Golf's long-distance relationship
Golf's long-distance relationship Controversy surrounding Callaway Golf's ERC II driver has sunk a wedge into the golf world; Sunday, March 18, 2001
By Gerry Dulac, Pittsburg Post-Gazette Sports Writer
Ely Callaway, the man who introduced titanium drivers to the world, has a great big gripe. And it's with the United States Golf Association.
His equipment manufacturing company, Callaway Golf, has made more than 6 million clubs that conform to the legal standards set forth by the USGA, which sets the rules of golf for the United States and Mexico. With projected sales of over $990 million worldwide this year, it's a safe assumption the golfing consumer likes the product being made by Callaway. But his latest innovation -- the ERC II driver, named for none other than Ely Reeves Callaway -- has the USGA and, seemingly, every other law-abiding golfing citizen in a snit. The driver is the latest advent in technology and is said to propel the ball 20-30 yards farther for nearly everyone who chooses to wield this magic wand, which has a retail price of $499. The club, though, exceeds the USGA's standard for coefficient of restitution, which is a fancy way of saying the ball is propelled off the club face much faster than other clubs currently permitted for use in this country. This trampoline, or spring-like, effect is worrisome to the USGA, which has been concerned with how far the ball has been flying since 1997. So the USGA banned the use of the ERC II driver, put it on a list of nonconforming -- illegal -- clubs, a list of shame, according to Callaway. What that means is a player cannot compete in any type of sanctioned tournament, or even post a score for his handicap, if he uses the ERC II driver. In doing so, the USGA has infuriated the man whose sole intention, he says, is to bring enjoyment to the millions of people in the world who play golf; the man who claims the USGA is comprised of a bunch of blue-blood elitists who represent about 5 percent of the golfing population, not the 95 percent he is targeting.
"We make clubs that please golfers, don't we?" Callaway said. "All of a sudden, we're being branded as being cheaters by the USGA. We don't enjoy that."
It is especially irksome to Callaway because his club has not been banned by the Royal & Ancient Golf Club, which governs the sport in the rest of the world.
"You have the outstanding irony of the oldest ruling body approving the ERC, saying it's fine; and the USGA, with the same club, saying nobody should buy it -- and if they do buy it, use it in shame," Callaway said. "They have branded this company very, very seriously."
Caught in the middle of this mess is Arnold Palmer, perhaps golf's greatest icon. He has been criticized because he dared to endorse the club for hackers and weekend players. Palmer does not use the club, nor does he condone its use for professionals or competitive amateurs. But, because he said high-handicap players might get more enjoyment if they used a club such as the ERC II, Palmer has been shunted to the background by the USGA, which has used him as a volunteer spokesman for 25 years.
The attack on Palmer, though, is only the beginning. The ERC II driver has become the most divisive issue the game has seen in a long time, a rift that threatens to split the golf community between the private sector that is governed by the USGA and the public course golfer who never had a problem with a mulligan, gimme, leaf rule or any other arrangement agreed upon by a foursome.
"In golf, there are mortal sins and venial sins," said David Fay, the USGA's executive director. "And having a nonconforming club is a mortal sin." Club pros' dilemma
There are nearly 30 clubs deemed as nonconforming by the USGA. But the one that has garnered the most attention is the ERC II, the latest in a line of oversized titanium drivers whose lineage can be traced to the Big Bertha. Despite the USGA's ban, it is being marketed in the United States and sold at most off-course golf stores. What's more, people are buying the club, despite its hefty price tag.
"It's people who want to go out there and have some fun," said John Patterson, owner of Hacker's Helper. "I was concerned with all the negative publicity, but people are coming in and purchasing them. I guess they don't care about [the USGA ban]."
"We sell them because the club is in demand, whether it's USGA approved or not," said Greg Wells, corporate golf coordinator for Dick's Sporting Goods. "And we're selling them to the public-links player and the private-club player. They're both buying them."
Understand, telling a golfer he can't use a club that will generate 30 yards more distance is like telling a teenager he can't use the car when his parents are out of town. Still, most private-course professionals will not stock the club or order it for their members because of the USGA ban. The same is true for some public course pros, as well. Dave Kuhar, who heads the 36-hole resort-style layout at Tom's Run in Blairsville, will not sell the ERC II in his pro shop.
"I may very well get one and let people hit it on the range and play with it, but my intent is not to sell it," Kuhar said. "I don't want to get into the debate -- should they post a handicap with it, should they not? How do I sell someone a $600 driver and then tell them they can't use it in our club championship? I don't want to participate in it."
"Callaway put the golf professional in a bad position," said Tom Beeler, head pro at Grand View Golf Club in Braddock. "Not so much me because I'm a public-course guy, but a guy at a private course. Say his greens committee chairman is playing with that club? What's he going to do, tell his boss he can't use it?"
Battle lines have been drawn. Callaway and Palmer are on one side of the issue, saying let the golfer who otherwise wouldn't enjoy such distances enjoy a few more yards off the tee. The USGA is on the other, saying skill, not equipment, should be the ultimate factor in success. Caught in the middle are the 26 million golfers in the United States. They must decide whether they want to reach for the forbidden club and risk accusations of cheating from their peers.
"It's certainly not a situation we'd like to be in -- the game, that is," said Fay, who would not speak about the ERC II in particular, only nonconforming clubs in general. "The last time there was this fundamental a difference was when you had two sizes of the golf ball. Or you might have to go all the way back to when the [Royal & Ancient] and the USGA allowed steel shafts."
The difference in opinion between the governing bodies is because the USGA developed a test that measures how fast the ball is traveling. After two attempts, Fay said, the Scotland-based Royal & Ancient did not. "They believed, as we did, that additional yardage through equipment is not good for the game," Fay said of the Royal & Ancient's failed testing efforts.
While players on the PGA Tour are prohibited from using the club, players on the European PGA Tour continue to use the ERC II driver. It has been the leading driver in six of the seven tournaments this year, even though Callaway Golf does not pay players who use the ERC II. At the Dubai Classic two weeks ago, 33 players used the ERC II and five others used the ERC, the original model of the controversial club. The week before, at the Singapore Masters, 38 players used the ERC II driver.
"I'm pretty sure the majority of those players are not on our staff and are not paid to use our club," Callaway said. "It says they like our product and it has some value to them and they'll continue to use it.
"We said from the beginning this club should not be used in competition in the U.S., and we were going to market it as nonconforming because it should not be used in anything sanctioned in the U.S.
"We're in the business of pleasing people -- all golfers of all skills and abilities. Our business is to please as many golfers as we can, not the 5 percent the USGA is trying to please. They all have the right to make a choice, whether they want to buy the club or not. It's not a threat to anything in the game, except in the opinion of the USGA."
Callaway was incensed when the USGA passed judgment on his club, questioning whether it's of any benefit to the average golfer. That's what Walter Driver, the USGA's chairman of the Implements and Ball Committee, did in an article in the Feb. 21 edition of the Chicago Sun-Times, saying "the average player gets very little benefit from clubs with nonconforming [spring-like effects] .... They simply can't swing fast enough."
"The USGA, in our opinion, has no business publicly evaluating a golf club, good or bad," Callaway said. "They've got a right to make the rules. Do you think they have a right to tell people what's a good golf club or not? When they say it's no advantage, they are totally wrong." Standard maker
The USGA first became concerned with the distance the ball was traveling in 1997, after the average drive on the PGA Tour had improved by 2 yards each season, beginning in 1994. In the previous 25 years, the distance of the average drive had increased only nominally, about a foot each season. The USGA developed a test in 1998 that would measure the trampoline effect in drivers. What they came up with was a test that measured a club's coefficient of restitution -- COR -- which, effectively, means how fast a ball ricochets after it is fired into a club face at 109 miles per hour. That's the same speed used in all tests with Iron Byron, the club-testing swing machine that simulates the perfect swing of golf legend Byron Nelson. "Every time two objects collide, there is a loss of energy," said John Spitzer, one of the USGA's assistant technical directors. Hypothetically, if no energy were lost in a collision between club and ball, it would have a COR of 1.0. However, Spitzer said, a 1.0 reading is an impossibility because there is always some energy loss, whether through sound or slight heating of the ball.
The USGA determined that a reading of 0.83 would the legal standard for a club's COR. Spitzer said that figure was based on the difference between the COR of the old persimmon woods, which was 0.77 to 0.78, and the highest COR the USGA could envision in a titanium club, which was 0.89.
Simply stated, the less energy lost at impact, the faster the ball comes off the club face and the greater distance it will travel.
That is what Callaway Golf, which invests $25 to $30 million annually in research and development, has managed to accomplish with the ERC II driver: transfer energy more efficiently from club to ball.
It has done so by using titanium, a material stronger and more flexible than steel, yet lighter. According to Geoff Goodman, a Callaway engineer, that allows designers to take some of the weight out of the club face and distribute it to other areas of the club head, thereby expanding the center of gravity in the face. This process is known as Variable Face Technology, or VFT, as Callaway engineers call it.
The weight of the club head -- 200 grams -- does not change. But the shape of the club face allows it to absorb some of the shock the ball endures when struck by the club. When that happens, the ball does not compress as much as it would with a traditional face, creating more energy to spring the ball forward. Hence, greater distances with the ERC II.
"What we want to do is get as much of the energy in our club in the ball," Goodman said. "The design of the ERC has created the most efficient transfer of any club we have designed."
Goodman would not reveal the COR of the ERC II, but it exceeds the 0.83 standard set forth by the USGA. Nonetheless, Callaway and several other manufacturing companies, including Lynx, decided to market their club in the United States, knowing it was nonconforming. That upset the USGA. "The manufacturers purposely manufactured these clubs, knowing they did not conform to our standards, knowing that they exceeded the limits," Fay said. The King's role
Through it all, the USGA and Callaway can almost agree on one thing: Each is disappointed about Palmer's role in the matter, over criticism he has received or why he endorsed the club for recreational use. "We were puzzled and disappointed, and we remain puzzled and disappointed," Fay said. "We've had numerous discussions with Arnold. Beyond that, I'm not going to comment."
A lot of the criticism directed at Palmer is based on poor timing, that the King endorsed the club not long after Ely Callaway purchased his equipment company for $25 million. But Palmer does not play with the club, nor does he advocate its use by players of advanced skill.
Palmer has a 12-year endorsement contract with Callaway Golf to play its ball and irons. His fee is $400,000 annually, which, Callaway said, is about 1.5 percent of Palmer's annual endorsement income. Hardly an amount to jeopardize a reputation.
"That's a whole lot less than we pay other pros," Callaway said. The tide against Palmer, though, appears to be turning. And it seems to be redirected at the USGA. Dean Knuth, who used to be the USGA's senior director of handicapping until 1997, said in an article in Golf World magazine that a nonconforming driver won't have as much effect on a posted score as weather conditions. What's more, he said, the handicap system already allows for other so-called infractions, such as high-handicap players "picking up" after posting a 7 or 8 on their card. And, Knuth said, golfers are using the clubs, illegal or not. That is forcing the USGA to come up with some common ground with the Royal & Ancient.
"We all realize having two sets of rules is really bad," Spitzer said. "It's not a good situation for the game of golf."