Wally Uihlein joined Acushnet in 1976 as a regional sales representative in the Titleist Golf Division and quickly ascended the company ranks until he was named chairman and CEO in 2000. The PGA of America recently named Uihlein as the recipient of the 2005 PGA Distinguished Service Award. Here, we catch up with him about the state of golf.
You've been in the golf industry for more than thirty years. What's the most significant change you've seen in that time?
The most significant change has been the growth of the game in the post-Eisenhower era, thanks primarily to three factors: 1) a growing middle class that could afford what was previously inaccessible; 2) the growth in the number of facilities, thus providing places for people to play; and 3) teachers, specifically the growth and contribution of the PGA of America. Participation in the game has also received a boost from the fact that golf has become one of the top five spectator and entertainment sports in the market today. Early baby boomers grew up with exposure to such shows as All-Star Golf, Shell's Wonderful World of Golf and CBS Golf Classic. These occasional television events have been supplanted by weekly professional golf telecasts and a 24/7 golf network. Finally, I think technology has also played a very large role in the game's present-day popularity and appeal. Technology in the form of game-improvement clubs, metal woods and durable golf balls has helped democratize the game, and it's also helped keep down the cost of equipment.
Yet there are those who argue that technology has altered the way the game was intended to be played.
The balance (and debate) between technology and tradition is as old as the game itself. One could advance the argument that yesterday's technologies are today's traditions. Probably the best example of this timeless, deep-rooted debate is the falling out between Allan Robertson and Old Tom Morris in 1849. Old Tom accepted the march of progress and started playing the newly introduced gutta-percha, a ball that would render Robertson's 100-year-old family business making featherie golf balls obsolete. During every era there are those who resist evolution and change (usually determined by the date on their birth certificate) and those who embrace technology as part of the game's heritage. Today, 50 million golfers worldwide play 900 million rounds on some 25,000 golf courses. Clearly, the game is now incredibly popular, and the resulting industry is big business.
Do you agree that the professional game has become much more of a "power game" than it was twenty years ago?
There's no doubt that the professional game has experienced a paradigm shift toward that kind of play over the past two decades. Today's power-game players generate clubhead speeds upward of 115–120 m.p.h., launch it high, spin it less and take it deep. In the last decade, the average PGA Tour clubhead speed is up 6 percent before the ball is even hit, according to our launch-monitor data. It is no coincidence that most of these bombers are the biggest, strongest and best-conditioned players. Golf is much like life. Competition breeds superior performance.
Let's not forget that the PGA Tour, an entertainment endeavor, is the golf industry's most successful commercial story. Players today compete for more money, more money goes to charity and players pay more taxes. (Sounds like a win-win-win situation to me.) PGA Tour ratings remain very strong, and the talent pool emerging from the developmental tours and amateur ranks is deeper than ever. If professional golf is experiencing some irreparable harm as a result of technology, it has yet to be identified with any statistical evidence.
Some people contend that the power game is mostly due to the golf ball. How do you respond to past champions such as Jack Nicklaus who claim that the modern ball is simply going too far?
The paradigm shift to the power game has resulted from six contributing variables: 1) the introduction of lower-spinning high-performance golf balls; 2) the introduction of oversize, thin-face titanium drivers; 3) improved golf course conditioning and agronomy; 4) player physiology—they're bigger and stronger; 5) improved techniques and instruction; and 6) launch monitors and the customization of equipment. Five of these six variables have often been overlooked by the media and antitechnology pundits in the search for a cause to the industry's so-called "problem." To identify the golf ball as the sole contributor and "solution" is an oversimplification.
If there is a problem, it's mostly limited to professional golf. So how about developing a "shorter" ball just for the pros, as Greg Norman suggested in our July/August issue?
We have never supported the position of bifurcation. Playing by one set of rules, playing the same game, playing the same course and playing the same equipment is what makes golf different. It is the essence of the game. Two sets of rules involving the golf ball, or the golf ball and golf clubs, would result in 1) the longer players on Tour only getting longer in comparison to those who are less long, and 2) the opening of a Pandora's box with regard to the regulation of equipment at the local, state, sectional and national levels. Golf is not so cleanly a professional game and an amateur game. That is the great thing about golf. That is why our national championship is an Open Championship administered by the USGA. Bifurcation is only seriously advanced by those who think that the game is on some edge of ruination and who thus, as a result of their narrow and biased thinking, feel some form of radical surgery is required.