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USGA goes distance in clubs debate


© St. Petersburg Times, published September 7, 2000

C'mon, you've done it. Hit a mulligan off the first tee (or several during the course of a round), played with 17 or 18 clubs in your bag, switched golf balls on the putting green.

So what's to keep you from putting a non-conforming driver in your bag, one that allows you to hit the ball an extra 20-30 yards? Will the fact that it is deemed illegal keep you from doing so?

Some see nothing wrong with it. Others see plenty wrong with it.

"One of the charms of golf is that we all play by the same rules," said Trey Holland, president of the United States Golf Association. "To the extent that we can preserve that, we preserve a very important part of the game."

The USGA makes rules and sets up the technical criteria by which golf clubs are measured. Over the years, as advances in technology have been made, golf club manufacturers have pushed the limit on the rules. Some have gone beyond.

A high-profile case involves Callaway Golf. Most enthusiasts have tried one of the company's Big Bertha models. They have been among the most popular metal woods.

But Callaway also makes the ERC driver, a club that performed too well, according to the USGA. The organization put it among 15 clubs that it banned from its competitions. That means it could not be used in a PGA Tour event, or the U.S. Amateur, or any USGA-sanctioned tournament at your club.

Most golfers, however, are not competing in tournaments. They play the game recreationally among friends, give each other putts, fail to hit another ball from the tee when hooking their tee shot out of bounds.

"The USGA is a great organization and does a lot of great things. It is the rules body and we need a governing body, no question about it," said Edwin Watts, who along with his brother, Ronnie, owns the Edwin Watts Golf Shops retail chain. "But the biggest issue is the average golfer can't break 100. Most of them can't fly the ball 150 yards in the air.

"The best players in the world play every day. How many are there, 300, 400, 500 of them? Do we restrict equipment for the best players in the world, or for the rest of the world that struggles to play a game that is very hard? Our feeling is, don't restrict the rules for the masses who are so frustrated. People play for enjoyment."

Callaway's ERC driver is not available in the United States, but is sold in Japan, Canada and Europe. Watts said his stores carry some models because customers have requested them, even though the price approaches $1,000.

The club has received attention because several pros, Colin Montgomerie for one, have tried it. In fact, more than a dozen players used an ERC in the British Open, whereUSGA rules do not apply.

Why is the club non-conforming? Because it has what the USGA calls too much "springlike effect." In essence, the face caves and rebounds too much. The USGA believes less skill is needed to hit these clubs.

Most manufacturers have strived to make their clubs conform. They believe golfers want to play with clubs that are considered legal, regardless of their skill level and how often they compete in a tournament.

"We believe that some agency not made up of the manufacturers must make the rules," said Luke Reese, general manager of Wilson's golf division. "And that the rules of golf are ones that should be followed by anyone who wants to play a game called golf. As long as the USGA sets certain legal limits, we will follow them. And we will make the absolute best performing products while following them."

Wilson's popular Fat Shaft irons were designed with the average player in mind. The company is said to be working on a new driver as well.

"Our products are designed to make the mid- and upper-handicap players play better," Reese said. "We know that some companies have talked about a springlike effect driver making them longer.

"But our research has shown us that there are several elements that make a great driver. Spring effect is only one small piece of this. The products we're working on have several characteristics that will make the ball fly both longer and straighter but will absolutely conform to the USGA legal limits."

The great debate will continue.

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