The Golf Ball Debate Causes and Effects Meet News Judgment


Upon returning from The Players Championship early this week, I received e-mails from two executives of major golf equipment companies. They noted the distinct lack of attention to a story, the flip side of which usually gets plenty of play.
Not a word about how the defenses of the stadium course at the TPC of Sawgrass may have diluted the argument that the golf ball goes too far, one of my correspondents wrote. The e-mail bore the title, The First Amendment Does Not Balance Itself; the writer is, as you might expect, involved in making and selling golf balls.
The e-mails bring up the thorny but necessary question: Are the golf media miscasting the golf ball debate?
Lets begin by disposing of the issue of intention. As someone who, through some arguable lapses in judgment, has chosen two professions that are generally reviled ' lawyer, then reporter ' I am perhaps more sensitive than most to the notion that reporters skew reporting of the news according to their personal politics. The issues raised by Bernard Goldberg, the former CBS News reporter, in his recent book, Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News, have been much on my mind lately. Goldberg, hardly a card-carrying conservative, savages his former colleagues (Dan Rather in particular) for being out of touch with the country west of the Hudson and for reporting the news with a definite leftward tilt.
It doesnt matter whether you believe that or not. The implication does the damage. But even Goldberg is willing to admit that theres no conspiracy going on at the big networks. The anchors and producers immutable politics are to blame. (Perhaps that should make Rather and his people feel worse.)
Knowing the members of the golf press as I do, Im inclined to believe there is likewise no conspiracy in the bentgrass segment of the Fourth Estate. And while its not my job or desire to rise to the defense of my competitor colleagues (some of whom have been terribly unfair to my place of business, by the way), I think I know why they play the modern golf ball stories the way they do.
Consider the following sample headlines: Johnson Proposes Special Masters Golf Ball, and Single-Digit-Under-Par Scores Show Golf Balls Not the Problem.
Which story would you read? Headlines such as the first example recently led readers to the story of Masters chairman Hootie Johnson proposing a limited-flight golf ball for his event, essentially making a public play to overcome the current rulemaking inertia in golf.
The second headline, which of course never appeared in any form, it is the golf news equivalent of No Fire Breaks Out at Local Textile Mill. The reader shrugs and moves on.
At least some segment of readers and others affected by press coverage will always grumble about the media because the play assigned to a story ' whether it appears above the fold in the paper or early in a broadcast ' is a matter of judgment, and subjective matters invite debate.
But this isnt a journalism lesson. The behavior of some of the golf media, as well as that of the sources who feed them information, may have fostered the notion that the ball is the problem, instead of the fact, which is that many people say the ball is the problem.
Case in point: As he sat down for a taped interview with me at Sawgrass, Pete Dye used the moment while his microphone was being clipped on to tell me that I had the wrong people talking on the air about the golf ball debate. He offered a statistic to show that so-called ladies golf balls nowadays go further than the best mens balls did just a few years ago. The stat, while intriguing, did not of itself necessarily prove that modern golf balls are ruining either the game or the people who design its playing fields. (Dont blame Dye for ineffective debate. He offered the observation professionally and politely, and we were there to discuss Jerry Pates 1982 dunking of him after the first Players Championship at Sawgrass, not the golf ball matter. So Pete had no chance to continue his point before the red light went on.)
But like many other leading golf course architects, Dye sees the modern ball as the scourge of the game. The American Society of Golf Course Architects, led by president Damian Pascuzzo, has hammered on this message roundly for more than a year. (Perhaps it is a measure of the ASGCAs get-under-the-skin factor that Wally Uihlein, chief of Titleist and a vocal opponent of people he has called anti-innovation Luddites, has hired former Monty Python member John Cleese to lampoon the architects position by playing a wrong-headed, plaid-coated architect in commercials for Titleists long NXT golf balls.)
My respect for Dye and the ASGCA notwithstanding, my antennae go up when I hear such arguments. Its not the substance of the argument so much as its uniform color throughout.
There is a doctrine of historical study we learned in school called monocausation. That clunky, scholarly term referred to a practice to be avoided, the facile but often misleading attempt to pawn off a large event to a single reason. Slavery caused the Civil War, the 1929 stock market crash caused the Great Depression, you get the idea. Real analysis admits of several causes and can live with complexity, even uncertainty.
Extend it to golf, and you can easily list a number of possible causes in the games latest bout of non-growing pains: the ball core recipes (perhaps, for the elite players), mower technology (Sarazen, Jones and their contemporaries never hit off of lies so good), clubhead size and quality control, shaft design and innovation, golfer training, health, strength and abilitygo ahead, you take it from here.
Problem is, monocausation yields better and easier-to-write headlines, even if it encourages trashy analysis.
Leafing through the work product of the golf press, as well as the websites of the major debaters, it seems to me that all sides of the golf-ball-distance debate are reasonably well represented, even if not always to the liking of the combatants. We in the media are far from perfect, and occasionally our judgment about how we play stories can be called into question, despite our best efforts to be fair. Monocausation can tempt even the usually careful mind. Its something we have a solemn obligation to work on, even when were doing well.
But when I hear vociferous arguments that the modern golf ball (or any factor in this complicated game) is the sole cause of a feared descent into driver-wedgedom in the elite game, Im not concerned that its the media miscasting the debate.