The Buzz Bomb Loose talk by the new USGA president has an entire industry on edge

June 07, 1998

The moment F. Morgan (Buzz) Taylor Jr., a veteran golf
administrator, assumed the presidency of the USGA in January, he
said that he intended to get a handle on the accelerating
technological advances in golf equipment. That was good news to
those of us who feel the premium on skill has been lessened,
specifically at the highest level of the game, by new--and USGA
approved--equipment.

But we wondered how Taylor would proceed. Before he came along,
the USGA, bloodied by its battle with Ping over square grooves,
had chosen not to confront manufacturers. Now, goaded by the
likes of Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman, Arnold Palmer, Nick Price
and Tom Watson, the organization has taken the first shot in a
new war on technology, but it has misfired, a mistake that not
only is bad news, but also brings into question whether Taylor
is a loose cannon unfit to lead golf's governing body.

The USGA has selected an issue to battle over that's even more
arcane than square grooves--the possibility, raised in a
USGA-funded study, that titanium-headed woods produce an
illegal, trampolinelike effect at impact. This study was shown
to the leading manufacturers of titanium clubs several weeks
ago, and subsequent public statements by Taylor sparked a series
of threats and counterthreats by the regulators and the regulated.

How did Taylor expect clubmakers to react? Their job is to push
the envelope and create new products. In this age of publicly
held equipment companies, clubmakers are under intense pressure
from stockholders to increase profits. When their bottom line is
threatened, they fight back. Callaway took the lead. Already
reeling after three straight poor quarters and with its stock
trading near its 52-week low, it's not surprising that the
company came out swinging.

The trouble with Taylor is that while his mission to protect the
game is a laudable one, his methods are ham-handed. Here are the
three ways he has bungled this case:

First, he has chosen confrontation over compromise. A former
football player at Princeton, Taylor, 66, has a pugnacious style
that has made him as politically tone-deaf as Kenneth Starr.
Explaining last month that he intends to preserve the game's
traditions, Taylor combatively added, "and there's not one
lawyer in the world who is going to get in our way of doing
that." Those are fighting words.

Second, instead of focusing on the obvious solution to the
equipment imbroglio--it's the ball, stupid--Taylor started on
the periphery, with titanium woods. The study cited by the USGA
is unpublished, and the methodology and the results are widely
disputed by industry experts, who insist that no one has ever
been able to create a trampoline effect that would violate
Appendix II, 4-1e of the Rules of Golf. Even more troublesome is
the fact that the USGA has already approved the clubs in
question and millions of golfers use them.

Finally, by going off half-cocked on the most expensive piece of
equipment in the game, Taylor invited a counterattack by the
biggest player in the industry. Callaway launched a
public-relations blitz that paints the USGA as a group of
blue-blooded bogeymen hopelessly out of touch with Joe Duffer.
The speed and intensity of the Callaway campaign sent the
message that Taylor won't be going up against only one lawyer
should the USGA decide to take action against Big Bertha.

Although the signs of trouble are everywhere, the USGA has, in
the past, been able to soberly suck the urgency out of tough
issues. For now, no one's talking. "It's button-up time," says
executive director David Fay. A meeting of the USGA executive
committee, scheduled for June 13, on what to do about the
spring-effect data will probably diffuse the situation. No real
harm has been done.

However, if Taylor is to make a positive mark on the game during
his two-year term, he must stop the saber-rattling and employ
diplomacy. The equipment world is a tinderbox, and Buzz has to
get with the biz. His challenge should be to find a middle
ground that allows championship golf to be decided by skill
while also not taking any of the fun out of the game for
recreational players.

That will require smart moves, not rash ones. Nobody wants to
see the game get a buzz cut.

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: JEFF WONG A USGA study raised the possibility that titanium woods cause a trampoline-like effect. [Drawing of scientist and ricocheting golf ball]

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)