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U.S. Open 2023: The USGA says it listens to feedback on equipment proposals. Does it really?

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Andrew Redington

At his Wednesday press conference at the U.S. Open, USGA CEO Mike Whan was asked where things stood regarding changes from the USGA and R&A with testing standards for golf balls. In March, the governing bodies proposed the creation of a Model Local Rule that would render virtually all current tour-caliber balls illegal in an effort to chop 10 to 15 yards off tee shots at the elite level (while leaving everyday golfers alone). They also said they would be accepting any and all feedback regarding the proposal through August, at which time they would then explore what to do next.

In the ensuing three months, many have weighed in, including tour pros and equipment companies who have mostly expressed concerns with the proposal. Whan is aware of the apprehension and insists the governing bodies are listening.

“If you're going to have something called notice and comment, you'd better be open to comment,” Whan said. “This process wasn't built for me because it's slow and it's methodical and you really have to take in a lot of pieces, But I'm almost glad this process is what it is because it really requires you to think, be public about what you're thinking, and then really take in the comments in terms of the next step.”

But does the USGA really take in those comments or do officials say that in the end just do what they want? If history tells us anything, there is room for flexibility.

“Mike Whan is on the money,” said Dick Rugge, senior technical director of the USGA for 13 years in the early 2000s. “As I recall, during my time at the USGA, changes were made every time from responses we received during the notice and comment periods for proposed equipment rule changes.”

Rugge—and Whan—are correct in that regard. To wit:

In 2003, the USGA altered its proposals for clubhead size and club length after notice and comment. Originally, officials proposed clubhead volume at 385 cubic centimeters but it was amended to 460 cc with a tolerance of 10 cc. At the same time club length was adjusted from 47 inches to 48 inches (it was recently reversed to 46 inches). An article from Golf World magazine at the time quoted Rugge as saying both changes were the direct result of feedback they received.

In 2006, the USGA revised its proposal on limiting moment of inertia from 4,800 grams-centimeters squared (including tolerance) to 5,900 cg-cm (including the tolerance), increasing the stability on off-center hits.

That’s not to say there is always an adjustment made. In 2002 it was felt by many the USGA would adopt the R&A’s coefficient of restitution (COR) limit of .860 that tests the springiness of club faces. Instead, USGA officials held firm at .830, infuriating some companies. In fact, optimism about the passing of the rule ran so high that manufacturers such as TaylorMade and Adams brought high-COR drivers into the market while Callaway, which had been selling its nonconforming ERC II driver in the U.S. since late 2000, upped its marketing efforts on the club.

What happened? According to David Fay, executive director of the USGA at the time, it was nothing more than letting the process run its course.

"Some people look at this as a reversal in our position," Fay said. "But I look at it as the system working. The notice-and-comment period is designed to allow anyone who cares to the opportunity to provide feedback. And after we and the R&A looked at that feedback it was clear there were some concerns that we felt we needed to address."

So, is there a chance, given the comments from pros and equipment manufacturers, that the USGA and R&A might not do anything at all? Well, let’s not get carried away. History also has shown that while adjustments are often made to a proposed rule, scrapping them just doesn’t happen, something Whan seemed pretty adamant about.

“I would say that over my first two years doing this I feel like we've gotten real quality comments, and I feel like we'll dial into the right long-term solution,” Whan said. “But I think if your question is do you think the right long-term solution is nothing? Highly unlikely.”

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