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Changing Golf's Focus Away from Distance

And that, basically, is where golf finds itself today: increasingly a two-tier game so far as distance is concerned. Technological improvements have helped recreational players hit the ball marginally farther and straighter, but that same technology in the hands of pros, along with other factors, is transforming the game at the highest levels. What, if anything, should be done about it?

There are those who believe that the distance phenomenon will resolve itself tidily even without new regulations. "I'm a great believer that there are physical limits to problems like this," says Benoit Vincent, vice president of research and development at TaylorMade. The theoretical maximum COR in a driver's face, he points out, is .91 or .92, which would add at most sixteen to eighteen yards to a perfectly hit ball compared with a driver with a COR of .83. But it's far from certain that manufacturers will ever figure out a practical way of mass-marketing drivers with faces thin and strong enough to achieve that level. The USGA has put forth a proposal to limit club lengths to forty-seven inches, but that might be as long a driver as golfers would ever want to use anyway. Some professionals in long-driving competitions use clubs that are longer than fifty inches, but many others find they get the best results with forty-eight-inch clubs, and most of them, when playing golf on regular courses, where more control is needed, use standard-length clubs. Conceivably, extra-long clubs might become practical if coupled with truly behemoth, ultimately forgiving clubheads of, say, 700 cubic centimeters or higher. (The USGA has floated another proposal to limit clubhead size to 460 cc.) To be light enough to swing, however, such clubheads would have to be made of exotic, yet-to-be-developed composite materials—and even then, according to Vincent, wind resistance and weight-placement issues would likely limit their effectiveness.

As for balls, engineers could easily design smaller, heavier versions that would fly dramatically farther, but it's unimaginable that the USGA would suddenly change the rules to allow it. Under existing regulations, which haven't budged substantially since 1976, the most manufacturers can do is figure out better ways to make even imperfectly struck drives fly closer to the USGA distance limits and to tweak trajectory patterns and other characteristics so that each player can find a ball ideally matched to his or her game.

In short, there does seem to be some natural limit to the extra yards that technology alone can generate, and that limit might be in the range of another twenty-five to thirty yards. On the other hand, scientists are extremely clever fellows, and technological progress is hard to predict. "If you had asked me two years ago what the natural limit to clubhead size was," says Dick Rugge, the USGA's head technology guru, "I would have told you about 400 cc. But now some companies have prototype versions that are approaching 600 cc. That's the problem with talking about natural limits. You never know what the limit is until you reach it, and by then it's too late. You can't put the genie back in the bottle." In the late nineteenth century, the head of the U.S. Patent Office predicted that pretty much everything that could be invented had been invented; surely it's presumptuous to assume that anyone knows definitively what the ultimate distance boundary is, even under existing regulations. This being the case, continuing efforts to monitor and limit future distance increases make sense for the good of the game. Nobody, not even the most avid, pro-technology manufacturers, wants to see Tour pros hitting 400-yard drives in two or three years.

For the near term, existing equipment limitations are probably adequate to keep distance under control, especially if the USGA follows through with some regulations on club length and clubhead size. The big jump in Tour driving distance over the past six years was largely a matter of the pros "catching up" to the USGA limitations already in place. This suggests that future increases are likely to be more modest. Through late-season 2002, this seemed to be the case, as average driving distance was holding about steady with the year before. This may be partly because tournament organizers, responding to the alarm about distance, are setting up their courses tighter and with thicker rough, and also because some players decided to scale back their distance-at-any-cost mentality. John Daly, for example, didn't even carry a driver in his bag at this year's NEC Invitational, and Tiger Woods increasingly seems to be relegating his driver to specialty-club status, using instead his three-wood or long irons off most tees. This isn't to say that pros will cease pushing the distance envelope, but future increases seem likely to come mostly from improved technique, better-fitted clubs and higher levels of athleticism, about which there's not much the ruling bodies can do, or should want to.

But where does this leave everyday players?The fact is, most of the brouhaha about distance has little relevance to typical mid-handicappers. "So what if 2,000 players in the world are hitting the ball farther than some of the courses they play were originally designed for?" says Ron Drapeau, the chief executive officer at Callaway. "There are 25 million golfers in this country, and this simply is not a problem for 99.9 percent of them, except that regulations keep us from building and marketing clubs that would make the game more fun for them."

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