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Escalation Not Conciliation Between USGA and Equipment Companies

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It seemed at the end of last year that the U.S. Golf Association and equipment manufacturers might be willing to bridge the ideological gap between them. Any lingering personal animus between the USGA and the late Ely Callaway was gone, and new Callaway chief Ron Drapeau said in private conversations that he felt a more conciliatory mood coming.
 
But now, instead of checking the mail for invitations to a hatchet-burying party, golf industry insiders are wondering how recent developments will affect the future of the game.
 
The USGA announced on Dec. 19 its proposal to limit the size of clubheads to 385 cc, and to limit the length of clubs to 47 inches.
 
Its about distance off the tee, right? That was the natural assumption. But in an interview with me that aired Jan. 2, Dick Rugge, the USGAs senior technical director, said otherwise when asked whether the USGA had evidence that head size and length were elevating science over golfer ability.
 
Thats not at all what were claiming here, Rugge said. Were claiming that [some new, larger and longer clubs] are too different from the traditional and customary form and make.
 
The emphasized words are from the Rules of Golf, Appendix II(1)(a), which is designed to prevent clubs from becoming unrecognizable as golf implements. Rugge admits its a subjective standard, especially in light of the fact that so many unusual looking clubs have been approved over the years, including triangular, winged putters and shallow-face metalwoods.
 
Everybody has their opinions, Rugge said. The USGA has its opinions about these things as well, and also believes it has a responsibility to act on its opinion.
 
Its difficult with a subjective standard like this, but thats our responsibility and were not afraid to take it.
 
Not exactly fighting words, but not conciliatory, either.
Manufacturers will have until Feb. 19 to comment on the proposals. There is no guarantee the regulations will be adopted, no matter what the manufacturers say.
 
So far, nothing they have had to say has been favorable.
 
[The USGA has] presented no technical evidence that their limits are anything but arbitrary, Adams Golf CEO Barney Adams said in a statement. My education by the USGA in the Rules of Golf is that ball flight should be swing-affected and the player should not have a piece of equipment that produces results better than his swing. If this is just arbitrary then it stifles innovation, which is the heart and soul of the golf industry.
 
'The most surprising thing to us was the vivid juxtaposition of the two announcements ' said Wally Uihlein, president and CEO of Acushnet Co., the parent of Titleist & FootJoy Worldwide and Cobra Golf. (The USGA release also included the announcement that tests to develop a new Overall Distance Standard for golf balls would employ actual launch conditions instead of a more theoretical process called optimization, a result ball makers have been hoping for.)
'The golf ball announcement reflected the input and concerns of manufacturers, Uihlein said. Compare that to the heavy-handed announcement of the proposed club restrictions, which we think are indicative of the new administration and a new regulatory activism.'
 
The new administration comes in Feb. 2, when president-elect Reed Mackenzie will be sworn in at the USGAs annual meeting. Despite his reputation among some equipment executives as a hawk, Mackenzie says the Dec. 19 proposals were not his idea.
 
All I can tell you is that the impetus for that came from the Implements & Ball Committee, with no suggestion from me, Mackenzie said. But I did support the announcement when it came out.
 
I have no implement and ball agenda, Mackenzie said. I have a good chairman in place there, and I can rely on him. (I&B chairman Walter Driver did not return calls before deadline.)
 
Mackenzie also said that early comment from manufacturers may lead to a change in the language of the rules proposals. Rugge confirmed this, and said a possible extension of the comment period, while unlikely, is nonetheless on the table.
 
Meanwhile, Zevo Golf had intended to bring a 410 cc driver to the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando, Jan. 24-27. And new club entry Nike has one ready at 400 cc, and has solicited consumer comment on its website about the regulatory situation.
 
Whether or not the proposed regulations make sense depends on ones comfort level of golf purism. But larger questions loom. Chief among these may be the long-term effect of regulation (no matter how well-intended) on the recreational game, where flat participation levels have become an increasingly uncomfortable fact of commercial life. And that begs the complementary question: Would unbridled innovation some day make the game unrecognizable?
 
And if there is to be a bridle ' what kind of bit would it have, and who should put it in?
 
Check out the USGA's press releases:
 
USGA Announces Intention To Limit Clubhead Size & Club Length
 

USGA To Update Golf Ball Conformance Test
 
Who do you think will be the USGA's size limitations?
 
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