Second of Three Parts: Choose Your Weapon

Golf technology has taken a quantum leap
July 08, 1990

You begin to get the idea that maybe golf manufacturers are out of control when you find out that they are making clubs and balls out of components used in nuclear weapons and bulletproof vests. I mean, progress is great and all, but when a sleeve of golf balls sets off the alarm at airport security, and when alloys once used in the struts of a Gemini space capsule show up in your irons, you wonder whether we're on the right track. What we are talking about here is a game.

A game whose increasingly sophisticated tools are compromising, in the opinion of many, the time-honored elements of skill, practice and judgment. Want to hit the ball far? May we suggest an aerodynamically designed graphite-headed driver from Yonex, the A.D.X. 200. The half-grapefruit-sized club head, with a sweet spot 20% larger than normal, is oversized but lightweight, and it is attached to a 45-inch graphite/boron shaft that is two inches longer than standard. Increased club length translates, by the oxymoron of simple physics, into increased club head speed; ergo, greater distance. You'll drive the ball, the company estimates, an average of 11.7% farther than usual.

Or perhaps you would prefer something in cobalt chromium, a metal so hard it is used to make artificial hips. Combined with a graphite shaft, a cobalt chromium club head will add 10 yards to your drives or your money back. The Lynx company guarantees it.

Are synthetic polymers more your style? Cobra recently came out with the Ultramid, a driver made of a high-tech thermoplastic originally developed by scientists for use in bulletproof vests.

Whichever set of clubs you prefer, you will want a golf ball that explodes off the club face. Something in lithium, perhaps, the metal of choice of nine out of 10 nuclear physicists who have designed a hydrogen bomb. Talk about getting more bang for your buck. Just don't let the Iraqis get their hands on the Ram Tour Lithium Plus.

Windy day? Want to hit it low? Forget choking down and pretending you're Lee Trevino. It's simpler to run out and buy a three-pack of Titleist's 384 Low Trajectory balatas, whose icosahedron-patterned dimples have been designed to cheat the wind, not to mention the club pro who teaches good shot making.

The fact is, for almost any difficulty in golf, there is a high-tech remedy for sale that was not on the market 10 years ago. Got the yips? Buy a long putter, the pendulumlike contraption that uses the player's sternum to anchor the top hand. This is a golf swing?

Got a slice? Perennial banana-bonkers can now whale away with abandon, knowing that metal woods used in conjunction with two-piece, Surlyn-covered balls will absolutely, positively impart less spin on impact than their old persimmons did.

The sweet spot of a golf club, once the size of a dime—the exact location of which, worn smooth, can be found on Ben Hogan's one-iron, on display in Golf House, the United States Golf Association museum in Far Hills, N.J.—is now the size of an Oreo cookie. Shots that once squirted off the toe of a six-iron now fly straight and true toward the green, thanks to the miracle of perimeter weighting. And who knows what lies ahead as golf manufacturers race to harness the powers of Kevlar and ceramics and compounds unknown?

Where will it all end? And who, pray tell, has been minding the store while the club and ball manufacturers have busied themselves with all manner of schemes—some bogus, some legitimate—to diminish the skill factors in golf, making it increasingly difficult to distinguish the great golfers from the nearly great, and the good golfers from the pretty good? Is the game becoming too easy?

"Easier, yes. Too easy? No," says Don Callahan, head pro at The Country Club, in Brookline, Mass., which was host to the 1988 U.S. Open. "The ball is livelier and the club heads more forgiving, which is making the game more fun for the average golfer. But instead of hitting a dozen good shots a round, he's probably hitting 18."

Wally Uihlein, President and CEO of Titleist, echoes those sentiments: "I talk to very few amateurs who say, 'Wally, I'm playing too good. Let's make the game harder.' I know that my handicap isn't the lowest it's ever been. Is yours?"

As a matter of fact, no. And according to the USGA, which historically has safeguarded the best interests of the game, neither is the average golfer's. The median handicap for men today is 17, the same as it was 25 years ago. So why all this fuss about equipment?

Because, at the professional level, scores are dropping every year as the game's best players take advantage of superior equipment in ways that amateurs can only fantasize about. "The better the player, the more the equipment becomes an advantage," says teaching pro Jim Flick. "It's like you and I trying to drive a race car at Indianapolis. We wouldn't know what to do with it. For the real expert, technology has made a measurable difference, particularly in the so-called scoring clubs, the driver and the wedges."

Statistically, the changes have been subtle, but the trends are uniformly in the same direction: longer shots, straighter shots, and lower scores. Between 1981 and 1989, the average score on the PGA Tour dropped almost a full stroke, from 72.06 to 71.09. The average drive crept up nearly two yards, from 259.9 to 261.8. Fairways hit off the tee—a factor attributable, most believe, to the sudden preponderance of metal drivers—have increased from 61.8% to 65.1%.

None of those numbers, individually, is especially alarming. Athletes in all other sports are improving measurably—why not in golf? And traditionalists can take comfort in the facts that the record 59 that Al Geiberger shot in 1977 has never been duplicated on the PGA Tour and that the lowest seasonal stroke average remains Sam Snead's benchmark of 69.23, set in 1950.

There are other factors besides equipment to consider when analyzing the trend toward lower scoring. Greens are more consistent, and courses are generally better conditioned than ever before. The days of Tommy Bolt marching off a golf course and saying "How do you read mud?" are pretty much a thing of the past. Yardage measurements are more precise than they were 20 years ago, and rough is not as penal.

With more money at stake, the best golfers are working harder. Swing doctors—the pros who teach the pros—are on hand at every tournament, ready to fine-tune Jack's or Payne's swing. "It looks like the Mayo Clinic on the practice tee on Wednesday afternoons," says Uihlein. "You never used to see that. The facilities have improved, equipment has improved, and individuals have improved. It's the one-plus-one-plus-one-equals-five phenomenon."

But not everyone is happy with that equation. How long will it be before some new distance-enhancing shaft or spin-inducing club head enables one-plus-one-plus-one to suddenly equal six? Golf architects are already building 600-plus-yard par 5s in an effort to keep the game's longest hitters from getting home in two. Can an 8,000-yard course be far behind? And what about the older, classic 6,500- to 6,600-yard courses, like Merion and Cypress Point, that were designed in the era of the hickory shaft?

"I think it's important to preserve the shot values of those old courses," says Deane Beman, commissioner of the PGA Tour. "There's not room at most of them to add back tees. The game should not be controlled by the manufacturers. There are problems already out there that are threatening the integrity of the game."

The square-groove issue is one that certainly qualifies. Let us synopsize that ongoing controversy, by flatly stating that square grooves add spin to a golf ball. Spin, to a player, means control. The USGA, after testing the square versus the triangulated groove, decided that it could live with the square groove's conformation but that the most popular square-grooved club on the market, the Ping Eye2 iron, had its grooves too close together to conform to USGA standards. Thus, it declared the club illegal. The PGA Tour went the USGA one better, declaring all square-grooved clubs illegal, beginning in 1990.

Karsten Manufacturing Corporation, makers of the Ping Eye2, sued. The USGA revealed itself to be a paper tiger by settling with Karsten out of court for an undisclosed amount of money. The two sides also agreed that the Ping Eye2's would remain legal and fully sanctioned by the USGA if Karsten would make the clubs' grooves farther apart in the future.

Karsten's case against the PGA Tour is still pending, and Beman considers it a landmark piece of litigation. An out-of-court settlement is unlikely, because at issue, he feels, is whether the PGA Tour has the power to put a leash not just on square grooves but also on all developments in equipment that are at odds with the best interests of the game.

"The historical role of ruling on equipment is not ours," says Beman. "But the technology and sophistication of the manufacturers has outstripped the ability of the USGA and the R&A [the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, which is golf's ruling body everywhere except in the U.S. and Mexico] to oversee the game. Litigation will continue to play a role in that."

Beman's right. "The USGA has never been staffed to keep pace with the manufacturers, and I don't see how they ever will be," says Uihlein, whose futuristic vision of golf has Blade McPhyviron walking into his local pro shop, taking a few swings in front of a high-speed camera, which then feeds that information back to Titleist's central computer in New Bedford, Mass., which immediately analyzes the data and spits back information on the ideal swing weight, shaft type, flex proportions and ball design for that golfer's individual game. The USGA, meanwhile, will in all probability still be teeing up Iron Byron, their ball-testing robot.

The USGA, essentially, governs American golf only with the consent of the governed, since it lacks the clout to dictate what club and ball manufacturers can and cannot offer on the open market. When the USGA ruled that Polara's self-correcting golf ball was illegal in 1978, Polara sued and the USGA ended up paying them nearly $1.5 million. More recently, Weight-Rite, a company that manufactures golf shoes, brought suit against the USGA for ruling that the wedge sole in Weight-Rite shoes ran afoul of USGA rules. That trial is still pending. And, of course, there was the fiasco with Ping.

What do you think would happen if the USGA suddenly reversed itself in the matter of the long putter? Or if it decided to set limits on how long a manufacturer can make the shaft of a golf club? (As it is now, the shaft must be at least 18 inches long but can be any length greater than that.) What if the USGA ruled on which materials can or cannot be used in a club's construction? Don't blow a fuse trying to figure it out. The USGA would be sued.

Why? Because the USGA does not anticipate difficulties before they arise. It only reacts after new products are on the market. The USGA's guidelines on equipment are so vague and outdated that any attempt it makes to draw the line on technological development can be interpreted as capricious. Nowhere in the Rules of Golf is there mention of approved or disapproved materials. And while golf balls must be submitted to the USGA annually for official certification (meeting, among other things, an overall maximum distance standard of 296.8 yards when struck by the USGA's Iron Byron machine), golf clubs are innocent until proved guilty. So while ol' Iron Byron, with a standard-length, steel-shafted driver and a swing-speed of 109 mph, might still be smacking balls 295 yards in the year 2050, Huey Longknocker, driving leader on the PGA Tour, will be averaging 360 by using a club head made of moon rock at the end of a 55-inch plutonium shaft forged in Mizuno's space laboratory.

"Right now, we only test golf balls," says USGA's director of operations, John Matheny. "What we need—and this is coming—is another Iron Byron machine so we can get more involved in the testing of clubs."

Don't hold your breath, golf fans. USGA executive director David Fay admits that even with another machine, it will take a lot of time and effort to come up with a series of tests that can meaningfully compare the various materials that are being used today to manufacture golf clubs. At which point, even if it were determined that, say, a graphite head on a 45-inch titanium shaft gave a golfer an unfair competitive advantage by violating the USGA's Overall Distance Standard...well, bring on the lawyers. Says Fay, "Sure we're concerned about litigation. But we still believe we're the people in the best position to oversee the game."

Not unless the manufacturers call off the legal eagles—an improbability, given the cutthroat competition created by a fraternity that has grown to more than 60 members, with more companies leaping into the golf market every year. "We're in America, aren't we?" says Karsten Solheim, founder and CEO of Karsten Manufacturing. "If people want to buy a Chevy or a Cadillac, they should be able to buy one. If you can build a better golf club, you should build it. When a lot of us have trouble hitting the ball 220, or even 120 yards, why should we be punished because Greg Norman can hit it 320 yards?"

That's a point well taken. Which is why it is becoming increasingly apparent that golf must begin to follow two separate paths: one professional, one amateur. "We need to have two sets of rules," says The Country Club's Callahan. "I understand that it would be pure and nice to have one set of rules for all golfers, but that's not realistic anymore. It's the same thing as major league baseball sticking with wooden bats when at almost every other level players are using aluminum. The game is played at two levels: one for fun, and one for entertainment and profit."

Most members of the golfing establishment cringe at that suggestion. "One of the game's charms is that we're playing with the same equipment on the same courses with the pros," says Solheim. "You don't want to lose that."

"If one group breaks away and forms its own set of rules, it won't stop there," cautions Pat Rielly, one of the directors of the PGA. "The PGA Tour will be playing by one set of rules, the European tour by another, the USGA by another. Pretty soon local clubs will start making up their own sets of rules. Let's all keep playing the same game."

But as things stand, golfers aren't all playing the same game today. Jim's steel club head and graphite shaft give him measurable advantages over John's persimmon club head and steel shaft. And as anyone who has watched a golf tournament firsthand can tell you, the idea that amateurs are playing the same game as the pros is as fanciful as suggesting that your local slo-pitch softball home run champ is playing the same game Jose Canseco is. The club professional isn't even playing the same game as these touring pros, a fact that is painfully apparent every year at the PGA Championship, in which club pros make up 26.6% of the field.

As for the argument that golf's popularity is based, in part, on the amateur using the same equipment as Arnie or Jack, Beman dismisses it as poppycock. "Amateurs and pros are already playing with different equipment," Beman says. "Ninety-five percent of amateurs don't use the wound balata ball, and almost all our players on the Tour do. I don't think that by placing restrictions on certain pieces of equipment we'd be hurting the popularity of the game at all."

Indeed, it is just as logical to assume that equipment restrictions would enhance the popularity of pro golf. Not only would it keep some popular old courses from becoming obsolete, it would establish a foundation for comparing the best golfers of one era with the best golfers of another. When someone breaks Jack Nicklaus's and Ray Floyd's record 271 total at the Masters, it would be nice to think he broke it because he was a better golfer over four days, not because he was playing with better equipment.

Here are four areas that Beman should look at:

•Golf clubs should have a maximum length. How long will it be before a touring pro who can control a 48- to 50-inch shaft and has a short game to match arrives on the scene, reducing 500-yard par 5s to a drive and a wedge?

•Golf balls used on the PGA Tour should be standardized in regard to dimple depth, dimple patterns, cover material, core construction and flight characteristics. Can you imagine Andre Agassi being permitted to serve with one brand of balls and Ivan Lendl with another? Absurd.

•The long putter should be banned. Never mind that the shaft is 52 inches long—nine inches longer than the standard driver—and that it can therefore be of use away from the green, on those occasions when a golfer is allowed two club lengths of relief. The long putter is not swung with a golf stroke. The way the top hand is anchored against the sternum violates the spirit of Rule 14-3 in the Rules of Golf, which states: "...the player shall not use any artificial device or unusual equipment...which might assist him in gripping the club [or] in making a stroke...." The sole purpose of the long putter is to help the golfer make a stroke by allowing him to "grip" the shaft against his chest, stabilizing his swing path.

•Clubs should be sanctioned on a case-by-case basis before they are permitted in PGA tournaments. They should be tested by whatever criteria can be established to insure that golf, as it is played today, will be the same game in 20,50 or 100 years. No one is suggesting that golf return to the days of the hickory shaft. But today's graphite will soon be yesterday's persimmon.

As for the amateurs, we need all the help we can get. If NASA's technology can somehow help me reach a 425-yard par-4 in two when I'm 64, then bring on the future. Just as long as golf manufacturers are careful what they put in the core of those new low-flying, distance-enhancing, sunlight-seeking, self-propelling balls with auto-reverse. It would be a shame to accidentally start a war.

PHOTOMARK E. GIBSON/THE STOCK MARKETThis Jumbo driver contains the stuff of H-bombs and aircraft carriers.
PHOTOTHF STOCK MARKET[See caption above.] PHOTOBRET WILLS[See caption above.] PHOTOLARRY R. DITTO/BRUCE COLEMAN INC.Natural materials in golf are as obsolete as this 1860 long spoon. PHOTOJEFF PERKELL/THE STOCK MARKET[See caption above.] PHOTOBRET WILLS[See caption above.] TWO PHOTOSBILL BALLENBERG AND BERNARD FURNIVALNo. this Cobra club (made of Lauramid) is not bulletproof. PHOTOBRET WILLSThe evolution of the iron: from niblick to cleek to the controversial Ping Eye2 (far right). PHOTOBRET WILLSEven the lowly golf tee has been changing with the times. PHOTOBRET WILLSThe first "feathery" ball was made with a hatful of feathers. PHOTOBRET WILLSThese are the parts that make up a wound balata Titleist.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)