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Letter From Saugerties, Bifurcation Edition

The latest letter from Frank Hannigan, former USGA Executive Director, responding to the recent talk of bifurcating the rules.

Dear Geoff,

From During a recent exposure to the press tour commissioner Tim Finchem mused about the occasional benefits of bifurcation-, that awful word-, citing instances when the Tour went off on its own, presumably to its benefit.  Specifically, he cited grooves and adoption of what is generally called the "one ball rule."
U-grooves were introduced into the Rules of Golf by the USGA in 1984. Finchem's predecessor Deane Beman was obsessed with grooves. He felt the U-grooves changed the essence of the game. The USGA did not agree.     
The Tour announced it would ban U grooves. Ping, the first manufacturer to adopt U grooves, sought and received an injunction restraining the Tour. Ping first sued the Tour and a little later the USGA which had ruled that the Ping version of U-grooves alone did not conform to the Rules of Golf.
Ping charged the Tour with 9 violations of the law. The case was heard by a federal judge in Phoenix, Ping's home. The judge ruled from the bench that the Tour had acted so outrageously that it was guilty per se of  one of the 9 charges. As a consequence, if the case came to trial the jury's only role on that count would be to determine a dollar amount representing damage done to Ping.
Since it was an anti trust case that amount would be automatically trebled.
The jury would consist of 6  local citizens trying to stay awake during a lengthy trial on an arcane matter.   They would have surely have been aware of one factor:  Ping, with about 1500 employees, was good for the economy of Phoenix.Might they have been influenced on the remaining 8 counts by the judge already having labeled the Tour as bad guys?  I think so.
Karsten Solheim, the owner of Ping, opted to settle.  The key point in the settlement was that the Tour would not ban U grooves.  Quite simply, the Tour lost. I can think of no other instance  in which a professional sports entity is legally prohibited from determining what its equipment will be.  It's as if major league baseball could not ban metal bats.

The other settlement terms were not announced I have always assumed the Tour had to compensate Solheim for his considerable legal fees. As for Beman, the late Leonard Decof,  Solheim's lawyer, once boasted to a group of anti trust lawyers at a Chicago meeting "He'll be gone soon."      

Ping's suit against the USGA was also settled. No money changed hands, I know that because I was named with others in the USGA hierarchy as an individual defendant and therefore had to sign the settlement. The USGA relented on an important point. All Ping clubs made up to a specified date  would be grandfathered eternally under the Rules of Golf. Solheim, however, changed his grooves on  the same day  so as to conform with USGA rules,  which he had vowed never to do,

The Tour, to this day, flinches when it hears a threat of anti trust behavior.  

As for the one ball rule,  it was enacted with the concurrence of the USGA. It was directed at the use of balls performing differently in different conditions. The 2 piece balls of the 1970s had a distance  advantage depending on the angle of launch.  This advantage peaked at about 19 degrees, 5 ironish. (Incidentally, the two piece ball also putted longer.  A stroke producing a roll of l0 feet with the 2 piece ball would roll 9 feet with the softer balata ball).  
It was also a time when Acushnet was producing a different version of its Titleist balls.  Seve Ballesteros used the one with larger dimples driving downwind as he won his first British Open at Lytham. He reverted to a  traditional ball on the other holes..  
I once had a conversation with Tom Watson when he expressed outrage about ball changing. He had ripped a 3 iron, using a balata ball, to the green of a hard par 3 hole.  Watson said he then watched in dismay as  fellow competitor Rik Massengale unzipped  his ball pouch,  pulled  out a Molitor, and used  a 5 iron successfully.

The USGA felt that the choice of different brands of balls during a round should play no part in the outcome. But it wanted to know what the players felt. So we sent a letter to every member of both the PGA Tour and the LPGA (having obtained the mail addresses from both organizations). The players were asked if they would favor or oppose a local rule which would limit them to use of but one brand of ball during a round,   

Remember, this happened during the days of snail mail. Tour players were not famous for being correspondents.  But they reacted in large numbers.  Overwhelmingly, including those who had taken to switching brands during rounds, the players favored adoption of the one ball rule.
During this episode the USGA said not one word to ball manufacturers. The USGA didn't give a damn what manufacturers felt. They are involved in golf for the purpose of making money. The USGA exists in an attempt to preserve a game.
Those who favor bifurcation never explain what it is they want to happen. They are in the business of golf, and the golf business is bad.  So they blame the USGA, defining it as a totalitarian entity that does whatever it feels like doing without any concern for or interest in what the rest of golf thinks.   The head of the Taylor Made outfit recently predicted the absolute demise of the USGA, a death which would presumably cause golf to glow again.  I took that to mean that Addidas, the sports equipment colossus that owns Taylor Made, is not thrilled with its subsidiary's performance.
In point of fact,  the rules-making process is remarkably democratic.   There are 5 members of the committee proper  drawn from the USGA executive committee. They have no axes to grind.  They are influenced and to some extent educated by the USGA staff. Additionally, there are 4 advisory members representing the PGA Tour, the LPGA, the PGA of America and the country's regional golf associations.  They matter.  I can't conceive of the 5 regular members shoving a rules change down the throats of the advisory people.
The Tour representative, named by Finchem, especially matters. For better or worse, the Tour has come to have something close to veto power,particularly when it comes to equipment. If there is a discussion about a rules change and should the Tour's man says "We will not play that rule," the discussion is over.

Frank Hannigan
Saugergties, New York

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Reader Comments (52)

Great to hear again from the always perceptive Father Hannigan....wonder what he makes of the USGA's new slow play initiative? Its financial performance? Keep 'em coming...
02.5.2013 | Unregistered CommenterMedia maven
And we've NOTHING we already didn't know, thanks Frank.
02.5.2013 | Unregistered CommenterViz
Here's what bifurcation means, Frank. It means acknowledging that we don't play the same game as elite players. Forget the one-ball rule. We don't play the same tees, we don't play the same rough, we don't play the same green speeds, and we may even take a mulligan and ride a cart once in a while. Most of us also feel obliged to play at a reasonable pace, something elite players no longer seem to care about. Still, we turn in our scores and we call it golf. Bifurcation means golf proceeds as it always has, from the time we played Surlyn and they played balata. It means equipment rules are slightly more relaxed at the recreational level because, frankly, we're not good enough to take advantage of elite equipment anyway. It means we acknowledge that getting people started in the game gives them a chance to decide later how strictly they will adhere to the rules, something they'll never do if they never get started. I don't think this is about marketing, as you suggest, because two of the greatest marketers in the game are at odds over the idea. I think it's about enjoying the game and getting others to enjoy it, too.
02.5.2013 | Unregistered CommenterBif
Geoff, I am unclear. Was this letter sent to you/this blog? or?

Frank, great to hear from you. I wish you would participate more often, but I can only assume you are out playing golf, enjoying life out of the fishbowl.

Interesting points you make, especially concerning the rulesmaker's makeup, Revlon wearers discounted. Thank you again for your service; as you are aware, if you read here very often, I am a disser of the ROG with far too much frequency, and other matters concerning the long putter , for one, and the repeated claim, that the desire to deep 6 the long putter was stopped by a (real) concern that to embarass a POTUS who was using said gadget would be a mistake. It is of no small importance that I AGREE THAT ALLOWING IT AT THAT TIME, GIVEN THE PRESIDENT'S USE WAS THE RIGHT THING TO DO, something that has gone unsaid in so direct a statement in the past. But I have been relentless in trying to get an acknowledgement that it was simply his use that kept the USGA from banning the broom. I DID have one member state that , yes he was there and the POTUS thing was the reason it was not banned in 1989-91, don't recall the exact date this morning- MORE COFFEE!- but as it were, he was anonymous and so it goes.

Anyway Frank, good to hear from you, and keep on posting, you could have a little fun with it---get all Gangnam Style on us.

02.5.2013 | Unregistered Commenterdigsouth
Tons of stuff in that letter I didn't know, loved it.

So in effect the "comment period" translated really means "ok Tim Finchem, tell us how it's going to be"....?
02.5.2013 | Unregistered CommenterDTF
Now we know what the $242 million "war chest" is for.
02.5.2013 | Unregistered CommenterBobby D

"It means acknowledging that we don't play the same game as elite players. Forget the one-ball rule. We don't play the same tees, we don't play the same rough, we don't play the same green speeds.."

Couldn't you say that about two players on two different courses at any given time?

I think everyone is aware that many amateurs play by "casual" rules on certain things, but not sure the rules should be changed to accomodate. I'm not buying that "new golfers" will make their decision to take up the game based on rules. I've never heard of a single person who cited rules as a reason for not trying out the game. They have enough to worry about just trying to make contact with the ball on a regular basis. Your average beginner probably knows less than 5% of the rules when they they play more they slowly learn the rules (at least the general ones), and make a conscious decision on how strict they follow them. Essentially bifurication has existed for years, just not officially. Do we really need to make it official?
02.5.2013 | Unregistered CommenterSteve
Put in this context, couldn't bifurcation just be part of that Appendix A to the rules where things like range finders and one ball rule and a host of other tournament/competition grade rules hang out? Seems reasonable to me. Do most "good" players by and large play their preferred ball most of the time even though they don't have to? Yes. Would good players also use the "pro" rules if bifurcation occurred? Yes. I can't believe this is something to litigate over.
02.5.2013 | Unregistered CommenterThe O
Regarding members of the rules making committee and the advisory committee: have any of these persons worked for equipment manufacturers or formally endorsed any equipment brands and been paid for the endorsement?
Bif why do you want the Rules of Golf to accomodate you? If you don't like the USGA and its Rules, then just don't follow them. Design an manufacture a ball that goes very far (you might want to call it a "Bandit" for fun) and play with it. I won't mind a bit. And if you'd like a driver that can hit a ball very, very far, you could design and build one, with much a much higher Characteristic Time (we used to think about "Coefficient of Restitution") and a greater Moment of Inertia than what current rules allow.

You aren't prohibited from playing any sort of game you want. Bif, what you and other bifurcationists want is some sort of sanctioning for what you do. You want a kind of a Rules blessing. You must want that, because there is nothing right now that forces you to play golf under any strict interpretation of the Rules of Golf.

I just don't understand why people like you, or the manufacturers, are so upset with the USGA. If you don't like the Rules of Golf, don't follow them. The truth of the matter is that manufacturers like Adidas/TaylorMade golf are glomming off the USGA. They let the USGA do all of the hard testing and Rules drafting. The hard, detailed work that doesn't turn a profit. Then the equioment manufacturers build equipment up to the limit and when recreational players want more, the equipment manufacturers blame the USGA for having set the limits in the first place.

I not only have no respect for the bifurcation argument(s); I don't even understand them. If the bifurcation argument begins by reciting the fact that happens to be true -- that few recreational players adhere to strict observance of USGA rules -- then why are we worrying about finding some new accomodating equipment rules for those players?
02.5.2013 | Unregistered CommenterChuck
Chuck +1

Well said!
02.5.2013 | Unregistered CommenterFLGolfer
what Chuck said...I am a believer in the beef with the USGA is more with their course set-up has become a "holier than thou" thing that I am uncomfortable with.
02.5.2013 | Unregistered CommenterBobby D
"During this episode the USGA said not one word to ball manufacturers. The USGA didn't give a damn what manufacturers felt."

Bobby D, what's your reaction to those two sentences?
02.5.2013 | Unregistered CommenterDTF
"Bobby D, what's your reaction to those two sentences? "

There's that "holier than thou" thing creeping in again.
02.5.2013 | Unregistered CommenterBobby D
Doesn't bifurification already exist at the elite level, even in Majors, when the weather changes from morning to afternoon draws. Players often play in a completely different set of conditions than their competition on the same day. Do the bifurication promoters want to make an adjustment for that? Maybe we should take the game indoors to a simulator.
Chuck, it sounds like from your reaction that you are convinced the pro tour game is the same game everyone else plays and nothing could be further from the truth. The main point with bifurcation is really the slowing down of the ball for the main tours only. Great courses are obsolete because of the ridiculous distance that the USGA wants us to believe has leveled off. Driver wedge on a 460 yard hole is not distance leveling off. Since you don't understand why people would agree with bifurcation, I cannot understand the big deal in slowing down the ball for the elite player. Why does that bother you? And the whole argument is so ridiculous with so many things like range-finders being used by everyone BUT the pros or the pros having to play groove conforming clubs while the rest of the shmucks could care less. There already is bifurcation and the game hasn't gone away. Don't you see that? What am I missing?

Bif, well said bud.
02.5.2013 | Unregistered Commenterol Harv
I think the best compromise still might be using "classic distance" golf balls for particular historic courses to let the Tours return to places that they have long since outgrown, and then let guys use their regular balls everywhere else.

I don't see why admitting to the change in distances that the pros hit the ball is such a colossally immense issue that it cannot even be acknowledged to exist. But then again I'm just a normal guy, not one of the .01% who determine the fate of all golfers.
02.5.2013 | Unregistered CommenterJim S
ol' Harv;

I am very much on record favoring the USGA's doing something about golf balls.

But since the USGA hasn't given us much hope that anything will be done to date, I haven't so far worried about the effect of any hypothetical ball rollback on recreational players.

My guess is that the USGA can devise some standards for golf ball performance that will de-tune golf balls for very long-hitting elite players, without much of an effect on recreational players; the millions of casual players who can help make the game profitable. It would be nice if we were having that discussion right now; with the USGA taking the lead and showing its golf ball study data to the world. And in the long run, I think that it is one of the great charms of the game of golf that the entire game plays by one set of rules.

Perhaps, Harv, the area in which we agree is that the rank-and-file of the whole golfing world needs to stand firmly behind the USGA and the R&A when and if they decide to take on the owners of the golf ball patents, and rule positively to roll back the distances of elite players on classic championship golf courses.
02.5.2013 | Unregistered CommenterChuck
The problem Chuck is that according to the USGA, at least what I've heard from Davis, is that there isn't an issue with distance.
02.5.2013 | Unregistered Commenterol Harv
Bobby D, I was suspected/hoped that would be your reaction.

So, for the next couple of questions, is a "holier than thou" attitude required to be the ultimate arbiter on all things related to the rules of golf? Or is it possible to adopt a collaborative approach?

Further to that, does a:

-collaborative approach = no need for "war chest"?


-holier than thou = need for "war chest"?

Or something else?!?
02.5.2013 | Unregistered CommenterDTF
Along the same lines....

....what rules issue/change could possibly be so controversial that a $300,000,000 "fire extinguisher" might be needed to keep it at bay?

Long putters and anchoring? No way. Aggregate long putter sales are a miniscule portion of overall golf equipment sales.

COR related issues? Nope. That's been handled already.

Grooves? Naah. Long since dealt with.

Golf ball roll-back? Hmmm, now maybe we are onto something...

Seriously, what else could it be? By stockpiling this giant trove of cash is the USGA sending us a strong signal some action is coming down the pipe ASAP?

Or do they need to have $600,000,000 in order to take on the ball rollback issue?

Seriously, what else could there be?
02.5.2013 | Unregistered CommenterDel the Funk
Chuck said
"there is nothing right now that forces you to play golf under any strict interpretation of the Rules of Golf." Oh yes there is- Rule 1.3.
If you don't play by the RoG then you are not playing golf and can't put your scorecard in for handicap.
Rule 1.3 Agreement to Waive Rules
Players must not agree to exclude the operation of any Rule or to waive any penalty incurred. Penalty for breach- disqualification of competitors concerned.
So if on a casual round with friends a player's ball vanished into long grass and he say's "I'll drop one here and take a penalty" instead of walking back to where he played the last shot he and his group are all disqualified.
That's why some less stringent rules created by the USGA for casual players are required.
Colin in addition to the individual having those requirements they also extend to a club. I used to serve on our handicap committee and it was drilled over and over that we must enforce rules across the membership. Otherwise we could risk our standing with GAM (the Michigan USGA).
02.5.2013 | Unregistered CommenterMattS
The above implies that the USGA initiated the one ball rule. In the most recent Golf Digest (I get the old-fashioned version), David Fay writes that the PGA Tour requested that the USGA make the change. Whose version is correct?
02.5.2013 | Unregistered CommenterKevin part deux
A good summary letter. Thanks.
I favor one set of rules. It's hard enough to compose just one.
Amateurs like me can play under their own ''casual rules'' adjustments without another (second) set of rules.
02.6.2013 | Unregistered Commentergov. lepetomane
"My guess is that the USGA can devise some standards for golf ball performance that will de-tune golf balls for very long-hitting elite players, without much of an effect on recreational players..."

Chuck ... I luv ya! If you're saying what I think you're saying then I've raised this point on a number of previous occasions here but without so much as a bite from these so-called 'experts' on here.

I also feel very strongly about protecting the integrity of the game and if folk like Mark King are allowed to open a bifurcation pandora's box then who knows where it will end but I suspect it will likely end up turning into "a game with which I'm not familiar".

Incidentally, I'm dead set against "casual rules". As far as I'm concerned, if you don't play by the rules of the game, then you're not playing golf.

Why would anyone who can't be arsed to play by the rules of golf need a handicap? Surely it's only relevant if you intend to play competitive golf in competitions which use the rules of golf.

In your example why can't the guy just stick in a no return for the hole & get a net double bogey for handciap purposes?

Let's face it if he couldn't be bothered to hit a provisional & doesn't want to go back why would you care. If it was a comp & you're marking his card then you & you can't agree abouit the score for the hole then don't sign his card. Let the committee sort it out - no need for you to get DQ'd.

I just about missed you saying it was a casual round - therefore what would the group be disqualified from?
02.6.2013 | Unregistered CommenterAlly
People who play golf mainly to bet against each other need a handicap.
"if you don't play by the rules of the game, then you're not playing golf."
So what do we call the game that these millions of folks are playing every weekend? I've suggested S golf.

That doesn't mean they "need" an official CONGU or equivalent handicap. Again an official handicap would only be needed for relevant competitions. Plenty of ways to track your own handicap these days which I think works really well especially for guys who aren't club members but enjoy society golf. If I couldn't trust someone to manage that then I certainly wouldn't be playing them for money.

Lose enough already from the sanbaggers playing club comps ;)

Am I wrong or are you be saying we need a set of rules for guys who play casual golf against each other for money.
02.6.2013 | Unregistered CommenterAlly
It is really scary that five guys who are unrepresentative of the overwhelming majority of golfers are free to make rule changes designed to drive people from the game of golf. Couldn't the USGA at least have put this change to a vote of its membership?
02.6.2013 | Unregistered Commenterebrumby
You guys never fail. If I can summarize the general tone it would be that everyone is obligated to follow all of the rules of golf and treat every utterance from the usga as divinely inspired. According to Colin, why, if you don't, you are not even playing golf.
And yet, according to geoff in his book, Golf's original sin is that the usga did not use all its money and power to stop ball manufacturers in their tracks 20 years ago. The result of this ontological inaction is, according to the prevailing view on this site, the very ruination of the game you all love much more than the rest of us.

Pick one guys: the usga is perfect, infallible. Or they have ruined our game by not challenging ball makers. They are NOT perfect if they have allowed ball makers to ruin the game.
Admit it Chuck : when Frank said they created the one ball rule without asking ball makers, you wet your pants wondering why they don't just do that today.
02.6.2013 | Unregistered Commenterjoe

There are a lot more than 5 people involved when there is change to the Rules of Golf. There are many steps which include research, meetings, etc.
02.6.2013 | Unregistered CommenterFLGolfer
Joe - Frank Hannigan's letter made good sense to me all the way around. His explanation of the rationale for a one-ball "rule" made great sense to me, and in fact it is the best explanation I have ever heard to date. And by the way; the one-ball rule is NOT a formal part of the Rules of Golf. It is a "condition of competition" for purposes of the USGA's elite-level championships and play on the tours. I have little doubt but that the One-ball Condition is what inspired the USGA to invoke its groove rule for elites by way of a condition of competition.

Colin - I seem to get the feeling that you like the idea of bifurcation, and a relaxed set of equipment rules for recreational players. Is that true? I am supposing that you favor easier limits on equipment (balls, drivers, etc.) and perhaps on methods of play (anchored putting, etc.); do I have that right?

I think that bifurcation could be a great nightmare ESPECIALLY for purposes of GHIN handicapping. Allow me to explain. Suppose we enter a time in which golf rules and equipmnent ar bifurcated. Pros and eilte players play with slightly slower golf balls, and slightly de-tuned driver heads. Recreational players can play with hotter balls and drivers, and will be able to use square grooves grandfathered under the existing rules. So let's say that I am a sporting sort of chap; and in my daily play at my club and while visiting, I deliberately use tour-issued "short" balls, and a tour-issued "short" driver. I play earnestly, but with a deliberate disadvantage. However for bigger money, or bigger competitions, I use hotter recreational equipment. And thereby play beyond my customary handicapped limits. Sure, I understand that players can engage in various forms of sandbagging even now, and certainly they can do that without resorting to equipment tricks. But I don't think bifurcation will help that situation any. One set of Rules, with one set of equipment standards, is much better in my view.

ol' Harv - I'm really not sure what you and I have to argue.
Yes, I agree that the USGA has been woefully slow to address golf ball-produced distance.
Yes, I agree with those (the USGA, to some extent, I think) who say that the greatest distance increases in what I call the "Pro V Era" have been among the Tour/elite players, without much difference or gain for recreational players.
Yes, I think the USGA should do something about golf ball regulations.
Yes, I think the USGA should stand up to Acushnet legally, if that is what it takes.
Yes, I agree with all of those "rollback" principles.
I just don't see why bifurcation is necessary. It is a minority of recreational players who even bother to buy professional-grade urethane balls like Pro V's. We can essentially "get rid of" (in a manner of speaking) the Pro V-1 and lots of ams wouldn't notice. However, what Titleist knows and what I wont argue is that a big part of their marketing is selling to recreational players "the same" equipment as their Tour staff. I'm not so sure that even Titleist wants any part of a serious bifurcation of equipment standards.
02.6.2013 | Unregistered CommenterChuck
Chuck, I am confused. Clearly you are in favor of an immediate rollback and lawsuits all around. That these actions have not happened has caused the ruination of the game as we once fondly knew it. The impact of this ruination - 8000 yard course, time and expense explosions, maintenance nightmares etc regularly declared in these comments.
And the usga has permitted this ruination through its deplorable unwillingness to act for the good of the game.
Your explanation that you eagerly await to imminent action from the usga to roll back the ball is pathetic. I have a bridge.........

Again, how can you declare the usga as sacrosanct on bifurcation when they have ruined the game by not suing acushnet? Pick one.
02.6.2013 | Unregistered Commenterjoe
I'm confused....people are saying that when players don't abide by the USGA rules they can't submit their score and have a real handicap, BUT aren't they only hurting themselves by turning in a lower score than if they had played by the rules? Gimmes, mulligans, no stroke and distance for lost ball, etc...all contribute to lower scores, and thus a lower handicap. Which can only lead to either poor showings in tournaments or losses when playing matches for real money with USGA rules. Who wants to reverse sandbag??? Is this a problem in golf? The only time I've seen it is with people with enormous egos - Billl Clinton and Bernie Madoff come to mind.
02.6.2013 | Unregistered CommenterManku
Manku; you are correct-- it's called a ''vanity handicap''.
02.6.2013 | Unregistered Commenterdigsouth
@Manku...also sometimes known as a Michael Jordan handicap.
02.6.2013 | Unregistered CommenterBobby D
Chuck asked me "I seem to get the feeling that you like the idea of bifurcation, and a relaxed set of equipment rules for recreational players."
Hi Chuck I loathe the b- word- meaningless
My preference is for
1 A pro-ball for pro tournaments that amateurs can use if they choose.
2 A set of easy to follow, logical, rules of golf for more casual golfers. (I've called it S-golf, they could be the S-Rules)
When submitting a card for handicap the player, as well as indicating the tees played from, would indicate proball or not and S-golf. My guess is that for S-golf the course rating would be a couple of shots lower. At present we give 2 foot putts and the card goes in and nobody knows or cares.
Digsouth what do you think? You invented this idea!
Colin : I am sure you are a terrific fellow. But nobody at my club likes the weasels who rub rules perfection in our faces. We play for lots of money and everyone knows the baggers and the vanity cappers.. but nobody likes the rules prudes.
02.6.2013 | Unregistered Commenterjoe
You're pressed again, so shut up and drive.
02.6.2013 | Unregistered Commentermunirat

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