March 13, 2008

USGA To Implement "Check Testing" For Drivers

Manufacturers have been notified of new procedures and protocols for driver testing

Editor's note: This article was updated on March 14, 2008

Nearly a year to the day since the first driver was found to be nonconforming for exceeding the USGA's limit for characteristic time (or spring-like effect), the USGA has issued a notice to manufacturers on its Driver Check Testing Program.

The notice, obtained by Golf Digest, states the testing procedure will be conducted in two phases -- one for all drivers currently on the USGA's list of conforming driver heads and another more stringent protocol for drivers submitted to the USGA "on or after January 1, 2010."

Each protocol has the USGA obtaining eight samples from golf retail shops of its choosing. Those drivers will be measured on the pendulum tester located at the USGA Test Center.

While the USGA said all drivers appearing on the USGA's List of Conforming Driver Heads are subject to the check testing program, it does not necessarily mean every driver on the current list of conforming drivers (which is some 380 pages long) will be subject to the protocol. In short, the USGA is not about to purchase millions of dollars worth of drivers to check whether a driver that conformed to the spring-like effect rule when it was first submitted still conforms when it enters the marketplace. Rather, the Check Testing Program delineates the methodology that will be used should a driver be tested.

"We're not setting up a schedule where we go out and get X number of clubs per week--we're not doing that," said USGA Senior Technical Director Dick Rugge, indicating the protocols are simple a formal announcement of a process that will be used when necessary.

For Phase I, eight samples will be measured. If one or none are found to exceed the limit, the club will maintain its conformance. If three or more exceed the limit, it will be rejected. If two are found in violation, an additional eight samples will be tested. In that instance, the club will be in violation if five or more of the 16 samples exceed the limit. This protocol was used by the USGA to check test clubs obtained from retail shops in 2007 and will be used to check test drivers submitted to the USGA through December 31, 2009.

For the more stringent Phase II of the program, eight samples will be measured. If all are within the limit, the club is conforming for CT. If two or more exceed the limit, it will be rejected. If one is in violation, an additional eight samples will be tested. In that instance, the club will be in violation if two or more of the 16 samples exceed the limit. This protocol will be used to test drivers submitted after January 1, 2010.

"The first sampling plan is good enough to do the job but it's probably not as tight as it needs to be," says Rugge. "Phase I caught the appropriate level of infraction, if you will. We think Phase II will encourage club designs that will make above-the-limit clubs virtually non-existent. And we need to give manufacturers time to take that into account."

According to the notice, the sampling plans have been published by the International Standards Organization (ISO).

Should a club be deemed to exceed the limit, it will set off a series of events that includes a notice to the manufacturer. At that point, the manufacturer will have a "reasonable amount of time" to review the findings and discuss them with the USGA. At that point the club will be removed from the conforming list unless the manufacturer "provides information to the USGA which warrants additional consideration by the USGA."

The USGA limit for spring effect (CT) is 239 microseconds with a tolerance of 18 microseconds, meaning anything that measures 257 microseconds and under is deemed legal. The test tolerance is used to ensure that there is an extremely low probability that any club measured by the USGA above 257 microseconds could actually have a CT less than 239 microseconds. Last year four clubs from four different manufacturers (Nike, Callaway, Cleveland and Cobra) were found to exceed the CT limit. In each case, manufacturers cited unintended manufacturing discrepancies by associated vendors.

"When we were one of four manufacturers notified by the USGA a year ago, we were critical of their lack of transparency in the process," said Bob Wood, president of Nike Golf. "For example, at the time, there was no information provided on testing protocol and sample size. From that standpoint this is a move in the right direction, but several significant issues remain to be clarified from this announcement, such as the basis for determining which drivers are sampled and what the criteria are for choosing them. Beyond that, what they have announced for the next two years is what is already in place, and a two-year period to make any necessary preparations for a more stringent requirement is reasonable."

Rugge believes manufacturers have reacted positively after last year's issues with conformance.

"I would say that you would find very, very few clubs today that would be nonconforming," he said. "You would have found more last year than you would today, but it's certainly a low number.

"The goal is to make it never an issue to be questioned, and I think manufacturers will get there. I think they've made big strides already. Last year was a good wake-up call for them. I think they reacted appropriately and they've done all the right things and are continuing to do so, and I think that's just not going to be a problem in the future."