PGA considering introducing
Ernie Els gets most of the blame.
It wasn't quite the "shot heard 'round the world," but the Big Easy
caught everyone's attention with a drive on the 15th hole at Kapalua that finally
stopped rolling at the bottom of a hill, some 400 yards from where he stood.
Now U.S. Golf Association executive director David Fay is suggesting the time
has come to restrict equipment used by the best players in the world.
PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem is talking about a "line in the sand"
for how far the ball travels, dropping hints that the tour might have to set its
own equipment standards.
The golf ball is going farther than ever, and the guardians of the game are
"As the gap between the best players and the rest of us widens, there
are more and more discussions about whether the game can survive with one set
of rules," Fay said. "I'm still hanging to the set of beliefs we can."
He might be hanging by a thread.
Heading into the Match Play Championship, the top 10 players in driving distance
are all averaging 300 yards or better, with Els topping the list (319.6 yards).
More telling than statistics are the anecdotes.
Phil Mickelson nearly drove the green on a 403-yard hole at Phoenix. Two years
ago, it was Lefty's mammoth drive on No. 11 at Augusta National that served as
the catalyst for chairman Hootie Johnson's decision to drastically lengthen the
Charles Howell III twice played the historic, 451-yard closing hole at Riviera
last week with a driver and a sand wedge. A plaque on the 18th fairway honors
Dave Stockton for his approach in 1974 to win the Los Angeles Open - with a 3-wood.
"It's not just Ernie," Fay said. "I'm one of those who believes
the ball is going farther. Only someone who is deaf, dumb and blind would say
Whether this is good or bad for golf at its highest level is a matter of perspective.
No matter how far a ball travels, it eventually has to find its way into a
hole that is 4 1/4 inches in diameter. Despite the extra length this year, only
one tournament scoring record has been broken - by Els at Kapalua, an odd week
of virtually no wind.
Then again, more length off the tee is rendering some golf courses obsolete.
The alternative is to spend millions of dollars to upgrade and expand. Torrey
Pines now measures 7,670 yards from the tips, and even La Costa has added chunks
of yardage for the Match Play Championship.
Scott Hoch didn't bother playing this year until he got to a course - Riviera
- that wasn't a paradise for the big hitters. Bernhard Langer says there is no
point playing on courses where he can't compete.
"There are some courses I can play as good as I possibly can, and I would
probably finish 20th," Langer said. "I don't know what the answer is.
I'm just seeing the results. And the reality is, I'm going to have to pick certain
courses and do well there."
Who is responsible for finding the answer?
The USGA sets the guidelines for equipment, although the PGA Tour reserves
the right to make its own rules.
"I don't think there's any reason the ball needs to go any farther,"
Finchem said. "It would be appropriate to put some standards in place that
more or less draws a line in the sand with regards to how far the ball goes."
Finchem plans to meet with equipment manufacturers this week, although it does
not sound as if the tour is ready to take charge.
That could change.
"If progress - or what we believe to be adequate progress - is not made,
we might have to get involved in the equipment area," he said. "That's
not our preference."
Progress is coming, no matter how long overdue.
For years, the USGA set its distance standard for golf balls by using a machine
that swung a wooden club at 109 mph. The new test will use a titanium club and
a significantly higher clubhead speed.
Even with a new ball test, manufacturers probably will find new ways for the
golf ball to go farther, either through a higher launch or with less spin.
Clearly, equipment companies have much more at stake financially than the USGA
and thus invest more money in research and development, carried out by rocket
"It's just like Formula One cars," Jeff Sluman said. "The governing
bodies set up rules and regulations to slow the cars down. Race car teams hire
more and better engineers to get around the limits that have been set. Cars are
"Ball companies are the same," he said. "Titleist is going to
hire better engineers. The bottom line is the ball is going to go farther under
whatever parameters they've got. How do you slow that down? Tell them they can't
The buzz word in equipment these days is "bifurcation" - different
equipment regulations for professionals and recreational players.
One thing that makes golf appealing is that anyone can go to a pro shop and
buy the same clubs and balls as tour players. People can play most of the same
Separate equipment standards for the tour might not go over well with companies.
"That's how they promote - through us," Tiger Woods said. "That's
the best visual, to watch us play with their products."
Still, golf also is appealing because the masses can occasionally relate to
the pros. Everyday players know the feeling of hitting a 7-iron to 3 feet, of
hitting a driver down the middle.
But 400-yard drives? Hitting sand wedge for the second shot on a 451-yard hole?
Finchem fears golf could reach a point where it is not as exciting to watch,
or that quantum leaps in technology will make the best players in golf so good
that the average players can no longer relate.
"The difficult thing is you don't know what that point is," Finchem
said. "Everybody would agree that right now, our sport is at an all-time
peak. It's hard to make an argument that point has arrived. You don't know until
you're into it."
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