EquipmentDecember 1, 2010

Unanswered Questions

The USGA and R&A sought feedback from equipment manufacturers at a recent meeting. How they act on it is still to be determined

The fallout from the new groove rule was enough reason to bring manufacturers and golf's governing bodies together.

The fallout from the new groove rule was enough reason to bring manufacturers and golf's governing bodies together.

When the USGA announced in March that it was going to conduct a forum on equipment rulemaking, it said the meeting was designed to "facilitate a free and open exchange of views on the equipment rulemaking process and to assist the USGA and the R&A in their role as worldwide equipment rulemakers under the Rules of Golf."

The one-day meeting, held Tuesday in Vancouver, British Columbia, had approximately 50 attendees from most of the major equipment companies. Although the media was not allowed to attend, Golf World spoke with two people who were at the meeting. According to those sources, those expecting fireworks and fisticuffs would be disappointed. The forum was businesslike, by all accounts. "I think it was a healthy exchange of views with both sides listening to and learning from each other," said Dick Rugge, senior technical director of the USGA.

The forum centered on an agenda of nine questions:

Should the USGA and R&A publicize the equipment research projects being worked on?

Once a notice and comment for a new rule has been publicized, should the USGA and R&A publish all comments received?

Should the USGA and R&A publicize the details of individual submission rulings?

Should there be provisions implemented by the USGA and R&A to facilitate the changeover to clubs with new rules, i.e., sell-by provisions?

What improvements could be made to the rule change implementation process?

What is the preferred the USGA and R&A test equipment change process?

How can sources outside the USGA and R&A recommend rules changes for consideration?

Should the impact of one rule change be documented and understood before another rule change is introduced?

Under what circumstances is it appropriate for the governing bodies to exercise the following provisions under the Rules of Golf:

 "The United States Golf Association (USGA) reserves the right, at any time, to change the Rules relating to clubs and balls (see Appendices II and III) and make or change t he interpretations to these Rules.

and

  "Any design in a club or ball which is not covered by the rules which is contrary to the purpose and intent of the rules, or which might significantly change the nature of the game, will be ruled on by the USGA."

That list indicates the dialogue clearly was about the minutiae of equipment rulemaking, a completely inside-the-Beltway type of discussion. The meeting opened with USGA and R&A officials speaking for approximately five minutes followed by the U.S. Golf Manufacturers Council offering their collective opinion on the nine questions. According to the sources, much of the talk after that centered on the process of implementing rule changes and the need to identify goals for those changes.

"The parts that everybody agreed with was that before a rule change is made regarding equipment that there needs to be a definition of the problem, evidence there is a problem and a clear goal to be attained by changing the rules," said one source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "That theme showed up several times during the day -- the fact that there needs to be a goal and that it needs to be measurable so we can come back to that goal later on and see if we have achieved it. An abstract goal isn't enough. The manufacturers were pretty much in agreement on that, but the USGA and R&A seemed a little wishy-washy in their response saying they weren't quite sure how they could measure those types of things. No one really called them out on that, but the manufacturers were steadfast that if they weren't able to properly measure the changes to see if they corrected the problem, then maybe we shouldn't do the changes.

"I give credit to John K. Solheim [senior VP of engineering] of Ping. He likened equipment rulemaking to the Scientific Method and said that was the kind of process equipment rules should go through."

Another common thread was that one of the goals for any equipment rule change should be to grow the game of golf, and that if a rule change is counter-productive to that, then it should not be implemented.

Not that the meeting was entirely void of tension. When discussing the last topic (the rules that give the USGA great leeway in determining a club's conformance), Callaway officials made known their displeasure with the USGA over the governing body deeming one of their wedges nonconforming even though it adhered to the technical parameters of the groove rule.

However, the forum wasn't designed to encourage a lot of back-and-forth. There were translators present so those wishing to speak stepped to the microphone, said what they had to say, then sat down. "It didn't promote interaction," said one attendee. "That was disappointing. There was a break mid-morning and several people huddled batting ideas around. It would have been more productive if we had more of that."

Still, the meeting appears to be a start towards an equipment rulemaking process that is more inclusive. "I think [the USGA and R&A] come out of this meeting knowing that there are a few things that if they just ignore going forward they will get raked over the coals for," said one attendee. "If they tried to come out with another rules change that didn't have measurable goals attached to it they would have a big problem and I think they know that now."

So now that this meeting is in the books, the question for the USGA and the R&A becomes this: What is the action plan? Do they take the feedback to heart and act on it, or was it merely a waste of manufacturer's time and oxygen. Lets hope it's the former because, frankly, the game needs it.