For 100 years the U.S. Golf Association has fought to uphold the integrity of the game and preserve its challenge. By and large, the equipment-makers have understood this. Now comes a hugely successful equipment company approaching the USGA with an olive branch in one hand, acknowledging the USGA as the rules-making authority. In the other hand? An unofficial declaration of war, warning the USGA not to stigmatize golfers who play its nonconforming driver. Callaway, or any other manufacturer, is certainly entitled to produce and market any equipment it likes and make as much money as possible. But Callaway, or any other manufacturer, should not be allowed to dictate the rules.
There is the “we already cheat” position, set forth because we concede gimme putts and take mulligans. But remember: Gimmes are a concession from the other side, as in “That putt is good; pick it up.” Showing up on the first tee with a nonconforming driver is a concession to yourself-“I’ll give myself those extra yards.” Like slow play, it’s a profound act of selfishness.
What nonconforming equipment would be next? Let’s break open Pandora’s Sleeve of Balls. Make them slightly smaller and heavier and we’ll gain 20 yards overnight. To preserve the courses of today, we can’t let that happen.
How do you handicap a Saturday-morning match when your opponent shows up with a driver that hits the ball farther than the old one? What is your poor club professional to do when a member–who might be the club president and therefore controls the pro’s career-screams for a local rule allowing use of his nonconforming driver, for which he just dished out $625?
The dirty work will have to be performed by the PGA of America and the USGA, while Callaway sits idly by, armored truck at the pay window, shotgun held to the head of the organization that gave us the handicapping system, a spate of national championships, a fair share of the game’s lore, better turf to play on, and rules to play by.
To promote everyday use of the ERC II, Callaway supporters have presented some beguiling options, chief among them the idea of two sets of rules. Amazingly, Arnold Palmer, that USGA stalwart who is now on Callaway’s payroll, talks of two different games–tournament golf and recreational golf. But different de facto rules already exist. The pros play a set of rules called Back Tees. Golfers who want more yards have learned to adopt the USGA-endorsed method called Forward Tees.
The inherent attraction of golf, and why it has become one of the most popular participant sports in America, is that anyone, no matter what level of expertise, can experience the excitement of playing the same courses as the elite players, trying to pull off the same shots, and–yes–understanding the same frustrations. The challenge of golf is what makes it so addictive. You might not be able to dunk like the NBA’s Vince Carter, but on occasion you can hoop a 50-foot putt like Phil Mickelson. A level playing field for all golfers widens our appreciation for the exploits of a Tiger Woods, and deepens our own satisfaction when we occasionally catch one squarely on the sweet spot.
The USGA is party to the horrific set-to we face today. It has dragged its heels on doing technical work in advance that could have averted this unseemly showdown. The USGA could have allied itself closer to the R&A and possibly prevented the cave-in by its rules-making brother.
The USGA’s main problem is that it put too much trust in manufacturers to abide by the spirit of the game. It didn’t recognize that a fox might one day enter the henhouse, and that Callaway would be too hungry to care what it eats.