Taking AIM With Gary Van Sickle

AIMDarwin.jpgSports Illustrated senior writer Gary Van Sickle has been covering golf for the magazine and SI's weekly Golf Plus section since 1996.

A fine golfer who once advanced to the U.S. Open Sectional Qualifying, Van Sickle was the only non-Ohioan to play in the Ohio Golf Association's Champions Tournament. He joins us to share a few thoughts on the uniform-ball event played last week. 

GeoffShac:    so how did you end up playing in the Ohio Champions event, being from Pennsylvania? :)

GVanSickle:    and not being a champion, either, since i don't think my Yale men's club championship from 1993 counted. They let me in as a media guy who could halfway play. i paid the $175 entry fee, got two dozen OGA balls and a practice round and was off.

GeoffShac:    and how did it go?

GVanSickle:    i'm sure you'd love to hear my three rounds hole by hole but i'll spare you. it went all right. i didn't really notice much lack of distance off the tee. oddly, the balls were about a club longer with irons, even wedges, and they didn't check up very well, if at all. of course, it took me two rounds to figure out the irons went farther. i thought i just didn't know the course.

GeoffShac:    Yes, we'll take a pass on the blow-by-blow

GeoffShac:    so because they weren't checking up did that force you to think your way around the course a bit more?

GVanSickle:    I was definitely trying to hit it short of the pin. the last hole, last round, i had 115 yards to pin, a little wind behind me. my sand wedge max is 100 yards, maybe 105. i hit that, very well. ball landed two feet from pin, ran 20 feet past and onto a gunky lie in the fringe, from where i failed to get up and down. it felt a little like golf on a firm links where you can't control the ball.

GeoffShac:    the course was pretty firm too, right?

GVanSickle:    yes, the greens were relatively firm after a hot, dry spell in ohio. but not exceptionally firm. just about right, i'd say. it was odd that we lost distance because the ball spun more, yet it didn't spin and check up with short irons. one conclusion of the oga guys was that there's a lot more to ball technology than they realized.

GeoffShac:    doesn't Tiger Woods use one of the higher spin rate balls on the Tour?

GVanSickle:    so i've heard. apparently the whole spin rate issue is complex, too. a new phrase i heard from a Trackman technician who was there (Trackman is a new technology that uses radar to track your shot from start all the way to finish--very precise) was angle of descent. that's apparently important. to optimize shots, you want an angle of descent less than 40%. one big hitter i saw tested had a 54% angle of descent. which means the balls ballooned up a bit, then dropped quickly rather than bore through the air.

GeoffShac:    and did you find that this ball went off line more easily in the wind or if you hit it with a certain "angle of descent"?

GVanSickle:    no, the ball seemed to go no more offline than usual... if that's possible to say for a player of my limited skill. we had three measured drives over two days. first day, i carried OGA ball 238, titleist pro VI 246. second day, i hit OGA ball and carried it 249. that's close to my approximate normal carry, last measured at 252. my swing speed was 104, ball speed 155. this ball hurt higher swing speeds more than lower ones, which was the idea, i believe.

GeoffShac:    wait, so they had you hit a pro VI on the measuring holes too?

GVanSickle:    just once. on the 18th hole in practice round, they let you hit one OGA ball and one of your usual brand. a kind of mini-test.

GeoffShac:    ah

GeoffShac:    so in general, not to sound like a marketing survey here...

GeoffShac:    but did you find the golf more enjoyable, less enjoyable, about the same, none of the above?

GVanSickle:    For me, it was slightly less enjoyable. not because of any loss of distance. i didn't lose enough to make a difference. i know some of the college kid big hitters did. the inability to stop a shot, something we've long taken for granted, was annoying. while I and others whined and moaned about the ball performance, the fact is, we're golfers. we adjusted. if this was the only ball in golf, we'd live with it. but knowing there are longer balls out there, nobody wants to use it again.

GeoffShac:    but say the distance reduction was maintained, but some of the control characteristics of the modern ball were maintained, do you think it would have been more fun?

GVanSickle:    I don't know if anybody would say more fun. we've got long memories. let's just say if you began the game playing this ball and never knew any differnt, you'd be perfectly happy. nobody wants to give anything, especially the guys who fly it 295 yards. what's fun in golf is scoring. it's fun reaching par 5s in 2. it's fun to dominate par 4s with driver-wedge. that doesn't make it a great competition, which is why the OGA is looking for a way to keep its classic older courses in play for its own tournaments.
GVanSickle:    if augusta national starts to get short again after the latest round of renovations, i'd look to see the masters institute a one-ball rule like this if officials there get desperate. but i think they're ok for a few years.

GeoffShac:    last question, almost

GeoffShac:    what kind of irons do you play and what kind of grooves do they have?

GVanSickle:    i was using callaway x-tour irons and you know, i don't know what the grooves are.

GeoffShac:    well if they are u-grooves, they may become illegal if the USGA is to be believed

GeoffShac:    what would be easier to give up, the irons or the current ball you play?

GVanSickle:    i don't know if the average guy hits it well enough to really take advantage of U-grooves. i'd give up the grooves first. that would be easy. if the usga really wanted to start something, they could turn golf into baseball and let the pros use only wood (persimmon) and the public use metal. that would solve the whole distance issue immediately. metal woods were where the game first got away from the usga. but of course, that's utterly impractical now.

GeoffShac:    yeah, it's your basic mess

GeoffShac:    well thanks for sharing your insights

GeoffShac:    and keep up the great work

GVanSickle:    no problem. the oga proved it can be done. let's see if anyone else gives it a try.

GeoffShac:    yes, it should be fun to see...if you believe the makers of the OGA ball, someone out there is ordering a whole bunch!

GeoffShac:    thanks Gary, I really appreciate it

GVanSickle:    no problem. it was great being had!

"The phone hasn't stopped ringing"

Thanks to reader Scott for noticing that Worldgolf.com features a story/press release on the Volvik "Prospect" PROsPECT golf balls attracting interest following the Ohio Golf Association Champions event.

Company President Chuck Womer:

 "The phone hasn't stopped ringing since the news came out at the end of the competition in Ohio. Golfers are calling asking where they can find the ball. Retailers are calling asking how soon they can get more of the ball. We're also very happy to have been able to help the OGA to make history again.

 And this is beautiful...

This is our second tournament win as the PROsPECT ball won the Gate City Classic earlier this year in the hands of Keith Reeves on the National Golf Tour Piedmont Series. Keith continues to play the PROsPECT and is at the top of his series and national points list."

Uh, of course you got a win at the OGA event. It was the only ball they played!

The release also includes contact and ordering information.

"It brought more strategy into the game"

I couldn't help noticing in this excellent Mike Stachura Golf World story on the OGA tournament ball, a pair money quotes:

"This ball could be pretty frustrating," said Matt Ries, who tied for seventh. "Iron shots seemed to roll out more. I think if we could get something that flew 10 to 20 percent less, but checked around the greens like balata, that might be a better test. It's definitely an equalizer, though."

The winner agreed. "The hardest part was adjusting to the release," said [Tournament winner Blake] Sattler. "It brought more strategy into the game."

Included with the story is a sidebar reporting on a preliminary USGA report on spin.

On August 11, the USGA sent an "interim report" to manufacturers on its research completed to date on spin generation--specifically, spin generated with irons.

Although the report states "no final conclusions have been reached and no proposals for rule changes are included," the results appear to indicate that U-shaped grooves may be in the USGA's crosshairs.

Now, the OGA ball situation may not have been perfect (it's hard to be comfortable with a ball that on discriminates against certain clubhead speeds).

However, a ball can be made that spins a little less, therefore promoting accuracy, thought and possibly restoring strategic value to a course.

Yet the USGA is looking to change the grooves on irons instead?

Which is more costly for golfers to replace. Balls or sets of irons? 

"They were trying to bring the long hitters back to the field."

Thanks to reader Scott S for this Times-Reporter of New Philadelphia story on the Ohio Golf Assn. event winner Blake Sattler.

 “I looked at it as an experiment,” the New Philadelphia High graduate said. “The OGA wanted to try it so they had a company develop a new ball.

“It was totally different from the balls we normally play. I think they did it because Tiger (Woods) and the other guys that hit it a mile are making a lot of the old courses obsolete. This ball doesn’t travel as far, so normally where you’d be hitting a wedge into the green, you’d hit an 8-iron. They were trying to bring the long hitters back to the field.

“It was different, but I don’t see how it could ever happen on the Tour.”

I agree with the comments of JohnV on this GolfClubAtlas.com thread that it sounds like, at least from early feedback, that the OGA ball is discriminating a bit too much against those with higher clubhead speeds. Any kind of successful rollback will have to take a little something from everyone at the top level to be accepted and to work from a course design perspective.

Nicklaus: "If the USGA is unable to make an effort to move the ball back, then we need to do something on our own"

The Columbus Dispatch's Bob Baptist pens an extensive story on the Ohio Golf Assocation ball that is being used today and tomorrow at Springfield's Windy Knoll. Thanks to reader Tom for the head's up.

Plenty of interesting quotes here, starting with Jim Popa of the OGA:

"The PGA Tour stats will tell you that in the last 25 years, (average) driving distance has increased 30-some yards," Popa said. "The (United States Golf Association) says new equipment has only added 20 yards. They say there’s only 5 yards’ difference between (drives produced by swings speeds of) 110 and 125.

"We know that’s not true. The faster you swing at the new balls, the farther they will fly, and it’s not 5 or 10 yards (farther), it’s 100 yards, 125 yards. That’s what we’re battling. That’s what we think is ruining the game, or going to ruin the game."

Love this line from Baptist, which of course, the USGA will love.

The two most influential governors of tournament golf in the United States, the USGA and PGA Tour, have historically declined to hold the line on technological advances in equipment for fear of being sued by manufacturers. Instead, they have lengthened many of the courses on which their tournaments are played.

And now for Jack's lastest comments:

"I am happy to see that someone is taking the bull by the horns and is saying, ‘Hey, our golf courses cannot handle this golf ball,’ " Nicklaus said in an e-mail interview. "If the USGA is unable to make an effort to move the ball back, then we need to do something on our own."

Alan Fadel, chair of the OGA's ball committee:

If distance is not reined in, Fadel envisions dire consequences for the game: everhigher costs to build bigger courses or expand existing ones, and a lack of incentive to play for youngsters who aren’t as big and don’t hit the ball as far as others their age.

"I feel for the kid who’s 15 playing high school golf who hasn’t had his growth spurt yet," Fadel said. "A couple of them were (Tom) Watson and (Ben) Crenshaw, two of the best players who ever played the game. That guy is not going to have the opportunity in the future."

One of those kids was Mark Brooks, who was one of the top players on the PGA Tour in the late 1980s and early ’90s despite standing only 5 feet 10 and weighing 150 pounds. He won the 1996 PGA Championship and lost a playoff to Retief Goosen in the 2001 U.S. Open.

Brooks says the distance specifications of modern balls could remain the same if only manufacturers were forced to return the balls’ spin rates to what they were 10 or 12 years ago. If that were the case, the harder and higher a ball was mis-hit, the farther off line it would hook or slice, Brooks said, and "I think the guys would self-throttle" to protect against that happening.

"If direction and trajectory aren’t brought back in as highly integral parts of playing this game, then (the game) changes. And for the better? No," Brooks said.

"You end up with a very stereotypical type of golfer who will be big, tall and have a 120 mphplus club-head speed. Or, if he’s little, he’ll be a freak, someone like an Ian Woosnam, who is small but can pound it."

Looks like Mark Brooks will be added to The List.

Popa and Fadel said the OGA’s experiment is being watched with interest by not only other amateur golf associations but the very bodies that have resisted action to this point. Popa said he has discussed it with representatives of the USGA and Augusta National.

"Most changes in golf come from the amateur sector, and most from the grass roots. They don’t come from the PGA Tour; they’ve got a product they have to sell," Popa said.

He recalled the criticism of the OGA in 1994 when the Ohio Amateur was the first tournament in golf to require all participants to wear turf-friendly, non-metal spikes. Ten years later, 99 percent of courses in the United States had banned metal spikes and only 30 percent of tour pros were wearing them, according to a 2004 article in Golf World magazine.

"We stuck by our guns on that and it turned out pretty good," Popa said.

"I have the same feeling for this. I think it’s time a tournament ball be identified. It’s probably going to be best for the game in the long run to have a standard ball.

"What we hope to show is that we’ve given everybody the same ball and they’ve all been able to play the ball successfully and they come off (the course) and say, ‘I can do everything with this ball I can do with my own ball.’ "

"Champions 08222306"

ogaball.jpgE. Michael Johnson and Mike Stachura reveal a few new specifics about the Ohio Golf Association Champions Tournament ball, which will be used Aug. 22-23 at Windy Knoll.

According to Alan Fadel, a member of the OGA's board of governors, the ball was submitted for USGA approval earlier this year. "We were told it was on the [conforming] list in June," he said. "In fact, I believe it may have been used on [a pro tour] this year."

Still, some of the ball's particulars -- including who makes it -- remain a mystery. The ball, which sports "OGA" as its logo and has "CHAMPIONS 08222306" (the tournament and its dates) as its sidestamp, is not listed as such, meaning it is on the conforming list under a manufacturer's brand name.

Fadel would not reveal the manufacturer, but said the ball is "a three-piece, very high-spin, very low-compression" model. And although the OGA has been consistent in saying it is a "uniform" ball as opposed to a "short" ball, Fadel confirmed the OGA ball is six to seven yards shorter off the driver, five yards shorter off the irons and some 20 yards shorter on drives into the wind for players with swing speeds in the 100-110 miles-per-hour range, where most of the event's participants fall.

This is funny... 
The move to a uniform ball may raise eyebrows,

only if you are looking at a 207 drive at waterlogged Newport as a barometer for distance's impact on the game...

but that the OGA is taking this step isn't surprising. The association has a decided maverick streak, having declared a local rule in the early 1980s allowing players to tap down spike marks, leading to a falling out with the USGA. The OGA also was the first U.S. association to ban metal spikes.

"This is not the OGA trying to act contentiously," Wall said. "[But] if it becomes a discussion point for all of golf, then so be it."

As much as I'd like to know what kind of ball it is, the OGA has wisely decided to keep it secret.

They have nothing to gain by revealing the manufacturer and instead make it clear that they are more concerned with the results of their studies, instead of introducing a new ball to golf.

Still, it would be nice to know in case others wanted to, you know, try out the ball.

Reader Blue Blazer awakened from a long slumber to wonder if the balls pictured above came from an overseas company residing in a country where they have no room to keep lengthening courses. He also thought the dimple pattern resembled something from the old Slazenger or Maxfli lines.

Anyone recognize the dimples by looking at the photos?

Either way, we should know soon, since it's inevitable that a tournament contestant or media member will send off a sample to a manufacturer that can do a quick ID autopsy.

Latest On OGA Champions Event

Don Delco in This Week News looks at the Ohio Golf Association's "unified-ball" tournament and has this quote from the USGA's Marty Parkes:

"Fact is we haven't been consulted and don't know much about the competition with one ball other than what we've seen in the press," said Marty Parkes, senior director of communications at the USGA. "We just don't know much of what's going on."
Isn't this the same organization that is studying rolled back balls and trying to gather as much information as it can?

You would think they'd take more interest in an event worthy of study than just not knowing "much of what's going on."


For the Champions Tournament, the OGA has designated a current, modern golf ball for play. While they would not say the brand, Alan Fadel, chairman of the golf ball committee, explained its makeup.

"It's a three-piece ball with a very soft outer cover and low compression that has a very soft feel," Fadel said. "It has the highest spin rate we could find. It's also an approved ball. What has happened is spin has been taken out of the golf ball, and we want to see what high spin does versus what is out there now. It gives us another benchmark, so to speak."

The OGA also is getting scientific. They have hired a company named ISG, inventors of the Trackman system, a sophisticated Dopler radar system that tracks information regarding the flight of a golf ball.

Trackman was used at the 2005 U.S. Open at Pinehurst and will be used in the British Open, July 20-23 at Royal Liverpool Golf Club in Hoylake, England.

"We will also survey players and ask them what results they've seen," Fadel said. "We will take that info and compare it to the scientific information and we might be able to share things with the USGA and the industry. If nothing else, it lest people know we're concerned and we'd like to try and protect the integrity of the old courses and game."

According to the OGA, integrity of the game is at stake.

"We want to draw attention that the fact the golf ball has given an unfair advantage in length to higher swing speeds," Popa said. "This makes older courses obsolete. In the old days, someone with 20 miles per hour extra on their swing speeds only gained 10 yards, today it's 30 to 40 yards. Add another 20 miles per hour, and instead of 15 yards it's 50-60 and sometimes 100 yards farther."

OGA Talked About In NZ

The New Zealand Herald's Peter Williams writes about the Ohio Golf Association's competition ball: 

The Ohio Golf Association (OGA) is boldly going where no golf body has gone before. It's ordering competitors in one of its tournaments to use a certain ball - although they haven't actually decided which one.

The OGA, which runs the game in the state where Jack Nicklaus was born and raised, says they are taking a stand against the eroding playability of our old courses due to the length of the modern golf ball.

So, when the OGA hosts the Champions Tournament in August, every player will be required to use a lower-compression ball chosen by the tournament committee.

The impact of the long-distance, modern golf ball is one of the hottest discussion points in American golf.

The R&A and USGA are the only bodies which can legislate against the manufacturers to stop the ball going further. There are already many restrictions on equipment. A ball must be a certain size and weight, driver heads must be no larger than 460cc, while there has to be a certain angle between the club face on an iron and the grooves. So the game's rulers haven't been afraid to put restrictions on equipment, even if they've been sued by manufacturers as a consequence.
But the major reason elite players hit the ball further is the advance in ball technology. The revolution started in 1996 with Spalding's first high-performance two-piece ball, the Top Flite Strata. Manufacturers followed suit with two-piece technology and since equipment companies like Titleist and Callaway put their R&D efforts into ball technology, there's been no stopping increased performance.

But while the elite can hit the ball up to 100m more - 320m par fours on the PGA Tour are now considered driveable - average club players don't get the same advantage.