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
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
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
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.
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
"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
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
"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.