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PGA Tour May Set Own Equipment Standards

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CARLSBAD, Calif. -- Ernie Els gets most of the blame.
 
It wasn't quite the ``shot heard 'round the world,'' but the Big Easy caught everyone's attention with a drive on the 15th hole at Kapalua that finally stopped rolling at the bottom of a hill, some 400 yards from where he stood.
 
Now U.S. Golf Association executive director David Fay is suggesting the time has come to restrict equipment used by the best players in the world.
 
PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem is talking about a ``line in the sand'' for how far the ball travels, dropping hints that the tour might have to set its own equipment standards.
 
The golf ball is going farther than ever, and the guardians of the game are concerned.
 
``As the gap between the best players and the rest of us widens, there are more and more discussions about whether the game can survive with one set of rules,'' Fay said. ``I'm still hanging to the set of beliefs we can.''
 
He might be hanging by a thread.
 
Heading into the Match Play Championship, the top 10 players in driving distance are all averaging 300 yards or better, with Els topping the list (319.6 yards).
 
More telling than statistics are the anecdotes.
 
Phil Mickelson nearly drove the green on a 403-yard hole at Phoenix. Two years ago, it was Lefty's mammoth drive on No. 11 at Augusta National that served as the catalyst for chairman Hootie Johnson's decision to drastically lengthen the course.
 
Charles Howell III twice played the historic, 451-yard closing hole at Riviera last week with a driver and a sand wedge. A plaque on the 18th fairway honors Dave Stockton for his approach in 1974 to win the Los Angeles Open ' with a 3-wood.
 
``It's not just Ernie,'' Fay said. ``I'm one of those who believes the ball is going farther. Only someone who is deaf, dumb and blind would say otherwise.''
 
Whether this is good or bad for golf at its highest level is a matter of perspective.
 
No matter how far a ball travels, it eventually has to find its way into a hole that is 4 1/4 inches in diameter. Despite the extra length this year, only one tournament scoring record has been broken ' by Els at Kapalua, an odd week of virtually no wind.
 
Then again, more length off the tee is rendering some golf courses obsolete. The alternative is to spend millions of dollars to upgrade and expand. Torrey Pines now measures 7,670 yards from the tips, and even La Costa has added chunks of yardage for the Match Play Championship.
 
Scott Hoch didn't bother playing this year until he got to a course ' Riviera ' that wasn't a paradise for the big hitters. Bernhard Langer says there is no point playing on courses where he can't compete.
 
``There are some courses I can play as good as I possibly can, and I would probably finish 20th,'' Langer said. ``I don't know what the answer is. I'm just seeing the results. And the reality is, I'm going to have to pick certain courses and do well there.''
 
Who is responsible for finding the answer?
 
The USGA sets the guidelines for equipment, although the PGA Tour reserves the right to make its own rules.
 
``I don't think there's any reason the ball needs to go any farther,'' Finchem said. ``It would be appropriate to put some standards in place that more or less draws a line in the sand with regards to how far the ball goes.''
 
Finchem plans to meet with equipment manufacturers this week, although it does not sound as if the tour is ready to take charge.
 
That could change.
 
``If progress ' or what we believe to be adequate progress ' is not made, we might have to get involved in the equipment area,'' he said. ``That's not our preference.''
 
Progress is coming, no matter how long overdue.
 
For years, the USGA set its distance standard for golf balls by using a machine that swung a wooden club at 109 mph. The new test will use a titanium club and a significantly higher clubhead speed.
 
Even with a new ball test, manufacturers probably will find new ways for the golf ball to go farther, either through a higher launch or with less spin.
 
Clearly, equipment companies have much more at stake financially than the USGA and thus invest more money in research and development, carried out by rocket scientists.
 
``It's just like Formula One cars,'' Jeff Sluman said. ``The governing bodies set up rules and regulations to slow the cars down. Race car teams hire more and better engineers to get around the limits that have been set. Cars are going faster.
 
``Ball companies are the same,'' he said. ``Titleist is going to hire better engineers. The bottom line is the ball is going to go farther under whatever parameters they've got. How do you slow that down? Tell them they can't hire engineers?''
 
The buzz word in equipment these days is ``bifurcation'' ' different equipment regulations for professionals and recreational players.
 
One thing that makes golf appealing is that anyone can go to a pro shop and buy the same clubs and balls as tour players. People can play most of the same courses.
 
Separate equipment standards for the tour might not go over well with companies.
 
``That's how they promote ' through us,'' Tiger Woods said. ``That's the best visual, to watch us play with their products.''
 
Still, golf also is appealing because the masses can occasionally relate to the pros. Everyday players know the feeling of hitting a 7-iron to 3 feet, of hitting a driver down the middle.
 
But 400-yard drives? Hitting sand wedge for the second shot on a 451-yard hole?
 
Finchem fears golf could reach a point where it is not as exciting to watch, or that quantum leaps in technology will make the best players in golf so good that the average players can no longer relate.
 
``The difficult thing is you don't know what that point is,'' Finchem said. ``Everybody would agree that right now, our sport is at an all-time peak. It's hard to make an argument that point has arrived. You don't know until you're into it.''
 
Related Links:
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  • Full Coverage of the WGC - Accenture Match Play
     
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