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An Inconvenient Truth

By E. Michael Johnson Illustrations by Harry Campbell
March 04, 2014

Perhaps the most talked-about club in golf the past six months is one many people haven't even seen, existing only in the prototype stage and neatly tucked away in the back room of an R&D department. It might even be a computer-aided design drawing -- an idea that has yet to come to fruition. But there's a reason this club that has tongues wagging hasn't come to market yet.

It's not legal.

Talk of nonconforming equipment has gotten louder and more constant. Not since Ely Callaway unveiled his ERC II in October 2000 has there been so much discussion about the possibility of a major equipment manufacturer essentially sticking it to the USGA and its equipment rules.

It is a debate with no middle ground. Proponents will argue the game is at a crossroads -- participation is down, interest is waning and if we can just make the game a little easier for everyday players, it will raise all boats. On the other side are those who feel the game is fine as is, and anyone condoning or promoting rogue equipment must have red horns, a pitchfork and golf balls with the number 666 on them.

So how close are we to a major company bringing a nonconforming club aimed at the masses to market?

It's a touchy topic. Some consider it the third rail of golf. So much so that Callaway, Cleveland, Nike and Titleist all declined to be interviewed for this article, the latter pointing to its paper on "The Case for Unification" on its website as its position on the matter. Others, however, had plenty to say.

"I think we're probably closer than we have been since ERC II," says Sean Toulon, executive VP for TaylorMade -- a company that debuted a nonconforming set of four clubs meant to strike a larger-than-normal ball into a 15-inch cup at the PGA Merchandise Show in January.


Bob Philion, president of Cobra-Puma Golf, also feels nonconforming equipment is on the horizon. "There is a sense of urgency in the industry, whether from our competitors or the PGA of America, to be less intimidating and more fun," says Philion. "Do I think nonconforming drivers will be out there in 10 years? I do. Three years? I do. I think the street signs for the game aren't positive enough for someone not to try it."

Although no one argues player acquisition and retention aren't issues plaguing golf, there is much debate on whether clubs outside the rules are the solution. John Spitzer, managing director of equipment standards for the USGA, points to the fact that participation was flat from 2000 to 2008 -- a period in which golf enjoyed one of its most significant bursts in equipment technology.

"Multilayer balls and adjustability were a big benefit to golfers, but we didn't see a boost in participation," says Spitzer, who also said the USGA has regular communications with the major manufacturers but none has indicated an imminent launch of illegal equipment. "To think nonconforming clubs would somehow increase participation, I don't see that. It's not 1,000cc drivers or a ball that goes 30 yards farther that's going to grow the game."

Or perhaps even help at all. Sometimes weakening the challenge can make a game or sport less appealing. Bowling, for example, saw a drop in participation when the number of 300 games rose precipitously thanks to synthetic lanes. And anyone who has ever played the Super Mario Bros. video game with the dogged determination to beat it knows you will play it endlessly to do so, but once you've conquered Bowser's Castle you play it less frequently and, pretty soon, not at all.

Golf, however, isn't really a game that can be mastered. And because of that, there does seem to be an appeal to making it easier. But to do so outside the rules is a stumbling block, despite industry leaders such as PGA of America president Ted Bishop being OK with the idea. Then again, nonconforming equipment from smaller companies already exists and is rarely used.

A question recently posted on Golf Digest's Facebook page brought the issue to the fore. We asked: "If a major manufacturer offered a nonconforming driver that promised an extra 15-20 yards, would you put it in your bag?" Within 24 hours there were 834 responses. Many said using nonconforming clubs would be cheating. Then again, roughly one-quarter of the respondents said they were all in. Bring on the wacky, the weird and the wonderful. If it works, they'll buy it.

Toulon says TaylorMade's internal research shows that number to be even higher. "Some of the stigma is gone," he says, "but there will still be a whole bunch of people who think it's the worst thing you've ever talked about."

And therein lies the rub. How big a role does peer pressure factor into the equation? Tom Wishon, founder and designer for Wishon Golf, which produced nonconforming clubs for many years until recently discontinuing the practice for lack of interest, says it is a huge consideration.

"The number who actually would buy nonconforming is far smaller than the number that would want to buy it," Wishon says. "You can bet the farm you will get a shunning of golfers who use this stuff, even down to an occasional physical confrontation."

That's because for all the comparisons to mulligans and gimme putts also being outside the rules, playing with nonconforming equipment is different. It's brazen -- comparable to the golfer who whiffs under a tree branch and insists it was a practice swing. The failure of the ERC II also taught some lessons worth remembering. Club pros were forced into the role of equipment police at their facilities in terms of checking equipment used in tournaments and for posting scores. We also learned those steadfast in their position that golf should be played by the rules can have a powerful voice, as Arnold Palmer found out.

In endorsing the ERC II Palmer said, "I do not believe the ERC II is a threat to the basic nature of the game." But golfers loudly said otherwise. And the King's crown was temporarily tarnished.

Which is why some companies aren't even willing to contemplate "going there." Ping is one of them, and its president and CEO John A. Solheim believes there is still plenty that can be done within the rules. He also is a little tired of the negativity about the game that has stirred the nonconforming discussion.

"We need to get positive about golf," he says. "Do I think there should be some changes? Sure. But the best way for that to happen is within the USGA rules, not outside them."

Interestingly, Adams Golf -- often mentioned in industry circles as the most likely company to give nonconforming a try -- says it doesn't have any projects specifically designed to produce clubs outside the rules. "We usually start projects by designing outside the rules and then bring it back within the rules," says Mike Fox, director of global product marketing for Adams. "So do we have the ability to get there? Yes. But we're not looking at it. As far as the industry, I don't think we're too far away. Someone is going to give it a try."

Toulon won't rule out that it will be his company. "I wouldn't say we would tomorrow, but if that's what it takes to get people off the couch and onto the golf course, why wouldn't you?" he says. "We need people to relax and have fun in all aspects of golf. If we keep protecting all these things, we'll end up protecting nothing at all."