The Local Knowlege

Gear & Equipment

Something much more important than Tiger's victory

It was the most significant day of golf perhaps in the recorded history of the game. Tiger's 73rd victory on Sunday? Nice, but not that significant. How many wins he now has will have no impact on the future of the game, but a golf ball that goes 10 or 20 yards shorter? That could change things forever, and that's why the weekend's activities outside of Stockholm, where the R&A conducted events with a shorter golf ball, were infinitely more important to the game than anything that happened outside of Columbus, Ohio, greenside miracles from the greatest player who ever lived notwithstanding. 

Of course, I'm overstating the case. But only slightly. The short ball tests in Sweden were interesting exercises, if only because it's the first time we've had on-the-scene reports of these sorts of tests involving average players since golf's ruling bodies began conducting such events four or five years ago. (Look for a first-person account in this week's Golf World.)

Sweden1.jpg
We have heard reports of events in Canada involving professionals, but to me, that's the difference between trying to get real-world useful information from a New York Times restaurant critic vs. what people like you and me are saying on TripAdvisor.com. 

Of course, the weather in Sweden over the weekend appeared to be ridiculously inappropriate for assessing anything other than rainsuits, outerwear and cart mitts. Nevertheless, the R&A set out to conduct a test of a proposed shorter golf ball (eight percent shorter by previous announcements), using a range of real golfers as its test subjects, and the reports we've received from our correspondents there say the R&A seems to have achieved just that: shortness.

In terms of the practical operation of the event, players were asked to complete a survey describing their game upon arrival and then another survey describing their experiences on the course with the shorter ball upon the round's conclusion. A copy of the questionnaire reveals questions that a ball marketing research firm might typically ask, along with a grading scale that went from 1 to 5, with 1 indicating "Much Worse," 2-4 indicating degrees of "About the same" and 5 indicating "Much Better." The areas of inquiry were what you would expect. Players were asked to compare their play vs. their usual game in these areas:

Driving Distance
Driving Accuracy
Approach shot Distance
Approach shot Accuracy
Short game/scramble
Putting speed
Putting line

They also were asked to compare their play with the test ball to their usual ball in these areas:

Distance off the tee
Control off the tee
Feel off the driver
Approach shot distance
Approach shot control
Feel off the irons
Spin
Wind affected shots
Bunker shots
Speed off the putter
Feel off the putter

There also was a question on driving distance and which clubs players hit from 120, 140, 160 and 180 meters.

A final relative assessment asked, "How did you feel that the ball you used today affected your game?" Here, a 1 indicated "Hurt a lot," 2-4 indicated degrees of "About the same" and 5 indicated "Helped a lot."

The second page of questions on the form seemed the more touchy-feely side of the experiment. Here are the questions:

Was today's round enjoyable?
Did the weather affect your enjoyment?
Was the game today a fair game?

Then came the two biggies, questions that likely will do much to inform the USGA and the R&A of the mood of the masses. The five-point scale for answers to these ranged from "Definitely no" to "Don't care" and finally "Definitely yes":

Would you consider playing this ball in the future?
Would you consider playing this ball in the future, provided that everyone else used a ball with a similar level of performance?

Sweden2.jpg

Finally there were questions on whether the player competed in a friendly match with a wager and whether there were any additional comments. 

In a lot of ways it was an elaborate focus group kind of survey from which we will someday, maybe, see some documented results.

Which is not to be critical of the process. The intent was to gauge golfer reactions, nothing more and nothing less. The test in Sweden, just like similar player tests the USGA has been conducting for the last few years, seems less about calculating spin rates and landing angles than it is gathering opinions, even if those opinions are from those who couldn't adequately determine the playing differences between a two-piece ball and a kumquat. It hasn't officially been said anywhere, but it seems safe to say that nothing happening in Sweden is likely to spark a rollback of the ball, yet what happened there and what has happened and will happen in other similar events will be useful reference material if decisions are made in the future.

In other words, if there is never a ball rollback, we can assume the evidence gathered in the wind and rain of Sweden will never see the light of day. And if there is a rollback, presumably, the evidence gathered in Sweden will be presented as valuable and insightful. Then again, it may never be presented at all.

Steve Otto, the R&A's director of research and testing, did not elaborate on the specifics of the event in Sweden or any future shorter ball tests. He responded to an email in general, but cordial, terms: "As you know from our previous conversations, we are interested in all aspects of the way the game is played and the effect of technology is part of that. As you'll appreciate, it is not always beneficial to disclose all aspects of our work but we carry out regular research on numerous elements of the game to enhance our understanding. This includes getting reactions from players and the test in Sweden was one of those instances."

Here's something to enhance your understanding, from one of the participants in the event. Tommy Jeppsson is the editor-in-chief of Golf Digest Sverige and he had a 10 a.m. tee time on Saturday, in the worst of the weather. 

"Hard to make any conclusions," was his opening line in an email he sent me, noting that the wind speeds were close to 30 miles per hour and the temperature was 6 degrees Celsius or what we in America might translate as "stay inside." "

"I hit the ball in four water hazards by a narrow margin," Jeppson said. "Eight percent more length would have given me a putt or an approach on these four occasions." 

Despite the length concerns, the ball didn't seem to play overly penal by Jeppsson's standards. "Even when I cut it, the ball didn¿t spin out of control," he said. "Sometimes when I slice a normal ball, it could go like a banana or like a boomerang. That didn¿t happen, for some reason. I¿m not a steady player so it could be just luck."

The good news, according to Jeppsson, is that the new ball played like old around the greens.

"The ball felt very soft, almost like an old balata ball. It was like glue on the short irons, very 'urethane soft,' a pleasure to hit on the greens," he said. "I didn¿t play golf then but I imagine it was like returning to the 1980s."

But then he also added this: "If they use this ball, I hope that another USGA or R&A department will teach the course managers to dry out their courses. You will need some roll."

The ruling bodies really don't want this sort of information being made public, of course. The belief, as the USGA's senior technical director Dick Rugge has often said, is that publication of a tiny subset of opinion can have a negative impact on the validity of future research. To put it another way, it poisons the well. For instance, if we were talking about a study of a new drug, and participants were told of certain side effects experienced by previous test subjects, future test subjects would be looking for those side effects, biasing their input. 

It's probably valid to wonder what these urethane-covered kaffeeklatsches really are accomplishing. With its technological horsepower, the USGA already knows all about the performance attributes of the shorter golf ball. What it doesn't know with certainty, perhaps, is how players will react to or adjust to or complain about or be nonplussed by a ball designed to fly shorter off the tee. Why the quality of knowing or thinking you know that information is helpful to making a decision is really a question of whether you think focus groups are a good way to make decisions. Some do, some do not. I tend to side with the late Steve Jobs, who once told BusinessWeek, "It's really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don't know what they want until you show it to them." In other words, know what you want to do and then bloody do it. But that's another argument. 

A more important one I think is whether, at some point, it's fair to ask if publishing these results right now is truly hurtful as golf's ruling bodies contend it is. Isn't it just as possible that were this information to be made public, a free, and most importantly, an informed public debate might ensue? We're intelligent people all with an interest in how the game grows and how the game should be played by us and by players seemingly infinitely better than us. This isn't a case of the NFL deciding to change the overtime rules. Those rules don't directly affect us so those decisions don't require our input. 

But golf's rules, particularly a rule about the single most vital piece of equipment in the game, should be an open discussion. The USGA has shown its willingness to make common-sense changes to arcane or tedious rules in the recent past, largely because of public discussion about those rules. By all accounts, it's made the implementation of equipment standards, practices and rulings much more open and collegial than it's ever been. 

I get the worry about jeopardizing the unbiased nature of the research. But how a public discussion of a rule like this hurts the game isn't immediately certain to me. The game in all its forms and with all its constituents is big enough and strong enough to have a frank and open debate on a subject that affects every player, every equipment manufacturer, every golf course and every stakeholder more deeply than any rules decision in the game's history. I believe the game's ruling bodies are big enough and strong enough to facilitate that debate, encourage it and learn from it. Because in the end, we're all going to have to live with how that debate resolves itself. 

--Mike Stachura
Follow me on Twitter @MikeStachura
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