Talk Is Cheap Problems Are Expensive

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Can we talk?
 
Or perhaps the question is, will we?
 
Much of the angst in the golf business over the past few years seems to have been the result of poor communication. You get the idea that if a couple of people had sat down and chatted a little, a lot of problems could have been averted.
 
The U.S. Golf Association has learned the hard way. In 1997, then-president-elect F. Morgan (Buzz) Taylor Jr. and others started making noise about golf equipment they thought was getting out of hand. Springy drivers, rocket balls, technology gone wild. The game was under attack, they said.
 
It didnt matter whether Taylor was right or wrong. The way he was talking set off acid pumps in the stomachs of golf executives from Fairhaven to Carlsbad. They branded Taylor and his supporters as enemies of progress, haters of legitimate profit, and elitists of the worst kind.
 
Both sides did a lot of talking to the press, but not to each other. Not politely, anyway, to hear some insiders tell it.
 
The result was a tense press conference at the 1998 U.S. Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. Taylor, future president Trey Holland and executive director David Fay took the stage and assured the industry that any club then considered conforming would remain so, no matter what changes might be made afterward.
 
We live with the fallout today. When Ely Callaway and David Fay came to The Golf Channel in January to debate technology issues, they were gentlemen on and off camera. But the general enmity between the industry and the USGA is undeniable in the era of the nonconforming driver. Neither side trusts the other.
 
In heated moments, each side has brandished lawyers and financial war chests like medieval weapons. Even in cooler moments, the positioning has been fascinating: When Callaway introduced the ERC II October 18, company patriarch Ely Callaway went Zen and promised not to sue the USGA ' but carved out an exception: If the USGA stigmatizes ERC II users, the promise vanishes. (Remember Vito Corleones promise not to break the peace among the five families, unless something happened to Michael? Thats what it was like.)
 
The USGA didnt let much time pass before reminding the golf world that scores made with illegal clubs in the bag couldnt be submitted for handicaps. Stigma? Maybe, maybe not. But hackles went up at Callaway.
 
It didnt help the USGAs image when its rulemaking partner, the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, openly solicited manufacturer comments before taking its own position on nonconforming clubs. That might be why the USGA was very careful to say in its March 12 announcement of a new indoor golf ball testing method that it has been talking with the R&A and manufacturers, and that it will continue to do so until May. Another comment period, which will culminate in a public hearing, is on the schedule for September.
 
Not everyone has heeded the lesson the USGA has learned. While the PGA Tour fine tunes the technical side of its ShotLink system, its bigger problem is the caddies. ShotLink, which will provide as-they-play information for TV and the Internet about the yardages, wind conditions, lies and club selection problems faced by PGA Tour players, relies on the caddies for the club information.
 
The roadblock: The caddies dont wanna.
 
The loopers cite concerns about rules (which can be solved by holding the information until all players in the group have hit), but they also want to reduce distractions to their players. Stay out of the players office, they like to say.
 
Theres the matter of compensation, too; the caddies want $75 per caddie per round. That adds an expense of about $1.4 million per year to ShotLink, which has so far cost nearly $20 million to develop over the last two years.
 
Frankly, giving club info is one of those things caddies could get used to. (Some already flash hand signals to the TV people, although this is technically against the rules.) The real problem is evident from the furrowed brows and irritated tones of some of the caddies as they talk about the system. Its simple: They werent consulted. And because of that, they feel slighted.
 
The acrimony we see now from caddies wouldnt be half as virulent if the Tour had given them updates during development. But now, some of the caddies threaten to behave as the independent contractors the Tour repeatedly reminds them they are. They plan to simply refuse to cooperate.
 
Of course, these things go both ways. ShotLink wasnt developed in secret. As long as a year before the Tour notified caddies of the systems implementation at this years Tucson event in January, the caddies could have approached the Tour and asked what was up, and what their role might be. They could have asked at the Tour Championship last year, where ShotLink had a dry run.
 
Some of the equipment manufacturers did call the USGA after Buzz Taylor began to sound off, Im told, and things still got dicey. So talking doesnt work every time.
 
But whens the last time it hurt?