A Regulatory Miracle -- and For Now Six Extra Yards

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Im reasonably sure that even the people who go on about fighting the good fight are happiest when the battle is over.
 
So it was no surprise Thursday morning when I spoke with David Fay, executive director of the U.S. Golf Association, and he said this:
 
I feel as if I should be opening a bottle of Veuve-Cliquot.
 
I mention this not to showcase Fays excellent taste in Champagne, but to note the departure from his usual demeanor. While never stiff, the 24-year USGA veteran is usually a bow-tied bastion of patience and reserve. Champagne in the morning? This must have been a huge deal.
 
It was. For 18 months, Fay fought the good fight against reporters, detractors, impatient golfers and discussion-board soapboxers whose craws were full of consternation over discrepancies in equipment rules. As the permanent chief of an organization whose volunteer presidency turns over every four years, he had to endure the embarrassment of making a regulation on equipment ' and then having the only other ruling body in the sport essentially shrug and say, Whats the harm?
 
Now that same organization ' the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews ' has agreed to work with the USGA to ease the world of golf into the exact restriction the USGA wants. No wonder Fay wants to bring out the bubbly.
 
See the full story: USGA and R&A Reach Agreement
 
The history is all too recent. In 1998, the USGA, concerned about spring-like effect off the thinner faces of modern drivers, announced at the U.S. Open at Olympic that it would be looking into the matter. That fall, the USGA instituted a limitation on just how springy those faces could be. The now-famous number, .83 (.822 plus a test tolerance), represents that coefficient of restitution ' the percentage of velocity an object will retain when it rebounds from being fired into a surface.
 
Technicalities aside, what this meant was that in the United States and Mexico, to which the USGAs jurisdiction extends, there was a ceiling. Manufacturers howled at the possibility that their innovation could be stifled.
 
One would think that two rulemaking bodies that cover the entire world would see eye to eye on things. But to everyones surprise, the R&A said it never perceived the spring-like threat the USGA did. North America (minus Canada) became a continent where so-called hot drivers would not be used in tournament play and could not be used to make scores for handicap purposes ' a situation perceived as a stigma by the makers of the drivers.
The solution proposed by the USGA and the R&A Thursday ' five years of hotter drivers (a maximum COR of .86, which amounts to about six yards on dead-center hits) starting next New Years Day, and pros holding where they are now ' is a near-miraculous gift for the USGA, a truly face-saving result. Before Thursday, the R&As stolid indifference to the spring-like issue made it seem as if the only way out would be for the USGA to relent and lift its restriction entirely.
 
(Indeed, a number of critics said the USGA should do that anyway. Let the laws of physics limit driver performance, they said, because there were only a few more yards left anyway. But the abandonment strategy wouldnt have done much for the USGAs credibility, which has for years been called into question amid accusations of bull-in-a-china-shop regulation practices.)
 
So what gave? Why did the R&A go from shoulder-shrugging to willingness to regulate?
 
Its simple: In a small world, uniformity is worth it. It may have seemed quaint, all those decades ago, when the U.K. ball was smaller than the U.S ball, and steel was O.K. over here but hickory ruled over there. But golf is now an international game, and the games best players devour distance weekly in the search for riches and glory. There must be one game, not many, is the thinking now, even if to achieve this requires the temporary irony of two sets of rules.
 
R&A secretary Peter Dawson confirmed this from Scotland Friday.
 
The issue [of spring-like effect] got so hyped up that in a sense, uniformity did become more important than regulation, Dawson said. Also, if theres no threat from spring-like effect, there is no threat from regulation on it.
 
Aha. Indifference is a two-edged sword, evidently. But Dawsons observation did nothing to denigrate the USGAs concerns; the R&As action should not be seen as mollification of a wailing child. The negotiations toward this settlement were long, and at times it seemed from the progress reports as if there was no progress to report. Based on the personalities of the people involved, it is reasonable to conclude that negotiation worked the way it is supposed to ' everyone gave something, and everyone came away seeing something of the others points of view.
 
Now that this chapter is about to close, everyone seems to be happy. But the horizon is not cloudless. The PGA Tour circulated a five-paragraph statement applauding the spring-like agreement, but used the occasion to state twice on that one page that golf balls should stop where they are. The ruling bodies can now turn their attention to that issue, and they are certain to encounter resistance from a golf ball industry that has no plans for curbing innovation.
 
And as for the spring-like rollback to .83 on New Years Day, 2008: Although many high-profile club companies have agreed to toe that line, there is already some private muttering among manufacturers that they may use the five-year grace period to make sure the .86 standard stays where it is.
 
As usual, dont touch that dial.