Golf: Boffins face a billion-dollar battle

They have the technology, but in America a battle has begun over whether they should be allowed to use it
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The Independent Online
BUZZ TAYLOR made his money out of selling swimming pool cleaning equipment to the high proportion of Florida residents who require such devices. Before that, he tried to sell a golf ball whose virtue was a self-correcting mechanism that was meant to prevent hooks and slices. There was a problem: it was seven yards, on average, shorter than any other ball on the market. There was another problem: it was banned by the United States Golf Association.

Somewhere along the road from Jupiter Island, where Taylor lives, to Far Hills, New Jersey, the headquarters of the USGA, Taylor underwent a conversion. At the beginning of this year, Taylor was inducted as president of the USGA and immediately started a campaign to limit the effect of space age technology on the game of golf.

NASA scientists, it seems, never die, they just get jobs with golf equipment companies. Any self-respecting "wood" is these days made with graphite shafts and oversized, low centre of gravity, titanium heads and anything else left over from keeping John Glenn in orbit.

The efforts of the boffins have meant big money for the manufacturers, with sales worth $1.7bn (pounds 1bn) in the United States in 1997, and more enjoyment for golfers around the world. "My dad is hitting better shots now than he ever did before with the technology available today," said Colin Montgomerie, who no doubt passes on his off casts to the former Troon secretary.

"More people nowadays have a lot more leisure time than ever before to play other sports as well as golf," he added. "Why should that leisure time be destroyed by limiting the use of equipment?"

But that is just what the USGA is considering after announcing that they are to go ahead with new tests on golf balls and, more controversially, intend to test for the first time the "spring-like effect" of clubs.

"These measures will not take balls or clubs out of golfers' bags," said David Fay, the executive director of the USGA. "The average player will not be affected much by these actions. The best players will be impacted the most by capping the distance they gain from the spring-like effect of driving clubs and the amount of potential increased distance of golf balls.

"We are concerned about added distance resulting solely from enhancements in equipment with no improvement in the skill level of a player."

The USGA have gone ahead with the test to limit the so-called "trampoline effect" - when the ball is impacted by a thin-faced driver made of materials such as titanium - despite a forum with the manufacturers in September which opposed the idea. Both the technical protocol for the test and the necessity for it at all were called into question.

When the USGA first announced the proposed test at the US Open in June they said "virtually all" clubs currently on the market would pass the test. But the manufacturers are disputing the USGA's right to impose restrictions on their ability to produce new technology and generate greater sales.

"Innovations is one of the traditions of golf," John Solheim, president of Karsten Manufacturing, maker of Ping clubs, said. "The proposed rule will destroy that important part of the tradition of the game."

Solheim is the son of Karsten Solheim, who fought a court battle to overturn a ban on Ping's square grooves in the 1980s. Legal action cannot be ruled out again and this time it will not be one company acting alone.

"We are disappointed that the USGA is moving forward on this issue, and cannot comment further until we receive the details," said John Solheim.

In contrast to the USPGA'S antagonistic approach, the Royal and Ancient have been consulting manufacturers under their jurisdiction during the year but are not yet convinced that any "trampoline" effect actually exists. They have commissioned further independent research and will only look at a possible test protocol when that is completed next year.

Jack Nicklaus, the greatest winner of championships in the game, is one of the supporters of limiting technology.

"There are 300 or 400 who hit the ball as I did in my prime," he said. That is an exaggeration, but 30 years ago Nicklaus averaged 275 yards compared to John Daly's 299 on the US tour this season.

But while Nicklaus hit 75.6 per cent of greens in regulation in 1968, Hal Sutton led that category this year with 71.3 per cent and David Duval's stroke average of 69.13 does not compare with the record of 68.33 achieved by Byron Nelson in 1945.

Golf courses have always had to react to the increase in standards, firstly by length and more recently by narrowing fairways, growing thick rough and lightningly fast greens. Major championships are regularly played on a layout of more than 7,000 yards and now the Old Course at St Andrews, which moved six tees back last year, has passed that barrier while Augusta National is just short of the mark after toughening up four holes in the light of Tiger Woods' record win in '97.

"If history tells us anything," said Fay, "it is that added distance inevitably will lead to longer golf courses, escalating costs, and slower play. Thus, the game will suffer."

As for Taylor, a 10-handicapper, you will find all the usual hi-tech implements in his bag but the long game is not his problem. It is with his chipping and putting on and around the greens. "My nickname is `Stone Hands'," Taylor said.

BIG HITTERS THROUGH THE AGES

TED RAY

Along with Harry Vardon and Tony Jacklin, Ted Ray is the only other Englishman to win both the British and the US Opens. In 1912 he defeated Vardon by four strokes at Muirfield with a score that had been bettered only once in the Open previously. Vardon was also one of the joint runners-up when Ray took the US Open at Inverness in 1920. He birdied one hole every day because of the requirement for a carry of 280 yards over a ravine and went on to thrill galleries with his power-hitting on an exhibition tour.

JOYCE WETHERED

Britain's greatest woman player, winning the English Amateur five times in a row from 1920 - she could not be bothered to enter after that - and the British Ladies title in 1922, '24 and '25. For good measure she came out of retirement to win the 1929 championship only because it was at St Andrews. The Laura Davies of her day, Wethered regularly out-hit male playing partners, including Bobby Jones, who described Wethered's swing as the best he had ever seen.

ARNOLD PALMER

The defining moment of Arnold Palmer's career brought about his only US Open in 1960. Palmer started the final round seven strokes off the lead but went out determined to prove it was possible to drive the green at the 346-yard first hole. It was playing downhill and downwind but a ditch and heavy rough guarded the green. He hit the green, two-putted for birdie, went to the turn in 30, scored a 65 and won by two from an amateur called Jack Nicklaus.

JACK NICKLAUS

If Palmer's big-hitting was of the inspirational kind, like Seve Ballesteros, Jack Nicklaus made it an everyday, every hole activity. When he arrived on tour Nicklaus had as much of an advantage off the tee as Tiger Woods does now. Both knew how to control it and both showed it off to the best of their ability at Augusta. In 1965 Nicklaus won by nine strokes with a score of 271, records which stood until Woods came along in 1997.

JOHN DALY

Has never been able to control the length of his drives on a day-to-day basis as well as Woods can but the `Wild Thing' still has two majors to his name. He won the USPGA in 1991 when he was the ninth alternate and on a course which David Feherty said was the "first where you have to take into account the curvature of the earth". The second followed in 1995 at St Andrews, where he was undefeated for the United States in this year's Alfred Dunhill Cup.

OPENS OVER THE PAST 100 YEARS

How the courses have got longer and the scores lower

Year Venue Yards Champion Score

1898 Prestwick 5,732 Harry Vardon 307

1923 Troon 6,415 Arthur Havers 295

1948 Muirfield 6,806 Henry Cotton 284 1973 Troon 7,064 Tom Weiskopf 276

1998 Royal Birkdale 7,018 Mark O'Meara 280

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