Don't mean a thing if it ain't got that spring

Tim Glover reports on the latest golf innovation to stymie officialdom
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The Independent Online

For ping read spring. The governing bodies of golf, the Royal and Ancient and the United States Golf Association, resolved the issue of Ping irons and controversial grooves, albeit under the threat of being sued for $100m, but are now confronted by the latest technological advance, the "hot" driver which imparts a spring-like effect on the ball. The difference this time is that the R and A and the USGA, who traditionally work hand in glove on such matters, appear to be divided.

The USGA acted unilaterally in banning the new Callaway ERC driver, announcing it had infringed the rule which states that the "material and construction of the club face shall not be designed or manufactured to have the effect at impact of a spring". The R and A, who are conducting their own research at Birmingham University, are being far more cautious. "The lack of uniformity is undesirable," Peter Dawson, the new secretary of the R and A, admitted this week, "and needs to be resolved quickly but not in haste."

The implication is that the USGA have acted hastily and the results of the tests they have conducted may not be watertight. Dawson concedes that the faces of the new club are not as "hard and rigid" as they should be under the rules but are thin and soft, and that they do indeed have a spring-like effect. But he is by no means certain that the upshot is a significant change in performance. "We don't know enough about the impact," Dawson said "Maybe the USGA will come over to our test. This is a very big subject and it needs sorting out. We need more time to study it."

Two years ago Ely Callaway, the founder of the company that manufactured the club, threatened legal action if the USGA banned their Big Bertha driver, the weapon favoured by Colin Montgomerie, who is paid to play with Callaway equipment. The problem for the governing bodies is that these implements don't even look like golf clubs. Monty can use the new ERC driver (its name comes from Ely Callaway's initials) in Europe but not America. It costs £499 and is one of 10 drivers that have failed the US test.

Not everybody is convinced that modern clubs have dramatically changed the game. In the 1830s Samuel Messieux drove an old "feathery" ball 361 yards at St Andrews. When John Jacobs, who has been involved in the game for more than 50 years, played a round with hickory-shafted clubs and a modern ball he scored well; with modern clubs and an old-fashioned ball he scored badly.

The Herd brothers of St Andrews learned their trade by using gas lamps as flags along a cobbled street, hitting corks with sawn-down clubs. Sandy Herd went on to win the Open at Hoylake in 1902. Hoylake is one of the country's great courses that, for championship purposes, has been rendered redundant by modern equipment. It is simply too short.

Dawson, however, believes that it is the average player rather than the top professional who derives greater benefit from the latest technology. Even with the new "hot" clubs, Dawson said that Tiger Woods would not add more than nine yards to his drives. According to Dawson, it is not down to physics but athleticism. "No one has ever swung a club like Tiger," he said.

Nevertheless, the prospect of Woods hitting it even further than he does at present should be cause for concern.