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Driver testing on tour: What happens, what doesn't and what probably should

July 25, 2019

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What a mess.

After connecting with numerous individuals with knowledge of the matter—all speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the issue—it is clear that multiple drivers failed a pre-tournament test for springlike effect at last week’s Open Championship. It’s been confirmed that at least three major manufacturers—Callaway, Ping and TaylorMade—had at least one driver fail the test. Golf Digest also has learned that some 15 drivers failed a similar pre-tournament test at the Diamond Cup event on the Japan Golf Tour in May. All of this surfaces two simultaneously simple yet complex questions: How big of a problem is this, and what to do about it?

The scope of the issue regarding conforming/nonconforming drivers is debatable, but it is not a reach to suggest that it is enough to warrant concern. Fifteen drivers at a Japan Golf Tour event is a lot. Three or more drivers out of 30 tested at Royal Portrush is a lot, too. But before we go further, it’s important to point out that none of these drivers were used in the tournaments where they were found to be over the allowable limit for springlike effect. No one has knowingly, or willingly, used non-conforming equipment.

Indeed, what this is not is an indictment on tour pros and their motives. The presumption that players are cheating is ridiculous. The benefit of a driver slightly over the limits of conformance, most experts we spoke to for this story agree, is minimal at best. A good rule of thumb is 10 microseconds (which would be highly unlikely any driver would be over the limit by) might equal one yard. That would mean one microsecond (the absolute difference between passing and failing the CT test) might equal the diameter of two golf balls.

There is no harsher label in golf, however, than “cheater,” and for some players to possibly receive that label, even jokingly from fellow pros as Xander Schauffele implied happened at Portrush, is beyond unfair. In fact, a USGA notice to manufacturers in October 2017 changed the rules so that a player would not be retroactively penalized for using a club that originally was conforming but was discovered to be nonconforming after the fact.

So what exactly is happening?

A little background is needed. First, the test in question is one the USGA developed to measure for springlike effect by using a measurement of characteristic time (CT). The allowable limit is 239 microseconds—this is the amount of time the clubface remains in contact with a small steel ball swung from a pendulum apparatus at the moment of impact. A tolerance of 18 microseconds is also added, so although the limit is 239, any driver measuring 257 microseconds or less passes the test. Think of a 65 mile-per-hour speed limit, but you know you won’t get pulled over unless you’re doing more than 75, and you get the idea. The test is not limited to the center of the face, but several points on the face where impact might occur.

So why a tolerance zone at all? There is inherent variability in the machines equipment manufacturers use to check their players' drivers and the machine the USGA and R&A uses to test drivers at tour events. When the USGA established the CT test, the tolerance zone was set to accommodate differences in machines, drivers and even testers' inconsistencies—with the belief the tolerance zone was well above what the actual variability was.

As manufacturing has gotten better and manufacturing tolerances tighter, clubs are being designed to go deeper into the tolerance zone—raising the possibility of a club (or clubs) potentially going over the limit. To be fair, manufacturers persistently test all their drivers they send to tour pros, including “tour spicy” drivers that are under the limit, but perhaps only by a few microseconds. Perfectly legal, but perhaps a recipe for danger.

So how are these drivers then over the limit when tested at tournaments?

Conforming drivers can become nonconforming over time either through play or by alterations made to the club without players realizing what they did changed the CT. Although most drivers will crack before reaching that point, some older drivers played over time certainly run that risk. The addition of weight to a clubhead whether internally or externally—such as lead tape—also can cause issues. Adding weight in certain spots can raise a driver’s CT without a player knowing it. That normally would not be a problem, but if you start with a driver at 255 and add a few microseconds, the red flag goes up. Let's remember as well that there is inherent variability in the test. Even though it might be slight, every CT machine in use is not going to produce exactly the same specific number as the one machine being used by the ruling body in its test. Microseconds are millionths of a second. For perspective, a millionth of a second is essentially 100,000 times faster than the blink of an eye. So if you're a manufacturer or a player measuring a driver's CT number one day and it registers at the higher end of the tolerance zone on your CT machine, there is a chance that the same driver on the next day could record a higher and nonconforming number on an R&A or USGA CT machine.

What makes the situation at the Open Championship all the more messy is the issue of selectivity. Schauffele was not off base when he got a little hot about the fact 30 players—and not the entire field—were tested.

“To make it fair, they should test everybody,” Schauffele said.

A tour rep told Golf Digest that enforcement at the Open also was an issue. “They take down the serial number of the driver, but there is no one checking serial numbers on the first tee,” the rep said. “Someone could have a driver pass and show up with a different club. Someone could have a driver fail and show up with the same club, and no one would know. I’m not saying anyone would do that—they wouldn’t. But the lack of enforcement is a bit embarrassing.”

Driver testing is not new, but the diligence toward testing has changed over the years. In 2004-'05, driver testing occurred on the PGA Tour, but it was mostly voluntary or when a player called another driver into question. Over time, the number of events where testing took place dropped to non-existent. The program the R&A had in place at Portrush—random testing of individual players’ clubs—does not occur on the PGA Tour.

Recently, the number of tour events where some type of testing is done has increased, although all testing is conducted by the USGA (not the PGA Tour), and mostly involves clubheads that are in the manufacturers’ equipment tour vans and not from players' bags.

The USGA’s John Spitzer, managing director of equipment standards, said this practice has been going on for the past six years and also includes random testing of manufacturers' golf balls. Those tests are unannounced, and the results are not communicated directly to the PGA Tour. The communications are between the USGA and manufacturers.

So what now?

The dilemma with hot drivers appearing on tour is more an issue of perception than an actual problem. That said, it is a perception problem that could quickly get out of control. Rumors run hard on tour, and without additional testing—preferably of all players, not just a select group—the talk might continue longer than the tour would prefer. It’s a cost and an inconvenience to test everyone, but the foundation of golf is honesty and integrity. The game’s integrity can’t and shouldn’t be compromised to save a few bucks or a few minutes of time.

The rules, the rules-makers, and the professional tours left a door open. The rules-makers, specifically in this instance, the R&A, seem somewhat intent on closing it. The tour has the ability to lock it, and then the manufacturers can throw away the key. As for the players, we prefer to just watch them play.