"My job, and the job of the people I work with, is to evaluate equipment and produce data," the man in charge of the R&A's research and testing says. "Larger philosophical questions about the impact that technology has on the game and what measures are required to keep everything in balance are taken at a much higher level than the one I operate at. I am merely a scientist."
Otto the scientist has some interesting things to say about distance.
Like every other senior member of the R&A hierarchy, Otto is unconvinced by the arguments that the modern ball goes too far. "There are many factors involved here," he says. "If there has been any increase in distance - and I don't necessarily accept that there has been - then I would say it is down to the greater athleticism of the players; then there is the ball and then there are the clubs. There is also the question of more efficient matching of the player and their clubs. Plus, we are also doing a study in the effect of course conditions," he says, adding the unnecessary qualification: "It is not as straightforward as people think."
And , the efficient matching of the player and their clubs? Optimization? Perhaps Otto knows why the USGA and R&A were ahead of the curve on that issue, and chose to shelve their interest in that subject, giving us the mess we now have?
Oh no, he does better.
Unlike other R&A blazers, however, he is not coy about discussing the work that both his organisation and its American counterpart, the United States Golf Association, has put in on this issue of the golf ball. Last year the governing bodies admitted they had a "research project" into a ball that wouldn't go as far as those currently in use, although the details were sketchy. No longer.You may recall that former USGA Executive Director Frank Hannigan wrote about a "miracle ball" that the USGA was attempting to develop back in February, 2004. He was not taken seriously.
"We wanted to see if there was a magic ball out there," Otto says. "We looked at a bigger ball, and a lighter ball; we looked at balls made from different rubbers and at balls with different dimple patterns."
The project ran into many difficulties, the most significant being that a ball that was 10% shorter for one type of player might be 20% shorter for another, and therefore intrinsically unfair. "People thought there might be a solution that would keep the game the same but also address this question of distance," Otto says. "There wasn't. The problem is there is no single definition of a magic ball."
As for the current location of those intriguing, if less than magical, balls, Otto laughs. "They are in a cupboard somewhere, under lock and key." Never to be seen again? "Exactly."
It's not clear where Otto's remarks on the ball project leave the current USGA/R&A request for manufacturers to submit "rolled back" balls for testing.