Letter From Saugerties, October 23, 2006

It's been a while since former USGA Executive Director Frank Hannigan sent a "letter" (his previous correspondences are here and here). But thankfully he has broken his silence with a devastating appraisal of the current USGA that includes his reaction to the recent ESPN.com chat comments by Walter Driver.

Take it away, Frank...

I was fascinated, if not encouraged, by the passionate arguments on your site after the recent blowing of smoke by USGA president Walter Driver on the subject of distance control.

The central point was missed.  Rolling back distance is not a technical issue.  It’s a political matter centering on the retention of position without annoyance or threats.  

Driver and his USGA know precisely what’s happened.  The average driving distance on the PGA Tour shot up 28 yards on average in 10 years.   The USGA wishes the clock would revert to 1994 so it could at least consider behaving correctly.  But it can’t even say so because that would be an admission it has bungled its most important duty.

Two distinct happenings accounted for the new yardage.  The first was the advent of excessive spring like effect in drivers in the mid 90s.  Everybody on the tour got 10 to 15 yards longer.

Then followed modifications to the ball that enabled the best players to pick up another 15 yards even though the new balls still conformed to the USGA’s critical overall distance standard test.

On spring-like effect, the Rules of Golf already said that clubs designed to produce that effect, akin to what you see with metal bats in amateur baseball, would not be acceptable.   There was no specificity however.  So the USGA Executive Committee in 1998 made a craven decision.

They correctly approved a new test to measure coefficient of restitution (COR) but instead of setting it at the level of the best metal drivers of the early 90s they chose to write the standard around what was already on the market.

Had the right thing been done there would have been hell to pay since a great number of existing drivers would have failed.  A prominent member of that executive committee later said to me, “We thought we were betting the franchise on that vote.”  He and others feared a rebellion by the owners of the springier drivers which would not then conform to the Rules of Golf.  But if you are billing yourself as the “governing body of golf” it follows that you will occasionally have to make unpopular decisions. For more than a decade the USGA has caved in the face of conflict, and by no means only on equipment.

When the longer flying balls came about the USGA was already equipped with a superb testing mechanism, an indoor device that, quite simply, can predict the outcome of any hit.

It was as clear as day that the changed balls were exceeding the intent of the distance tests.

Having capitulated on the driver, the USGA consistently bowed on the ball - announcing that no ball on its list of conforming products would be banned.  Instead, it went into its fake mode and changed the distance standard to accommodate the new and unexpected.

By the way, it’s ridiculous that the USGA should be held to a standard whereby its rules on  equipment have to foresee every conceivable change. The founding fathers of the nation did not anticipate that General Electric would poison the Hudson River, but GE is damn well going to have to pay for cleaning it up.               

Two points: 1. It was the USGA’s highest priority to put an absolute cap on added distance achieved by equipment changes while I worked at the USGA between 1961 and 1989; 2. Nobody HAS to play the USGA’s rules.   Its position should have been to reject the springy drivers and the longer flying balls while saying “We recognize golfers can go right on playing the other stuff but they may NOT  say they are then doing so under the USGA Rules of Golf.  Take your choice.”

Rolling back distance now can be done in any number of ways.  A simple alteration would be to say that as of January 1, 2008, the fail point for the overall distance standard would be 305 yards instead of 320 yards.   Assuming the PGA Tour accepted such a change (remember, nobody has to do what the USGA wants) driving distance on the Tour would drop immediately and considerably. 

The people who now run the USGA are unlikely to come close to making such a change because they want to appear in ceremonies as rulers and get to hang out with Arnold Palmer.  The time has long past when the USGA could enlist for its executive committee citizens of consequence willing to actually take care of golf rather than amuse themselves with toys like a leased jet.

A new and shorter ball would surely be made.  But manufacturers might very well keep on producing today’s ball.

In the pro shops of the hallowed member owned clubs - Pine Valley, Cypress Point, The Country Club - the USGA would be backed to the hilt with notices that only the USGA approved balls would be tolerated on their courses.   Ah, but what about Wal-Mart?  Offered the chance, how many of the long balls might it sell, and at discounted prices to boot?

What would be the outcome on daily fee courses everywhere?  Might there be chaos with two distinctly different balls in play?   I think, and over a short time, the USGA would prevail because there is an internal drive for uniformity in equipment among golfers.  It’s akin to the monkey grip in babies. The USGA should be more than willing to bet the franchise but it will not.

There is a great irony in all this.   The modern equipment changes are enablers only for a tiny percentage of golfers.  You have to be very good to take advantage of added spring like effect.   The average golfer prefers to think otherwise, willing to hit his credit card for a $425 driver that does nothing for him or her.  You have to be a low handicap golfer to get the added juice--good enough to make the semi-finals in a club championship.

But even if I’m wrong so that the average golfer is getting a few more yards, if there was a rollback in distance the matter could be leveled out by putting the tee markers up a few yards.

The USGA has been allowed to stand pat because what has happened is akin to a victimless crime.

The PGA Tour, God knows, has not been harmed economically by the distance explosion.

The Tour exists only (forget the First Tee nonsense) to enrich its members and it has done so sensationally. The USGA, on the other hand, exists to define golf.

Accordingly, there is no pressure on the USGA to act honestly.

I do not blame the manufacturers.  They too have one purpose - make money for their owners.   Many are not tortured by brilliance.    When it comes to balls, one company, Acushnet, dominates the market.    The rest fight over slices of market share.  It would be in the best interest of every ball maker save Acushnet to jump all over a new ball, to start the game from scratch with ads proclaiming “our new ball is more like the old ball than X’s ball.”

The contributors to your site made much of the 2002 Statement of Principles issued jointly by the USGA and its partner in victimless crimes, the R&A of Scotland.  They proclaimed they would not tolerate any “significant” increase in distance. To clarify when they meant to clamp down they used the word “now.”

The very next year, 2003, witnessed an enormous increase in driving distance: 6.5 yards.

By any reasonable standard, that increase was “significant”.  It happened because the manufacturers were playing out the law of physics. They’d gone as far as they could go.  The USGA and R&A did nothing.

Driver has fallen back on saying that distance has been “nearly flat the last 3 years.”  He’s right, but all the horses have left the barns.     

I think stability is likely for some time.  In honesty, though, I must report that if someone had asked me in 1989, when I was managing the affairs of the USGA, if spring-like effect was likely to have an adverse consequence, I would have said “No chance.”

There has been no upside to the collapse of the USGA on distance.   Golf, as a recreational activity, has been flat nationally for a long time.    But in terms of being both artistic and competitive courses like the San Francisco Golf Club, Colonial and the Chicago Golf Club, they have become toys and museum pieces. I fear the same has happened at Shinnecock Hills which was tortured by the USGA at the 2004 U.S. Open in order to produce high scores.

Clubs that want to entertain big events have done what clubs from time immemorial have done when the ball was juiced. They have lengthened their courses significantly and sometimes comically (see the Old Course at St. Andrews which had a tee added on another course.)

As for new courses with thoughts of grandeur, the standard has jumped from 7,000 to 7,500 yards in a short time. That requires more real estate and increased maintenance costs.

The USGA, charged with protecting golf, has caused it to become more expensive.

The only way the fervent minority who care about the failure of the USGA could grow and become effective would be to mount a direct challenge to the USGA as it is.   That means ousting the current executive committee.  A revolt.

The USGA by-laws specify that any 20 USGA clubs, out of 10,000, can submit a slate of 15 to oppose the 15 nominated by the establishment.   (The number used to be 5 until I called attention to the by-laws a few years ago).  

The slogan for the slate should be “It’s the distance, stupid.” An actual ballot would have to be sent to all member clubs.  (Potential insurgents take note--the deadline for submitting a rump slate is Nov. 30.)

Internally, the USGA is a mess.  The Executive Committee, instead of intensely monitoring the work of the staff and establishing policy, is in a hands-on mico-managing mode.   They like to play at golf management and pretend that their presence is essential whereas, in truth, all they should be doing is read what’s sent to them and attend three meetings a year. 

Would an effort to get this crowd out, however noble, succeed?    Not at first.  But it would scare the hell out of those who drool at the thought of traveling on the leased jet.  Above all, it would cause there to be a debate on the subject. The USGA has been more than effective in keeping its malfeasance quiet.

Shareholders revolts sometime work, even in non-profit entities.   The eastern division of the US Tennis Association, its largest, has had a splendid internal fight which has already reached the court and appeal stages.

Even the American Civil Liberties Union is in a quarrel on the issue of who should be on its board. If the ACLU can tolerate a touch of democracy, why can’t the USGA?