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Where Theres Smoke Callaway and the USGA Could Start a Fire

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It appeared in October that Callaway Golf and the U.S. Golf Association agreed to disagree on the issue of nonconforming clubs. But something must still be smoldering, because there's smoke on the horizon.
 
On Dec. 8, the USGA decided to remind the press and public, through e-mail and its website, of something that's obvious from the Rules of Golf: Scores from rounds in which the player used nonconforming clubs may not be posted for handicap purposes. (The statutorily inclined among you can check out the wording in the USGA Handicap System Manual, Section 5-1(d), which can be found at www.usga.org/handicap/manual/index.html.)
 
On Oct. 18, Callaway brought the nonconforming club issue to the forefront when it introduced the ERC II, a driver whose face 'has the effect at impact of a spring,' to use the language from the Rules of Golf (Appendix II(5)(a), specifically. It appears at www.usga.org/rules/rule_2000/index.html). The club, designed to exceed the USGA's test for spring-like effect, is the second generation of a club originally made for the overseas market. Of course, it's desirable to many golfers because its thin face allegedly propels the ball farther than a thicker, less springy face would.
 
Many golf industry watchers expected Callaway to sue the USGA for restraint of trade because the rule against spring-like effect essentially limits the distance a golf ball can be driven. Instead, Callaway shrewdly introduced the ERC II and at the same time refused to sue the USGA. Callaway offered what it called a 'truce.' Admit that the elite game, golf played at the highest tournament level, is different from the recreational game, and we have no quarrel, Callaway said. And this new club is for the vast majority of golfers who play the game for recreation, Callaway added.
 
Well, the USGA surely couldn't sue Callaway. The company's move was almost Zen in its development and execution. Confronted by an oncoming force, Callaway stepped aside and let it pass. Problem over.
 
Almost. Callaway added one small proviso to its promise not to sue the USGA. If the USGA tries in any way to 'stigmatize' users of the ERC II, Callaway said, all bets - and the gloves - would be off.
 
The USGA issued its Dec. 8 handicap rules clarification in response to an influx of questions from players and handicap administrators. And it's important to keep in mind that of the 26 million or so golfers in the United States, only about 5 million have valid USGA Handicap Indexes.
 
But one has to wonder if this announcement, along with privately expressed concerns about the use of nonconforming equipment in club championships and the like, may combine to form a subtle stigma. Although Callaway has expressly said its outside-the-rules club should not be used in competitions played under the Rules of Golf, that hasn't done anything to quell club pros' fears of conflicts they must mediate and can't win.
 
The USGA has been outwardly calm about Callaway's obvious challenge to its hundred-year rule by consent. What little comment there has been from executive director David Fay has not dealt with the issue of Callaway's attempt to 'change attitudes,' as company chief Ely Callaway says over and over, about the recreational game.
 
But the us-versus-them feeling in the air is thick enough to cut with a 3-iron. Don't expect it to abate soon.