Golf ball rollback: Get ready for the fight of the century

Golf Balls

The world of golf as we know it might be about to change.

If what Jack Nicklaus says is right, and if his chat with USGA executive director Mike Davis is to be believed, then golf’s ruling bodies are set for a court date with golf’s leading ball manufacturers.

We have been here before, of course. Back in the late 1980s, Ping sued the USGA for $100m following a grooves dispute. According to a book that recently landed at bunkered HQ, the Arizona brand’s legal counsel in that dispute, Dave Van Engelhoven, said Ping founder Karsten Solheim’s dislike of golf’s ruling bodies was extremely strong.

“In my opinion, Karsten never fully accepted the idea that a group of people called the USGA and the R&A could define a sunny day if they chose to,” Engelhoven is quoted as saying. “And if that is what they chose to do, you had no recourse.”

Which leads us to this very point in time. The Mike Davis that Nicklaus speaks of is the same Mike Davis who said in November last year that ball technology had had a “horrible” impact on the game.

Mike Davis

Now, Davis, above, is quoted - third party - as saying that both the USGA and the R&A are likely to be on a collision course with the brands about golf ball rollback.

This is a fight that will be fought on many fronts, from the bank manager’s office - the cost of rolling back technology to meet new manufacturing guidelines and tolerances will inevitably lead to brands swallowing huge costs – to, potentially, the courtroom.

It could also reignite the bifurcation discussion, which might just be the easier pill to swallow for all parties.

Bifurcation, where the pros play by one set of equipment rules and amateurs by another, is said by some to be the best way to tackle this problem.

But it’s probably not going to be that simple.

In an interview with The Phoenix Gazette in 1989, Solheim, above, spoke openly about how golf ball manufacturers were allowed to do what they want.

“The irony is there is a greater difference between the dimples on balls than there is between the clubs,” he said. “That’s where the big difference is. But they [the ball manufacturers] don’t have to change anything.”

That was 1989. This is 2018 and it seems the ball brands are readying for a fight. Late last year, Titleist, the No.1 ball brand in golf, released some facts about ball production, the very first one being the following:

The Fact: The golf ball is not allowed to go uncontrollable distances. In fact, it is the most stringently regulated piece of equipment in the game’s history.

The Proof: Golf balls first regulated in 1921 (weight & size) • USGA makes changes in weight/size in 1931 & 1932 •  Velocity specifications in 1942 •  Overall Distance Standard adopted in 1976 •  Symmetry standard introduced in 1980 •  ODS test tolerance reduced in 1984 •  Phase II/ODS and symmetry test implemented in 2003.

This presentation also turned the spotlight on the massive changes in driver technology. A smart tactic but also a fair point. Driver technology is vastly different. Heads are bigger, more forgiving, and shafts are heavier. MOI (moment of inertia) has made a huge contribution to longer, straighter drives. And Titleist knows it.

Jack Nicklaus

It’s also worth noting there’s a hint of irony about Jack Nicklaus’ apparent determination to have the loudest voice in this debate. Nicklaus, above, manufactures golf balls that “maximise distance” for golfers. His words, not mine. If you want to be part of the solution, surely you start by making sure you’re not part of the problem? The proceeds, to be fair, go to charity. The Golden Bear does not pocket a dime.

Something tells me that might be the first and only charitable offering this ball debate witnesses in the coming months and years.

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