Preparation -- or a Golf Ball Limit

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You could hear a dimple drop around the golf industry Wednesday when commissioner Tim Finchem began to wrap up his state-of-the-PGA Tour talk at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta.
 
Lastly, before I take your questions, I want to talk about the golf ball and equipment, Finchem said.
 
The Tour has been much involved in recent years in the debate about how far golf balls fly when struck by the worlds best players, and what effect that might have on the game. Those of us listening to Finchems presentation held our breath for a moment ' and what we finally heard sounded like a line being drawn.
 
The commissioner noted that since golf ball distance discussions began in earnest three years ago, most aspects of equipment that affect ball flight have been regulated, or existing regulations have been updated. The U.S. Golf Association and its overseas counterpart, the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, have recently instituted or revised limitations on coefficient of restitution (C.O.R.) for club-face resiliency, club length, clubhead size, and the Overall Distance Standard for golf balls. Because of the new regulatory framework, Finchem said, he expects annual average distance to grow at a rate of about a yard per year, as it did between 1981 and 1996, instead of up to seven yards annually, as it did between 1996 and 1999. He urged manufacturers to devote their research and development efforts to improved playability instead of leaps-and-bounds distance gains.
 
Any new distance gains, Finchem said, will come from ever-increasing athleticism in golfs elite echelon. He also said that some courses on the Tour circuit have been made longer to accommodate recent distance increases, and some of those courses ' most notably Augusta National Golf Club, home of the Masters Tournament ' are simply out of real estate for further expansion.
 
So we continue to believe, Finchem continued, that its important that the USGA move forward and complete the research necessary to determine what options are available to us if we were to determine at some point in the future that it was important to make a change with the golf ball; that is to say, deaden the golf ball, bring the distance back, regulate it back.
 
Whoa. Do we hear an official-size-and-weight Tour ball landing? Maybe not yet; maybe not ever. But:
 
Im quick to point out, I dont assume anything here, Finchem said. The only assumptions we're making at this point is that athleticism will play a role in generating average increase in distance. There isn't any reason to believe that distance will increase at the highest level, but we don't know that. It is prudent for us to be active in terms of researching options as we look out into the future.
 
Finchem has been trying to see beyond that horizon with the help of the USGA. Twice in the last four months, Finchem has visited the testing center at USGA headquarters in Far Hills, N.J. The USGA, for its part, has acknowledged more than once that the Tour has been the most important source of elite-player data for more than two decades. The USGA also said last year that it is prepared to spend big ' up to $10 million, if necessary ' on what the organization calls the most comprehensive golf-ball research project ever undertaken by the USGA. (The project is already two years old; final results are expected in a year or so.)
 
David Fay, the USGAs executive director, hopes it wont cost that much. But hes willing to go the distance to support any future changes with the hardest of data.
 
The USGA and R&A and the PGA Tour have all agreed that no changes are called for, based on todays conditions, Fay said. The need to make any future changes will depend ' naturally ' on how the game is played in the future. But that gets us back to research. We cant sit and wait for future changes ' or cross our fingers that therell be no evolution in how the game is played. We have to be fully engaged and prepared if and when the day comes when changes ' whatever they may be ' are considered necessary.
 
So were still clearly in the land of possibility and potential. But read Fays comments closely, and you can see that raw distance, by itself, wont be the only factor considered in any future decision about how the ball may be regulated. The relevant words: how the game is played.
 
Finchems comments echoed this theme.
 
We measure public opinion and attitude, Finchem said. Golf course owners and organizations are looking at it, as we are, from a competitive challenge standpoint, shot values, how the golf course was designed versus how maybe it's being played now, given where the golf ball is going and what it does and how equipment performs, plus how the athleticism of the players. So all those things combine to create some questions; are you comfortable with the way the golf course is playing, is the fan as excited about the golf course playing this way versus some other way, what things would you have to do to the golf course to get it to a point where you are comfortable, and do you really want to do that?
 
Does that mean an overdose of driver-wedge holes could trigger thoughts of an official ball? Finchem didnt speculate, but said, There is no litmus test.
 
Finchem did not mention conversations with players or players on the issue, and the Tour did not return phone calls before deadline. But some manufacturers reacted.
 
The proposal, if indeed it is formally made, is both unnecessary and unwise, said Bob Wood, president of Nike Golf. [We] would not be in favor of such a proposal, nor would, I suspect, our fellow manufacturers. Of the top 20 Tour players in driving distance in 2003, 18 have seen their distance decline this year.
 
Unless the Tour mandates that players use a 'Tour' ball and provides spec options for such, we will continue with business as usual, Wood continued. However, from a business perspective, the mandate of a Tour ball could have a significant impact on the ball segment of the golf industry for manufacturers, retailers, and golf professionals. For instance, between Sept. 1 and Oct. 1 alone, 18 different ball models were used on the PGA Tour. By mandating a Tour ball and requiring all players to use the same specs, essentially, you diminish the impact of the Tour player on ball sales. That would necessarily affect endorsement income for the Tour members.
 
Far more important than that is the issue of free choice in terms of equipment on the part of Tour player. The ball is a critical part of a player's arsenal. Each Tour player's swing and launch conditions are unique. Tour players would strongly resist this idea on the basis of that alone. The idea of one ball for all Tour players raises more questions than it answers in terms of an individual fitting the right ball to his or her game. Golf in that regard is not the same as basketball or baseball.
 
Callaway Golf took a different tack.
 
We have been consistent in saying we believe elite professional golfers are the only ones who could threaten the game of golf by hitting the ball too far, either off the tee or with their irons, said Larry Dorman, Callaways senior vice president of global public relations. We also have said that should the PGA Tour decide it needs to limit the distance the golf ball travels for players competing in its co-sponsored events, we would not be opposed to such limitations. We have the necessary technology and know-how to create such a golf ball right now, as do the other major golf ball manufacturers.
 
Titleist, whose balls are played by more players on the PGA Tour than any other companys, declined to answer questions about Finchems comments.
 
Throughout his talk and answers to press questions Wednesday, Finchem was adamant that any decisions on the future of the golf ball on the Tour will be based on hard data ' mostly provided by the Tours Shot Link system, which measures performance graphically and offers plenty of player information for a database. The USGAs Fay agrees, and both men appear to want to remove emotion and rumor from any decision process that may become necessary.
 
Finchem also mentioned that data from the 2003 season will probably provide the baseline for future assessment ' and that is what may have some people in the industry thinking that Finchems remarks have as much to do with line-drawing as with preparation.
 
Stay tuned.
 
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