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The Clubmen Cometh Fed up with manufacturers and ruling bodies, high-ranking club bosses are mobilizing for a ball war

April 22, 2002
April 22, 2002

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April 22, 2002

Golf Plus

The Clubmen Cometh Fed up with manufacturers and ruling bodies, high-ranking club bosses are mobilizing for a ball war

Masters chairman Hootie Johnson did the right thing. He spent
millions last year to lengthen Augusta National, which guarantees
that his course will challenge the world's best players for
years, maybe even a decade, to come. Furthermore, by threatening
to require Masters invitees to compete with a Masters-approved
ball, he served notice that future breakthroughs in golf
technology will be as welcome as weeds in his little corner of
Georgia. Like King Canute, Johnson commanded the tide to go out,
and in this case it did.

This is an article from the April 22, 2002 issue

But what if you operate not one but 210 courses, private clubs
and resorts? That's the situation at Dallas-based ClubCorp Inc.,
which mows the grass and launders the towels at such famous
layouts as Pinehurst No. 2 in Pinehurst, N.C., site of the 1999
U.S. Open, and the South course at Firestone Country Club in
Akron, a fixture on the PGA Tour since '76. So when ClubCorp
chairman Robert Dedman Sr. sees a young pro like Charles Howell
smash a drive more than 300 yards, he frets like a homeowner with
a termite problem. "I don't want to put the ballmakers out of
business or cut back their income," Dedman says, "but it's absurd
to keep lengthening courses. Something should be done about it."

The same thought occurs to Ernest Ransome, a 50-year member and
former president of the prestigious Pine Valley Golf Club in
Clementon, N.J. "Pine Valley is obsolete in today's world,"
Ransome says. "We were always doing things like remodeling
bunkers and tees, but they've got this souped-up ball now, and we
don't have room to expand. If we held a tournament today, the
pros wouldn't even use their drivers." Pine Valley, he doesn't
need to add, was ranked as the No. 1 course in the world by Golf
Magazine as recently as last year.

Dedman and Ransome aren't alone in their concern. Drive through
the gates of most any club that has hosted a major championship
or an international competition, and you'll hear calls for reform
over the roar of earth-moving machines. "It would be interesting
to see what the pros would do with a jacked-down ball as opposed
to these jacked-up balls," says Doug Weins, president of Oak Hill
Country Club in Rochester, N.Y. Oak Hill, the site of three U.S.
Opens, a PGA Championship and the 1995 Ryder Cup, recently
stretched itself to more than 7,150 yards to get ready for the
2003 PGA, but it, too, has run out of real estate. Says Weins, "I
don't know where it's going to end."

These days, it looks as if it might end with pistols at 20 paces.
The ball manufacturers and the U.S. Golf Association are at
loggerheads over possible modifications of the Overall Distance
Standard (ODS), a regulation in force since 1976 that was
intended to make the 300-yard drive a rarity. The manufacturers
are also at odds with the American Society of Golf Course
Architects, which last year asked the USGA and the Royal and
Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, the game's two governing
bodies, to roll back the distance a ball can travel "to protect
the great courses of the world."

Oddly absent from the debate, until Johnson spoke out a month
ago, were the course owners and operators. Last year, however,
certain club presidents, greens committee chairmen and former
USGA officials began to talk about raising their profile. The
clubmen don't have a special organization and seem reluctant to
get involved in matters that they believe should be handled by
the ruling bodies, but they are men with considerable clout.

Among their number is Jack Vickers, chairman of the Vickers
Companies and founder and president of Castle Pines Golf Club in
Castle Rock, Colo., site of the International; Sandy Tatum,
former USGA president and a leader in the restoration of San
Francisco's Harding Park Golf Course; and Lyle Anderson, founder
and chairman of the Lyle Anderson Companies, developer of 11 Jack
Nicklaus-designed courses and owner of Scotland's Loch Lomond
Golf Club. Their goal: to get the USGA and the R&A to restrict
the flight of all balls or, as some would prefer, mandate a
reduced-flight ball for professional tournaments.

"Golf is the only game I know where you get to choose the ball
you play," says Ransome, and he and his fellow clubmen think the
choice should be narrowed. Nicklaus, who has been promoting ball
limits since the late 1970s, claims a ball-flight reduction of
10% would restore the challenge to thousands of courses that
measure around 6,500 yards. "Today only 10 or 15 courses are
capable of handling a significant tournament without making the
course outrageously gimmicky," Nicklaus says. He doesn't spare
his own 7,221-yard Muirfield Village course in Dublin, Ohio, site
of the Memorial. "It's obsolete too, unless I go back and make it
ridiculous." Clearly exasperated, Nicklaus sums up: "Maybe five
holes could be lengthened, but I don't believe you should ruin
the course. Change the freakin' ball."

Some of the clubmen cite an epiphany to explain their alarm over
the rise of the power game. For Vickers it was when Nicklaus won
the 1993 U.S. Senior Open at Denver's Cherry Hills Country Club,
site of three U.S. Opens and two PGAs. "The good players were
using woods on about three holes," Vickers says. "That was when
it first jolted me, and it has gotten worse year by year, to the
point that it's gotten ridiculous." Tatum, who characterizes the
long-ball trend as a crisis, played a round three years ago with
three Walker Cup amateurs at the famed Cypress Point Country Club
in Pebble Beach. "They were delightful, intelligent young men and
wonderful players to watch," he says, "and I don't remember a
more depressing round. Every hole was a driver and no more than a
nine-iron, usually a wedge. They made a mockery of the course."
Tatum's conclusion: "Cypress is no longer a test for a
first-class player. You couldn't hold the Crosby on it today."

The most outspoken clubman is probably Vickers, who has bought
property around Castle Pines to provide expansion space for a
course that the pros already play at 7,600 yards because of the
mountain air. "If they want to play a championship at 10,000
yards, we're ready," he says, "but I don't think it's the right
thing to do. The classic courses are national treasures. They
shouldn't be obliterated or destroyed." Vickers has harsh words
for the ball companies--"They've brought on this problem, and if
they don't recognize it, they're blind," he says--and for the
USGA, which in his view has vacillated because the manufacturers
might litigate rather than submit to a tightened ODS. "If people
want to sue, let them sue," he adds. "The USGA is well insured
and has plenty of money. Its officials are the spokespeople for
the rules and regulations of golf. They've got to stand up and be
counted."

When the course architects made similar noises last year, the
Acushnet Company, maker of Titleist balls, responded with funny
commercials starring John Cleese as a mad-hatter course designer
determined to make the game difficult and joyless. "We're dealing
with an antitechnology, Luddite mind-set," says Acushnet CEO
Wally Uihlein, who gamely took a pie in the face from Cleese in
one of the commercials. "I'm puzzled at the apoplexy and the
emotional outrage. Is Merion no longer viable? Neither is
Myopia!" Uihlein, an energetic and effective debater, expects his
listener to catch the references to the Merion Golf Club in
Ardmore, Pa., where Ben Hogan made his stirring comeback at the
1950 U.S. Open but which at 6,590 yards is no longer a suitable
course for a major, and to the long-defunct Myopia Hunt Club of
Hamilton, Mass., which hosted the U.S. Open four times between
1898 and 1908.

"The problem isn't new," Uihlein continues. "Obsolescence has
been part of the evolution of the game for more than 100 years."
Uihlein--who describes recent increases in PGA Tour driving
averages as "a vertical spike caused by a combustible combination
[of factors like improved fitness, better agronomy, etc.],
synergistic over time"--has numbers to support his case. Of the 42
courses that hosted the U.S. Open between 1895 and 1960, for
instance, only 13 have had the Open since 1961, an attrition rate
of 69%. What's more, he challenges his critics to produce
evidence that his company has ever tried to skirt USGA rules.
("The Overall Distance Standard was not written by five guys in
blue, closeted in a room," he says. "It was very much an
outgrowth of discussions between the rulers and the ruled.")
Defenseless courses? He recites the average scores per round at
this year's Bay Hill Invitational (72.7) and Players Championship
(73.5) and asks, "Where's the threat? Where's the Armageddon?
People hide behind tradition, but is there some other motive
here?"

If Uihlein is asking whether the clubmen have a commercial
interest in the outcome of the ball war, the answer is yes. Land
is expensive, course doctoring gets pricier every year, and clubs
wince at the cost of maintaining tees that no member will ever
use. The bigger cost, Vickers says, is borne when a once great
course slips in the magazine rankings because it can no longer
contain a Tiger Woods. "If it becomes a glorified pitch-and-putt
course," he says, "the club is going to lose a heck of a lot of
members. Homeowners on the course will sustain real damages as
their valuations deteriorate." Dedman acknowledges that his
financial interest in ClubCorp informs his views--"We probably
have more at stake than anybody," he says--but he maintains that
it doesn't make him an enemy of the ball companies. "We have 210
outlets, so we probably order and sell more balls than anybody
but Wal-Mart and Sears," he says, "but you need to look past the
bottom line. We have a responsibility to be good stewards of the
game."

The clubmen differ over the remedy. Some favor the
tournament-ball concept, which would permit weekend golfers to
play with anything that conforms to USGA rules, while limiting
the touring pros to a ball that doesn't jump. ("Every pro who
enters a tournament would reach into a bucket and pull out 10 or
15 balls," says Oak Hill's Weins.) Others favor a rollback that
covers all golfers, so that everyone's game is measured by the
same yardstick. Says Tatum, "We should maintain one game played
by one set of rules wherever it is played."

The clubmen also separate into various levels of pessimism over
the USGA's ability to control new technologies. "What is it going
to do?" asks Barry van Gerbig, greens chairman and immediate past
president of Seminole Golf Club in Juno Beach, Fla. "You've got
these financial behemoths--the manufacturers--whose reason for
being is to advance technology and make the game more fun versus
people who have a philosophical, almost religious, belief in
protecting the game. Yet the USGA's war chest is funded by the
very people who are enjoying these advances: its members." Then
you have people like Wayne Forster, president of the Inverness
Club in Toledo, who think the technology genie is out of the lamp
for good. "If you come up with a tournament ball," he says, "then
someone's going to come up with a shaft and a clubhead to hit
that ball farther. It's like the tax code: Every time we try to
tighten up the rules, people make millions of dollars getting
around them."

The ballmakers, however, don't seem that recalcitrant. Ron
Drapeau, CEO of Callaway, stood under the oak tree at Augusta
National last week and said, "I would be 100 percent in support
of a tournament ball for elite players. It's a simple and elegant
solution that takes care of the interests of all the parties."
While Acushnet's Uihlein calls a separate set of rules for the
pros "a dangerous path," he expresses a willingness to compromise
by rolling back the initial velocity of a ball, say, but not by
imposing a distance cap.

In the meantime, it's catch up and keep up for America's
beleaguered tournament courses. Merion quietly added five new
tees and 200 yards a few years ago in preparation for the 2005
U.S. Amateur. Inverness now plays as a 7,255-yard par-71, more
than enough to challenge golfers at the 2003 U.S. Senior Open. At
Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, N.J., the Lower course has
been stretched to 7,350 yards, and bunkers have been added for
the 2005 PGA. "But we're coming to a point where we can't do any
more," says Jeff Toia, club secretary and chairman of Baltusrol's
greens committee. "A lot of the older courses are saying, 'Why
should we go through all this trouble to change the course for
four days every 15 years?'"

Actually, it's not the courses that are talking. It's the clubmen
who have found their voices.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY AL TIELEMANS Main man Elite clubs are rallying behind Johnson's idea of using a limited-flight ball to keep classic courses from being rendered obsolete.COLOR PHOTO: DANNY TURNER Going to great lengths ClubCorp's Dedman, who controls 210 courses, says ballmakers must look beyond the bottom line.COLOR PHOTO: GREG FOSTER Short list Ransome says that if a Tour event were held at top-ranked Pine Valley, "the pros wouldn't even use their drivers."COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES Go figure Seminole's van Gerbig sees the paradox of a righteous USGA being funded by members who benefit from new technology.
"The problem is not new," says Titleist's Uihlein. "Obsolescence
has been part of the evolution of the game for 100 years."
Nicklaus says "only 10 or 15 courses are capable of handling a
significant tournament" without gimmicks.
"If they want to play a championship at 10,000 yards, we're
ready," says Vickers, "but I don't think that's the right thing
to do."