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The Loop

Is non-conforming equipment OK now?

April 23, 2012

Bill Pennington's__ blog on the potential changing attitude of golfers and those in the golf industry toward non-conforming golf equipment __struck me as just a little unsettling. In it he refers to the growing sales of the Polara golf ball, a ball designed to correct hooks and slices. While still a trifle at $3 million, it is noteworthy that Pennington says Polara is being test-marketed by Dick's Sporting Goods and is being sold in 60 of 86 Edwin Watts stores. (One caution: The golf ball business generates more than $500 million in annual sales so it's not as if everybody and his neighbor are storming the gates to play non-conforming golf balls.)

But what the blog made me think of was how we were just here having this same discussion a year ago, and then before that, a decade ago. Specifically, it reminded me of the situation the game, its stakeholders and its participants found themselves in surrounding the sale of non-conforming drivers at the turn of the century.

If you remember, this was when Callaway, spearheaded by its namesake and founder Ely Callaway went forward with plans to introduce a driver that did not conform to the newly installed spring-like effect that golf's governing bodies had first put in place in 1998. The issue percolated at the game's fringe for a few years and reached a head in late 2000 and early 2001 when companies were deciding whether to ramp up production and sales of non-conforming drivers.

I was fortunate at the time to be given the assignment to write a story on the eve of the PGA Merchandise Show in January 2001 for Golf World to set the stage or perhaps draw the battle lines. It was clearly a case of manufacturers, or at least some manufacturers, going all stand-your-ground on the U.S. Golf Association. Callaway led the salvos when he told me, "If they make rules that are against the growth of the game and the enjoyment of the game, then we do not feel that we are wrong, immoral, cheating, bad people to give the public a choice." Echoing Callaway's sentiment at the time was legendary retailer Edwin Watts, who was then co-owner of Edwin Watts Golf Shops. "What's wrong with a golfer having a club that might help him hit the ball 10 yards farther? He's not breaking any laws, he's not selling drugs, he's not killing people."

But then came the other side, firing with either machine guns or smart bombs. Robert Erb, then a vice president at TaylorMade-adidas Golf offered this soundbite, that sounded more like comedian Lewis Black than U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black. "If the threshold of our obligation is simply somebody wants it," Erb said, "why aren't you putting out marijuana and hookers, too. God help us if this game of character, this game of integrity has come down to this. You either follow the rules or you don't."

At the time, in a magazine poll, readers were asked, independent of price would they buy a driver that was non-conforming? Then, 67 percent said no. As we recall, of course, non-conforming drivers died quickly, largely because manufacturers didn't feel they could change that 67 percent number, and, in part because diverting your R&D resources toward developing a product that had an unproven or still had some sort of scarlet letter attached to it just didn't make good business sense.

Are we in a different time and place now? Pennington wonders as much as I do. TV experts have debated whether there should be two sets of rules and whether the belly and long putters should be banned on tour but OK at the local clubs and muni tracks. The idea is easy to proclaim, the execution is hard and the fallout may be worse.

Back in 2001, David Fay, the USGA's long-time executive director, offered wisdom that I think still applies.

"We write one set of rules that we think satisfies the game, and we don't advocate, we're not in a position to, nor do we have any interest in, offering up a smorgasbord of rules where you can pick some and choose to neglect others."

Nevertheless, we all realize it happens to some extent, mainly by negligence not intent. Buying balls or clubs that wouldn't be OK for the city championship or the U.S. Open, well, that still seems different to me, a more purposeful breech, if you will. A small act, perhaps, but does it erode away eventually at what the game should be? Or has it already changed?

"It gets to the issue of power and authority," Fay told me 11 years ago. "The power is in enforcing the rules in our own 13 championships. The authority comes  through the positions that we've taken over the years and whether those positions are regarded as persuasive by those who play the game."

--Mike Stachura**Follow me on Twitter @MikeStachura