COR Ruling - Mutterings Over the Merlot
The retailers, some of them leaders of the biggest chains in off-course golf sales, mooned for a moment over the new Nike Pro Combo irons (the reason for the celebration), then muttered in the next minute something derisive about the U.S. Golf Association, which had just pulled the rug out from under any forecasting the retailers were able to do in this off-kilter golf equipment year.
The media, who despite their affection for seeming jaded are even bigger golf gearheads than their readers and viewers, also went wide-eyed at the new, chromed-up creations from Nikes Tom Stites ' and then fell to their notebooks or microphones when they perceived a mood shift in the retailer camp.
And Nike execs, lambasted by breaking news but with a captive audience nonetheless, spoke somberly one moment of the effect of reckless regulation, then smiled the next at the thought of jump-starting the sluggish premium irons market with the first set of Nike irons designed for non-elite players.
The wrench entered the works Tuesday morning, when the USGA announced that instead of instituting a five-year grace period for so-called 'hot' drivers (those with a coefficient of restitution of .86), it would stay with the current limit of .83 indefinitely, for all levels of play. The rest of the world will adopt a .83 limit as of Jan. 1, 2008.
This contradicted the joint USGA-Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews proposal of May 9, which set up the grace period for 2003 through 2007, except for highly skilled players, who would always play .83 drivers via a Condition of Competition expected to be adopted by all the top tours and tournaments.
Im amazed we were able to keep a secret, said David Fay, USGA executive director, when told of the universal ' and intense ' surprise the Tuesday announcement caused. It also caused turmoil, perhaps more than the May 9 proposal itself, because certain companies relied on adoption of the May 9 proposal as written ' relied economically, in their forecasting, marketing, and advertising.
How It Came to This
The May 9 proposal was a compromise designed to ease the rest of the world into a limitation on drivers that had been adopted in the United States only. The R&A, whose jurisdiction covers the world outside the United States and Mexico, never saw a problem with spring-like effect, and therefore never instituted the .83 limitation that the USGA did following the introduction of clubs such as Callaways hot-faced ERC series.
The regulation rift threatened the integrity of events such as the American Express World Championships of Golf, whose venues change and whose fields include pros with legal access to hot drivers. The problem became severe enough to move both PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem and Masters chairman Hootie Johnson to threaten this spring to devise their own equipment regulations. Those warnings helped get the USGA and R&A off the dime.
But the organizations had already been working for at least 18 months on healing the rift caused by the adoption of the .83 COR line in the sand, which Fay announced at a pre-U.S. Open press conference in 1998 at Olympic in San Francisco.
After San Francisco, what the USGA considered a reasonable solution soon became golfs Little Round Top, a battleground sure to be remembered ' and bloody. The games most persuasive and visible business personality, the late Ely Callaway, repeatedly took the USGA to task for imposing on the recreational game the kind of strictures needed only in the elite game. The USGA, which had employed that modus operandi for years, bristled, and resisted any attempt at bifurcation of the Rules of Golf based on ability.
Before the May 9 proposal, Fay kept largely mum about efforts to harmonize the USGAs equipment approach with that of the R&A, except to report sadly from time to time that it looked as if little progress had been made. So it was no surprise when he seemed elated on May 9, figuring that the joint proposal for a five-year grace period would settle the issue. And indeed, he got applause from an industry tired of the distraction of a rules rift.
Reaction to ' and Reliance on ' May 9
Callaway Golf and TaylorMade-Adidas Golf, both heavily invested in high-COR product, came down on the positive side of the new COR fence. Titleist did not, and more quietly, Ping expressed concern as well.
But the applause was not universal. Titleist, highly vocal through its leader, Wally Uihlein, said the Jan. 1, 2003 start date for the five-year .86 grace period was too soon after May 9, and that Jan. 1, 2004 would give manufacturers more time to clear out less-desirable .83 product.
Other issues clouded the proposal, Uihlein said: What is a highly skilled player, to whom the .83-only Condition of Competition would apply? Did that definition reach down into the amateur ranks? (USGA officials deflected such questions at the U.S. Open in June.) If the highly skilled players meant pros only, what of college golfers and juniors, whose September-to-May seasons straddled the Jan. 1, 2003 effective date for .86 drivers? Would they start the season with one club and finish with another? Uihlein also expressed concern that the notice and comment period, scheduled to last until July 15, was not being taken seriously.
After May 9, it was Titleist that led that charge to get out the vote on the proposal. Armed with the prediction that the proposal would probably be adopted as written (This is not going to be a rolling negotiation, Fay had said May 10 when asked about the notice and comment procedure), Titleist executives worked the phones to engage all manner of respondents: state golf associations, national groups, anyone with a stake ' just so they all knew that it wasnt only manufacturers who could make their voices heard.
Word is, the extra participation influenced the result that surprised the golf world Tuesday. But the real Jekyll ' or Hyde ' turned out to be Asia.
The Sudden Reversal
In mid-July, just before the notice and comment period on the May 9 proposals was set to close, the R&A began to get worried questions from Asian golf authorities, said R&A secretary Peter Dawson.
The problem was Japan, where some manufacturers believe they have drivers that exceed even .86, Dawson said Tuesday. With no portable measurement device yet adopted, how would a .86 limitation be enforced? Asian players, retailers and tournament organizers, all under R&A jurisdiction, chafed at the idea of a sudden rule after eons of no limitation. Confusion reined among sellers and buyers of equipment, and worry grew daily.
Informed by the R&A of this development, the USGA was only too happy to abandon the original May 9 compromise, having never been enamored of going beyond .83 in the first place ' the USGA did it only as a compromise to settle the rift issue.
So it was that manufacturers and retailers who had been aggressively anticipating the .86 period in their ads and forecasts woke up to a new headache Tuesday. Callaway had run a print ad showing the ERC II with the word Banned crossed out and Blessed written in. The implication was clear, despite an equally clear disclaimer in the ad that recognized the status of the May 9 proposal as just that, a proposal instead of law. TaylorMade went further, saying in its print ad copy that The USGA gave an inch. We give you 15 extra yards.
That language enraged competitors in all tiers of the industry, including Callaway (who relied on its disclaimer to distinguish itself from TaylorMade) and Zevo Golf, which made it clear to key golf journalists that it thought TaylorMades distance promise was scandalous.
TaylorMade was among a group of companies that went out on a limb product-wise as well. After May 9, TaylorMade hastened its release schedule for its new, hot-faced R500 Series drivers (the company also has a .83 version, called simply the 500 Series).
Likewise, many retailers planned for the expected demand for hot drivers. Some were said to go as far as closing out their entire .83 inventory in the expectation that only .86 would be on consumers minds come New Years Day.
We cant win, said one disgusted retailer who asked not to be identified Tuesday. Its impossible to forecast with this kind of stuff going on.
Callaway, which had banked heavily on the future of ERC II and had complained of the chilling effect of USGA pronouncements on prior ERC sales, was disappointed, but not surprised at Tuesdays regulatory reversal.
TaylorMades reaction ' or lack of it ' evidenced deeper misgivings. Not only did TaylorMade president Mark King not return calls, but stories circulated at the Nike gathering of a prominent golf journalist who was not even allowed on the premises of TaylorMades Carlsbad, Calif. headquarters on Tuesday. (TaylorMade has promised a substantial reaction by Friday, August 9.)
At Acushnet Co., owners of Titleist and Cobra, Uihlein focused on process, not result.
Were prepared to play by the rules, he said Tuesday. Whats important is that [the ruling bodies] listened to everyone, not just two people who had advertising goals for their own commercial gain.
Nike executives, glad their company is not invested too deeply in nonconforming product in the U.S. (although it has a hot driver in Japan), echoed Uihleins sentiments.
It certainly restores faith that theres a process at hand, said Mike Kelly, Nikes category business director for golf clubs.
We were prepared to go either way, said Stites, Nikes director of product creation. But this makes life more simple.
It may make life simpler for consumers as well, whether they like it or not. Just as every shot makes someone happy and someone else unhappy, so it is with regulation. Any .86 constituency Callaway and other manufacturers have developed will now be faced with a choice, as are those companies. Peer pressure and playing ability may affect consumer choice; market conditions and competitive pressures will bear down on the companies which, as Fay put it, gambled and lost on the May 9 proposal. (Callaway has already said it will replace any ERC II purchased during the recent promotional period with a product from its conforming line. TaylorMade is expected to make a similar arrangement.)
No aggrieved companies will discuss post-Tuesday strategy, including whether they will file lawsuits against the USGA or R&A. Callaway plans to continue selling .86 product in the R&As jurisdiction, and to abide by the .83 rule in the U.S., a spokesman said. TaylorMade continues to think things over.
As usual, though, the market will decide ' on hot drivers, the USGAs role in the recreational game, and what sells ' or doesnt.
Match Play Final Four set to bring the excitement
AUSTIN, Texas – Sunday’s Final Four at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play will include a pair of Georgia Bulldogs, a two-and-done phenom from Alabama and a Swede from Stockholm via Stillwater, that would be Oklahoma.
Just like that other tournament, right?
Actually, for all the volatility in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, it’s not even in the same league as this year’s Match Play, where just a single player who began the week seeded inside the top 10 is still playing.
But what the event may lack in star power it’s certainly made up for with stellar performances, starting with Justin Thomas who is the PGA Tour’s most avid Alabama fan and the tournament’s second-seeded player.
After not losing a match in three days of pool play, Thomas again cruised through his morning Round-of-16 bout with Si Woo Kim, 6 and 5; but found himself in an unfamiliar position early in his quarterfinal match against Kyle Stanley.
Having not trailed during any point in his matches this week, Thomas bogeyed the second hole to fall behind.
“I was hoping to never trail this whole week. I thought that was unbelievable that [2017 champion Dustin Johnson] did it last year,” Thomas said. “I'm going out there this afternoon, and I was like, ‘Man, I have got a chance of doing this, too.’ Then I missed a 3-footer on 2 and shot that out the window.”
The world’s second-ranked player was nearly perfect the rest of the way, regaining the lead with three birdies in four holes starting at No. 5 and closing Stanley out with a bogey-free finish.
It’s all part of an impressive turnaround for Thomas, who had been slowed in recent weeks by dental surgery followed by a bout with the flu, which nearly prompted him to miss the Match Play.
“I had a pretty serious conversation with my dad on Monday if I was going to play,” said Thomas, who can unseat Johnson atop the Official World Golf Ranking if he advances to the championship match. “I never want to play in a tournament, first off if it's going to hurt my health. If I was sick or really sick, me trying to play this week wasn't going to do me any good.”
His improved health has dovetailed with his increasingly better play at Austin Country Club and he’s now two matches away from winning his first World Golf Championship.
Like the NCAA tournament, however, being one of the last four standing only means more work, and Thomas will have plenty to keep him busy when he sets out early Sunday in a semifinal match against Bubba Watson.
Although Watson hasn’t been as dominant as Thomas, his ability to overpower any course, any time, has been evident this week following victories over Brian Harman, 2 and 1, and Kiradech Aphibarnrat, 5 and 3, on his way to the Final Four.
“When you're hitting an 8-iron and another guy is hitting a 7- or another guy is hitting a 6-iron, obviously that's going to change everything,” said Watson, who played his college golf at Georgia. “It's like LeBron James, when he jumps, he jumps higher than I do, so it's an advantage. When you're hitting the driver good and those guys you're naming, they're known for hitting the driver pretty well, just like Thomas is doing right now, he's been hammering it. Anytime that you're hitting the driver somewhat straight, it's an advantage.”
But if Bubba is a familiar foe for Thomas, he may want to do a quick Google search to fill in the blanks on one of his potential final opponents.
While Alex Noren is still a relatively unknown player to many American fans (and that’s certain to change in September at the Ryder Cup), it’s only because they haven’t been paying attention. The Swede, who attended Oklahoma State, has been dominant this week, sweeping the group stage followed by a 5-and-3 victory over Patrick Reed in the Sweet 16 and a 4-and-2 triumph over Cameron Smith in the quarterfinals.
“I've always liked match play because the outcome is quite direct,” said Noren, who will face Kevin Kisner in the semifinals. “In match play, you've just got to be really focused all the time and anything can happen. And then you have to play good each round. You can't just give up a round and then think you've got three more.”
But if a JT vs. Noren final would be the perfect Ryder Cup primer, the dream match up for Thomas in the championship tilt might be Kisner.
Kisner lost a friendly wager to Thomas earlier this year at the Sony Open when Alabama defeated Georgia in the NCAA National Championship football game and he had to wear an Alabama jersey while he played the 17th hole on Thursday.
Kisner would certainly appreciate the chance at a mulligan. And the way the duo have been rolling in birdie putts this week, it has the potential to be just as entertaining as that other tournament.
Up one, Stricker hunting second Champions title
BILOXI, Miss. - Steve Stricker moved into position for his second straight PGA Tour Champions victory, shooting a 3-under 69 on Saturday to take a one-stroke lead in the Rapiscan Systems Classic.
Stricker won the Cologuard Classic three weeks ago in Tucson, Arizona, for his first victory on the 50-and-over tour. He tied for 12th the following week in the PGA Tour's Valspar Championship.
Stricker had a 7-under 137 total at Fallen Oak, the Tom Fazio-designed layout with big, speedy greens.
The 51-year-old Wisconsin player bogeyed Nos. 2-3, rebounded with birdies on Nos. 6-7, birdied the par-4 12th and eagled the par-5 13th. He has six top-three finishes in eight career senior starts.
First-round leader Joe Durant followed his opening 66 with a 72 to drop into a tie for second with Jeff Sluman (67).
Thomas can take world No. 1 with win over Watson
AUSTIN, Texas – On March 7, Justin Thomas had his wisdom teeth removed, and just when he was recovering from that, he was slowed by a bout with the flu.
In total, he estimates he lost about seven pounds, and he admitted on Saturday at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play that he wasn’t sure he’d be able to play the event.
“I had a pretty serious conversation with my dad on Monday if I was going to play,” Thomas said. “I never want to play in a tournament, first off, if it's going to hurt my health. If I was sick or really sick, me trying to play this week wasn't going to do me any good.”
Thomas went on to explain he was “50/50” whether he’d play the World Golf Championship, but decided to make the start and it’s turned out well for the world’s second-ranked player.
After going undefeated in pool play, Thomas cruised past Si Woo Kim, 6 and 5, in the round of 16 and secured himself a spot in the semifinals with a 2-and-1 victory over Kyle Stanley in the quarterfinals. If Thomas wins his semifinal match against Bubba Watson on Sunday, he’s assured enough points to overtake Dustin Johnson atop the Official World Golf Ranking.
“I don't care when it happens; I just hope it happens and it happens for a while,” Thomas said when asked about the possibility of becoming world No. 1. “I don't know what to say because I've never experienced it. I don't know what's going to come with it. But I just hope it happens tomorrow.”
Garnett's six-shot lead dwindles to two in Punta Cana
PUNTA CANA, Dominican Republic - Brice Garnett took a six-stroke lead into the wind Saturday in the Corales Puntacana Resort and Club Championship. He came out with a two-stroke advantage.
Garnett bogeyed three of the final six holes in the wind and rain for a 3-under 69 and a 16-under 200 total.
''Once we made the turn coming back, all those holes coming in toward the north, it was all we wanted and then some,'' Garnett said. ''I kind of took advantage of some holes going out, some holes downwind, some par 5s, and then we were just trying to leave it in the right spot those last four or five holes. Pars are pretty good scores on those holes.''
Canadian Corey Conners was second after a 67, and Tyler McCumber also had a 67 to get to 12 under. Former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo dropped out Friday, finishing last in the 132-man field in his PGA Tour debut. He shot 77-82 playing as an amateur on a sponsor exemption.
A stroke ahead after each of the first two rounds, Garnett opened with a bogey, birdied Nos. 2, 4 and 6, eagled the par-5 seventh, and made two more birdies on the par-3 ninth and par-5 12th. He bogeyed the par-4 13th, par-5 15th and par-3 17th.
''I looked once and the lead was a little bigger than what it is now,'' Garnett said. ''The eagle was huge, kind of gave me that confidence that I can push it on out and stretch it a little bit more. That wind was tough and I'll take a two-shot lead into tomorrow.''
The 34-year-old Garnett is winless on the PGA Tour. He won twice last year on the Web.com Tour.
''You've got another 18 holes. So much can happen,'' Garnett said. ''Just going to try to keep the golf ball in front of me. I have that self-belief this week and that's what I had last year when I won, so I'll just keep my head down and just keep going.''
Conners had five birdies and a bogey on the front nine and added a birdie on No. 12.
''Really happy with the round,'' Conners said. ''I got off to a nice start, made a bunch of birdies on the front nine and kind of held it together on the back nine. It was playing really difficult. The wind was really blowing out there, made things challenging.''
McCumber, the son of 10-time PGA Tour winner Mark McCumber, has played his last 39 holes with a bogey.
''Second shots have been pretty solid,'' McCumber said. ''Putting pretty well, short game is pretty good. Just really being in the right areas and staying below the hole.''
Tom Lovelady was fourth at 11 under after a 68. Seamus Power (71), Denny McCarthy (71) and Seungsu Han (72) were 10 under.