June 21, 2007

Just how many drivers are over the limit?

Illustration By: Christoph Niemann

Illustration By: Christoph Niemann

The face insert on today's typical 460-cubic-centimeter driver is a potato chip-size piece of titanium alloy less than a quarter of an inch thick but meaty enough to make an ideal skipping stone, the kind that glances off the water half a dozen times, leaving a trail of silent ripples. The number of nonconforming drivers uncovered earlier this year by the U.S. Golf Association has also sent a trail of ripples through the industry. Clubs previously ruled conforming were suddenly ruled nonconforming. In each case the manufacturer blamed production errors. However, this mini-trend suggests that not only are clubmakers and the USGA at odds with the conformance test (or at least its results), but that both the industry and consumers must struggle with the vagaries of unintended consequences.

Drivers deemed over the USGA's limit for springlike effect included the first versions of the Nike Sumo2 and a single version of the Callaway Big Bertha 460 driver (the 13-degree HT model). At least two others were being investigated at press time. That means there are thousands of drivers in the marketplace that exceed a limit most golfers don't understand and one whose impact on performance for even the elite player might be measured in feet rather than yards.

In 2004, the USGA adopted the concept of Characteristic Time (CT) and the portable pendulum device used to test for springlike effect. The USGA set up its CT test with a limit of 239 microseconds and a tolerance of 18 microseconds (meaning 257 microseconds is the most allowed).

Clubmakers have turned that measurement tolerance into an innovation tolerance, designing drivers that exceed 239 with the belief that manufacturing tolerances were tight enough to keep them safely under 257. That strategy apparently hasn't always worked, and complicating matters is the fact that production errors occur after a club has been ruled conforming by the USGA.

Dick Rugge, the USGA's senior technical director, began an investigation of the problem when another manufacturer offered evidence that several rivals were producing a percentage of their clubs over the limit. Rugge also is developing a procedure for evaluating post-production conformance that he expects to announce this summer (a process he believes will reduce production errors leading to nonconformance).

"We need to make sure that our conforming list of drivers is accurate," Rugge said in May. "I wouldn't say that I'm troubled, but I'd rather we didn't need to do something like this."

Others see an atmosphere of uncertainty. It's what leading retailer Leigh Bader of Joe Leigh's Discount Golf Pro Shop in South Easton, Mass., has lamented as "the danger of the enforcement of things you can't see and restrictions on the invisible." But what's really unseen is how a rule that is the lynchpin of modern equipment regulation is unenforceable in the market (at least for now). Manufacturers don't deny the possibility of drivers exceeding the CT limit, and one executive even admitted that his company's manufacturing tolerances "intend to have a percentage [of drivers] over the limit." Certainly, that percentage is small, if it occurs at all. There is little question that the majority of manufacturers can design driver faces comfortably over the CT limit and that final products actually have to be softened to conform to USGA regulations.

Some companies believe the CT test isn't consistent enough to accommodate large-scale conformance testing. The USGA says it is. If manufacturers designed at 239 instead of into the tolerance zone, it might eliminate the possibility of unintended nonconformance.

And just how much do average golfers care? Cindy Davis, U.S. general manager for Nike Golf, says the response to the exchange program established for the nonconforming Nike Sumo2 driver wasn't as significant as the company anticipated. "There clearly was a group of golfers concerned about using a nonconforming product, and a group that didn't have a concern," she said. Asked which was larger, she said: "Those that didn't."

So what happens if a recently purchased but now nonconforming driver shows up in the hands of one of the finalists at a club's member-guest?

At Castle Pines Golf Club in Colorado, head professional Don Hurter says he will inform club members of the list of nonconforming drivers, but he won't inspect drivers after members post their scores. "We still believe this is a game of integrity, and we're going to abide by the rules," he says. "You would never think golf would come to something like this. But maybe it has."