Resistance to Getting Twisted

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In golf news this week, the Senate Judiciary Committee continued to consider President Bushs nomination of Judge John G. Roberts to be the next chief justice of the United States.
 
O.K., perhaps thats stretching it a little. But the latest intersection between Congress and the judiciary offers a glimpse of the kind of balance of power that has developed in the golf equipment industry.
 
Quick junior high civics review: The president appoints federal judges, who may remain on the bench until they die. Could be a long time. To make sure the executive branch of government (of which the president is, of course, the head) doesnt have too much influence over judicial policy for decades to come, federal judges cannot don their robes until they have the Advice and Consent of the Senate. (Constitution of the United States, Article II, Section 2) In other words, federal judges have to be confirmed by the Senate.
 
Its a classic example of checks and balances. Each branch has specific powers, while the others have related abilities to make sure no branch extends its powers too far. Lifetime judges; decades of governmental policy expressed through the courts. Confirmation power; the ability to derail nominees (and sometimes slap the appointing president over other insults ' remember Robert Bork?) or to confirm them and build up capital for later political ventures.
 
But the main function of governmental checks and balances is to create and maintain a tension between powerful entities so that each does its utmost to complete its mission ' while no entity completely dominates the government or the governed.
 
Which brings us back to golf. The U.S. Golf Association has, over the last half decade and more, worked steadily to regulate modern golf equipment. The USGA has said many times that its regulations are meant to prevent modern equipments performance in the hands of the most skilled players from changing golf in a way that the USGA believes would injure the game.
 
To that end, the Overall Distance Standard for golf balls has been updated. The head size and length of driving clubs, as well as the responsiveness of their faces, has been limited. The USGA has asked manufacturers for prototypes of a golf ball that would fly shorter distances than current balls when struck under the same launch conditions. Spin creation off the club face is under review. And just before Labor Day, the USGA sent a memorandum to manufacturers saying that it has determined that moment of inertia, or resistance to twisting, needs to be limited in golf club heads.
 
As new and updated regulations have come into force, equipment manufacturers have at times reacted with frustration ' and then often found ways to innovate within the new strictures. Still, many have expressed their concern that aggressive regulation by the USGA will cut off or severely restrict innovation, the life blood of any technology company.
 
Lets consider the recent moment of inertia (MOI) regulatory proposal. As mentioned, MOI is the scientific term for a bodys tendency to resist twisting. Modern clubheads, weighted as they are along their perimeters, resist twisting better than they ever have. And less twisting means less missing the target, or not missing it by as much. The advantages for golf, especially in already skilled hands, are obvious.
 
You could swing from your heels and not be as concerned about a poor shot, said Dick Rugge, the USGAs senior technical adviser and a former club designer, explaining the USGAs reasons for wanting to monitor how well a club keeps the ball straight. MOI in golf club heads has increased threefold in the last 15 years, Rugge said.
 
We should have done this 10 years ago, he said.
 
The scientific basis for a bodys resistance to twisting need not concern us here (although Rugge will patiently explain it to non-scientific types). The original communication about MOI came out in March, and at the time, Rugge said the existing limits on the size of driving clubs might keep them twisty enough, without the need for a regulation on MOI. But research he has conducted since then proves that a limitation is necessary, Rugge said in his memo to manufacturers. Therefore, the USGA proposes a test to make sure that a clubheads resistance to twisting around the vertical axis through its center of gravity does not exceed 4750 g-cm2. The test would take effect March 1, 2006.
 
At least one manufacturer had a low-MOI club ready to go when the March 2005 communication came out; he said the letter gave him pause, but the club was approved as designed. The USGA said in its August 31 memo that every club now approved would pass the proposed test.
 
Those responsible for looking at the big picture for their companies, though, responded with concern about the new limitation and a regulatory climate they perceive as potentially stifling.
 
'The history of the game is about the ongoing interface between the game (and our futile attempt to master it), the golfer, his or her skill and the technology of the game's implements, said Wally Uihlein, chief executive of The Acushnet Co., whose brands include FootJoy, Cobra, Pinnacle, and golf ball market leader Titleist. Is someone going to argue that the introduction of the steel shaft did not alter the balance between skill and technology? What about metalwoods? What about solid core construction golf balls?'
 
Bob Wood, president of Nike Golf, was unable to respond to calls for this story, But in a story in the September 19 Golf World magazine by equipment writer E. Michael Johnson, Wood responded to the USGAs concern that clubs with elevated resistance to twisting would, as the March 2005 communication put it, reduce the challenge of the game.
 
I want to know exactly what that means, Wood said. For whom and by how much is it reducing the challenge? Where are the people who say the game is too easy? I mean, would it be so bad if the average handicap went down to 13? Its like theyre trying to stop time.
 
But you cant stop time in a technology company, not if the company is to grow. And these days, failure to grow is the first step toward business oblivion.
 
USGA executive director David Fay has said many times that the primary goal of the USGAs equipment regulation is not to thwart equipment innovation, but to maintain the game so that if by some miracle a 16th-century Scot were able to visit the present day, he would still recognize the activity we call golf as the same game he cherishes. He may be amazed by feats of strength or even technology, but the game, its object, its spirit, and its (relative) challenges would be largely the same. Tech director Rugge has said repeatedly that he wants to work with manufacturers to develop reasonable regulations that allow room for innovation, but that the good of the game must be his ' and the USGAs ' primary concern.
 
For as long as the USGAs regulatory practices have become more aggressive, many people from the professional tours to major tournament organizers to recreational players have been clamoring for a solution to the so-called equipment problem.
 
Well, there may be no clear, permanent, satisfactory solution. And perhaps thats the way it should be.
 
It may be better for the games major governors ' the USGA and its regulatory partner, the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, the equipment manufacturers, the pro tours, consumers with their buying behaviors ' to continue under the system of de facto checks and balances that has developed as a result of their respective powers. The USGA and R&A, for years governors of equipment by consent of the governed, can continue to regulate, informed by their point of view on the good of the game. The equipment manufacturers, who even before the aerospace industry contraction had some of the best minds in engineering and who have an even greater brain trust now, can continue to innovate, inspired by their point of view on the games best future.
 
If either of these branches overreaches, the other has the wherewithal to sue, with all the expense that would involve. But wise heads on either side would likely settle matters short of this nuclear option. The last great industry lawsuit episode, over the grooves in Ping in the 1980s, cost many dollars and much heartache, and no one in the industry wants that again.
 
The tours, whose influence as venues for the worlds best players is crucial, should continue to be involved closely in any regulation affecting the performance of its players. And consumers, if they like, can always advise and consent ' or not ' with their pocketbooks.
 
If you doubt the checks-and-balances theory, just look around. As Acushnets Uihlein points out each June, no one is running away with the U.S. Open or chronically overpowering any of golfs most testing courses. Pro driving distance has increased over the last decade, but short-and-accurate Fred Funk can still win The Players Championship. Stellar putters such as Brad Faxon can still hoist a trophy. Big hitters such as Hank Kuehne are not guaranteed a trip to the winners circle.
 
Conversely, innovation has not come to a grinding halt. Even within the 460 cc driver head size limitation, sole geometries, weighting, and optic advances have caught the attention of consumers. Golf balls can be made to spin little off a driver, but pleasingly on the green. Wide-soled irons help high handicappers make more solid contact.
 
When people leave the game, it is not clear they do so because equipment regulation makes the game too hard. Time, expense, and difficulty are, according to conventional wisdom, the main impediments to golfs growth, but there is no convincing evidence that recent equipment regulation plays into the difficulty component.
 
And as well, there is no evidence that high-C.O.R drivers, less-twisty irons, multi-tasking balls, or any other equipment advance has yet made golf unrecognizable to that fantastic Scottish time traveler.
 
Theres a balance. It may not always be perfect for every point of view at every moment. But its there.