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Golf Feature: - Posted 27th May 1998

Clubmakers threatened by USGA plans to ban big clubs

Millions of golfers could be made to stop using their Big Berthas and other types of large metal woods if the USGA and R & A decide to change the rules to stop technology from overwhelming the game.

A statement from the USGA, planned during the US Open,  is expected to toughen equipment standards. It could mean that the days of the big-headed clubs and broomhandled putters are numbered and statements already made by the USGA has angered the equipment companies. The US Open is held from 18th - 21st June.

After a decade of big metal woods, longer shafts, larger and more forgivng irons, broomshafted putters that allow a pendulum action and golf balls that fly straighter and further, the rule-makers are now prepared to step in with new vigour.

USGA executive, David Fay told Golf World, the US weekly magazine, "I believe there will be some announcement of substance beyond 'we're looking at it' at the US Open. If we want to get something in place to announce rules changes for the year 2000, it's incumbent for us to get moving on it."

According to Golf World Fay said the new rules being considered include reducing the distance a ball flies, shaft length, especially for the putter and driver, loft maximum (aimed at eliminating the 60 degree wedge) and establishing a maximum speed at which the ball can come off the clubhead.

It is also possible that the number of clubs allowed in a bag will be reduced from 14 to 12 or even 11. This is likely to stop players carrying three wedges.

Morgan "Buzz" Taylor, the new president of the USGA, said he is concerned that a wave of highly conditioned athletes and sophisticated technology will "combine to threaten obsolescence of many of golf's historic venues."

Callaway Golf was one of the first to issue a statement opposing the changes. From his office in Carlsbad, California, Ely Callaway, the 78-year-old founder of the $1 billion business, said: "If the USGA starts telling people they can't use their Big Berthas, there are going to be some angry golfers out there, Golf is hard enough as it is. Why should they want to make it harder?"

He also emphasised, "The clubs in question all were previously submitted and approved by the USGA. It may be noble and honourable for the USGA to try to preserve the integrity of the game of golf but there is no connection between that goal and efforts to ban modern technology. The integrity of the game is not threatened today. I find it very difficult to understand how anyone could feel justified in any serious attempt to limit the added enjoyment which millions of golfers - skilled and unskilled - have gained from modern day golf club design improvements.

The statement from Callaway also points out that the average men's handicap in the US has improved by less than a half-shot from 16.8 to 16.6 since 1981 and that although the current average driving distance of 269 yards on the PGA Tour is up from 260.3 in 1993 there is not a proportionate drop in scoring avarage. In fact Byron Nelson's record single-season stroke average of 68.33 has stood for more than 50 years.

Of all the changes being considered the one affecting the ball has the most support among professionals, especially Jack Nicklaus and Colin Montgomerie.

"It's either make the courses longer or cut back on the ball by 10 to 20 per cent, Nicklaus said last week. "Otherwise, courses will become obsolete."

Titleist and Spalding between them have 70 per cent of the golf ball market, are trying to work behind the scenes with the USGA to come to an agreement that both the rule-makers and the money-makers can live with.

All the pros seem to be against the way holes of 400 yards, which once required two thinking shots, have now been reduced to a long drive and a flick with a wedge.

Ernie Els, Nick Price and Seve Ballesteros are reported by Lewine Mair in the Daily Telegraph to support the plans by the R and A and the USGA.

Price said one of the worst developments is the way in which much of the strain has gone out of the tee shot on a championship's last hole. It used to be a shot calling for all the guts and skill in the world, now, the brute force brigade can blithely and unthinkingly knock a ball over all the trouble.

Ballesteros is equally concerned about the new 60 degree wedges which now allow the less talented players to produce shots that were the preserve of the few, and 'very few'.

While the equipment makers have said they want to talk to the governing bodies about the proposed changes they have not ruled out legal action as an option.

"Our franchise is to preserve and protect the game's ancient and honourable traditions. I intend to do that and there's not one lawyer in the world who is going to get in our way of doing that," Buzz Taylor told Golf World.

Donald Dye, president and chief executive officer of Callaway hinted at a all-out legal campaign backed by the whole equipment industry when he responded to Taylor's comments by saying:

"I don't think he'll ever be dealing with any one lawyer."