Sports Nut

Bust Their Balls

When golf manufacturers came out with new golf-ball-pounding, thin-faced titanium drivers, the United States Golf Association promptly banned them by instituting new testing procedures. The rationale: The clubs offered too much distance. So what explains the USGA’s shoulder-shrugging response to the creation of a new generation of solid-core golf balls? The new balls perform like no other in the history of the sport, and they’ve been revolutionizing the professional game for the past year. If the USGA applied the standards to golf balls that it applies to drivers, the new solid-core balls would be illegal, the golf equivalent of corked bats and emery boards.

The ball buzz began in earnest when Tiger Woods arrived at last year’s U.S. Open with the Nike Tour Accuracy golf ball and then proceeded to win by a major-championship record of 15 strokes. He played the same balls on his major-tournament record 19-under romp at the British Open. Now that other players have adopted the new solid-core balls (offered by several companies), every week seems to hold a new scoring record. Last week at the Honda, Jesper Parnevik broke the 54-hole mark, posting an 18-under score of 198. In the past two months, Brad Faxon tied the 72-hole tournament record in the Sony Open, Mark Calcavecchia broke the 72-hole tour record at the Phoenix Open (he also tied records for the lowest first 36 holes and lowest first 54 holes, among others), and Davis Love III scored a 28 on the front nine at the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. Then Joe Durant shot a 36-under at the 90-hole Bob Hope, breaking the tour record for most under par for the first 72 holes, as well as the 90-hole record. Before that stretch, the tour’s 72-hole record had stood since 1955.

Before the development of the new solid-core balls, golf balls presented trade-offs. Liquid-centered wound balls, the favorites of tour players for years, offered a softer feel but less distance than their solid-core counterparts. Most pros, who already hit the ball a mile, were willing to sacrifice a little distance in favor of more touch and control. Golfers yearning for a few extra yards went with the harder solid-core balls. But the beauty of the new generation of solid-core balls is that they combine the distance of the old solid balls with the feel of wounds. Tour pros have been switching over in droves. Meanwhile, illegal drivers continue to create controversy and debate but aren’t in anyone’s bag because the USGA didn’t want technology to unduly affect the game by producing too much distance.

But if you look at the increases in distance that have coincided with the development of the new balls, you’ve got to think that technology is making a huge difference. The pros talk about the new balls as if they’ve been handed a gift from Mount Olympus. Phil Mickelson, who averaged 285 yards off the tee in 1999, hit one of these balls 445 yards. Two of the top five money winners this year, Brad Faxon and Joe Durant, have increased their driving distance by six and 13 yards respectively since the 2000 season. Jeff Sluman, a great player but never known for distance, went from a 265-yard average to a 280-yard average in just one year. Fact is, if you give a guy like Brad Faxon, who has always been one of the best putters in the game but never a long hitter, a little more distance, he’s going to be a much more effective scorer.

Dick Rugge, the USGA’s senior technical director, was interviewed in the March/April issue of the USGA publication Golf Journal on the issue of thin-faced drivers. He said, “Golf is meant to be a broad and deep challenge of a golfer, and we want to make sure equipment doesn’t alter the balance it should have with skill in such a way that the challenges become less in the game. We have to do something before it happens rather than after it happens. Our mission is to protect the game.”

Last week, the USGA announced it will institute new ball-testing by January 2002. But with the changes introduced by letting the balls slide in the first place, the new testing may be too late.