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Technology builds future uncertainty

More than 100 fans pressed against the white picket fence to watch Davis Love III go through a short practice session. He started with a few wedges and worked his way through the bag until he was launching tee shots on the range at Quail Hollow Club. This got their attention.

His work done, Love looked over at them when asked a question that has been making the rounds lately.

Is too much power ruining golf?

``Go ask all these people if the game is ruined, if it's too easy,'' he said.

Then, perhaps realizing he was in Charlotte, N.C. -- the heart of NASCAR country -- Love offered an analogy to show the difference between PGA Tour players and the people who only dream of being that good.

``If you give me Jeff Gordon's race car out there on the track at Charlotte, I cannot make it go as fast as he can,'' Love said. ``But he can make it go as fast as the car will possibly go. So, you give us this equipment, we can make it go as far as it possibly can go, because we're better than everybody else.

``These people, they need the help.''

The governing bodies are more interested in elite players, such as Love, and how far they are hitting the ball. The biggest buzz yet in the debate over distance came from an e-mail the U.S. Golf Association sent to manufacturers, inviting them to take part in a research project by building a ball that goes 15 and 25 yards shorter.

For some, it sounded more like a warning shot across the bow.

``There certainly was some head-scratching,'' Srixon vice president Mike Pai said. ``Every time one of these things happens it's like, 'What are they up to now? Where are we going?'''

The e-mail from USGA senior technical director Dick Rugge was sent April 11. That was one day after Tiger Woods won his fourth Masters, and five days after Augusta National chairman Hootie Johnson -- who first floated the idea of a tournament ball three years ago -- said he was encouraged by progress the governing bodies were making on the ball.

Where it leads is anyone's guess.

``We had questions about it, just like everyone else,'' Callaway spokesman Larry Dorman said. ``After consulting with them, we were comfortable with the idea they were doing research, and that they have no preconceived notion of where that research is going to go.''

Rugge insists this is not the first step of a plan to roll back the ball. He said in his e-mail, which was first obtained by Golfweek magazine, that now is the time for companies to take part in this research and get involved in the process of changing the rule ``if that becomes necessary.''

``We don't think a change is necessary,'' Rugge said in an interview. ``It's human nature that people are interested if something else is behind this. But it's truly a research project.''

The ball has received the brunt of the blame for shots going farther, even though there are other variables involved.

-- The heads of the driver can be as large as 460cc, nearly twice as big as models 10 years ago. Nick Price says drivers used to have a sweet spot the size of a pea. ``These things have got a sweet spot the size of a peach,'' he said.

-- Course conditions are so pure that under dry conditions, the ball can roll some 60 yards. Bernhard Langer, 136th in driving distance last year, was among the top five in the final round at the baked-out Colonial.

-- More golfers resemble real athletes, and the teaching is better than ever.

-- Computerized launch monitors have allowed players to maximize their distance by matching their swing speed and launch angle with the best spin rate of golf balls and shafts for their clubs.

But the ball has a large posse of protesters, led by Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player, all of whom have lucrative golf course design businesses; and Johnson, who is intent on keeping Augusta National current, even though the defense of the course was never its length.

``We listen to people,'' Rugge said. ``We listened to Jack, and to Hootie. It doesn't mean we better do something about this. It means we ought to be at least investigating or studying. We're doing a really conscientious work to understand the issues.''

Rugge said there are early signs of cooperation among manufacturers, although no one has submitted a sample. Titleist and Callaway officials say it could take anywhere from three to six months to make a prototype.

Titleist chief Wally Uihlein called the research project ``more of an intellectual exercise than emotional and attitudinal bits and bites.'' But to drive home his argument that it isn't just the ball, he said Titleist would supply the USGA a ball and a club specification that would produce rollbacks.

``We can make the ball lighter,'' he said. ``But if you're not careful, the game will hardly be what it is today. Not only will it be more subject to crosswind and headwind, but because the spin rates change, drivers no longer are compatible.''

Titleist recently hosted a group from the Royal & Ancient Golf Club, and he said a parade of USGA officials also have come by to bone up on what goes into making a ball.

``Nicklaus and others think all you've got to do is go into the kitchen and set the oven at 300 (degrees) instead of 350,'' Uihlein said. ``It's not that easy. You can't just set the accelerator so it can't go more than 55 mph.''

The average driving distance on the PGA Tour increased by just 1 yard last year to 287.3, and the average drive on tour through the Colonial was 284.5 yards. While driving distance is up 15.5 yards over the last 10 years, the scoring average is down only a fraction during that time, from 71.18 in 1996 to 71.13 last year.

Rugge doesn't expect more big gains in distance.

``We're going to be in the Eisenhower years -- very stable,'' he said.

And he is adamant that the purpose of this research is simply to be prepared if scaling back the ball becomes the best option. That could be years from now, if at all.

Above all, the USGA and R&A are committed to one set of rules for elite players, as well as those pressed up against the white picket fence.

That's what made Love's analogy noteworthy. Any decision on equipment ultimately affects recreational players.

``If you made three balls, you had two balls perfect for the marketplace and one for the tour, what do these people want to play?'' Love said. ``These people want to play what we play.''


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