflexible attitudes by the USGA that are stunting the game's growth. He accused the USGA of setting rules that apply only to skilled players. And he belittled the notion Palmer was forced to promote the ERC because of his 12-year endorsement contract with Callaway.

"We don't have enough money anywhere in the world to buy Arnold Palmer's integrity and beliefs,'' Callaway said.

What is the future of non-conforming drivers? As long as there is a demand, Callaway will stay the course.

"The marketplace will determine the final answer,'' he said.

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