Hannigan On Vernon Speech

Another must read column from Frank Hannigan on Golfobserver. He looks at Jim Vernon's USGA Annual Meeting address and comes to many of the same conclusions that were drawn here. But as usual, Hannigan takes the analysis a bit further and as always, does it with a sense of humor.

What Vernon wrote and said indicates the USGA is finally committed to rolling back distance after a decade of fakery as the best golfers, the members of the PGA Tour, were gaining on average 27 yards of driving distance whether they lifted weights or ate Dove bars and Twinkies.

Hannigan lays out three options for the USGA at this point, based on the Vernon speech.

Option 1 — Do nothing. Stay right where they are with the pretense that it ain't gonna rain no more than it has, that the horse has not quite left the barn, that they have drawn the ultimate line in the sand when it comes to distance, and they can go on presenting 7400 yard courses as par 70s for U.S. Opens.

They can go on fooling most of the people most of the time while being admitted to the promised lands with memberships in the Augusta National Golf Club and the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews.

The problem with Option 1 is that it is a sham. Every week more golfers understand the USGA has utterly failed and are laughing at the erstwhile "governing body." At the same time, much as they don't want to do it, Finchem and his boys inch toward acting on their own.

I used to like this next option, but when you start to realize how simple it would be to slow down the core of the ball, it looks too complicated and potentially fractures the game.

Option 2 — Use the device of local rules whereby committees can invoke more restrictive equipment regulations while still remaining under the broad umbrella of the USGA.

There are plusses to the local rule contrivance. It offers the opportunity to cut back on BOTH the club and the ball. To restrict the driver the local rule spec would offer a lower maximum of correlation of restitution (COR) — the spring-like effect of modern drivers.

The USGA has invented an ingenious little device to measure COR. Those of us who could never change the oil in a car could measure COR with this machine. The COR could be adjusted to cut back l0 yards or so, another l5 yards taken off the ball and there you have it — back to l995.

A second advantage is that a local rule would not get real golfers mad at the USGA, a fear that has paralyzed the USGA. Real golfers think they have been pulled along with the pros in terms of distance. They haven't and the USGA has been unwilling to whisper the truth: "Move the tee markers up a few yards and nobody will ever know the difference."

And finally, the option that never seemed possible with the USGA's old stance, but which seems more plausible now. Except for the issues pointed out by Hannigan:

Option 3 — Make basic changes on equipment in the Rules of Golf proper. Although the USGA has said it needs more surveys, more testing and needs to do grooves all over again, the answer is quite simple. All they have to do is pick a number and announce that as of Jamuary 1, 2008, that famous line in the sand will be, say, 25 yards shorter.

But whoops, any roll back in the ball will render virtually every brand we now use as non-conforming.

That seems like a huge impediment for ball-makers, who have dwindled down to a precious few in the United States. Acushnet dominates the wholesale market with 53 percent of sales. Its percentage of profit is likely higher.

Why then should a Callaway not want to start all over again to compete against Acushnet from a new starting line? The golf equipment business is nothing but a fight for market share. The market itself is stable. Tiger Woods has not created new golfers.

Hannigan sums up the sea change that has taken place, and the possible reasons for what appears to be a monumental shift within the USGA:

The USGA was captured during the last l0 years by Fred Ridley, who just left office as president, and his successor Walter Driver. But with an annual turnover of two or three executive committee members a year a new majority may have dawned.

Or it could be that Ridley and Driver are just sick and tired of being blistered about distance wherever they go.

Driver made an inaugural speech so banal as to defy description other than to note that he used versions of the first person singular "I" or "me" 68 times. Everything was about him.

In a departure from tradition, the new president was introduced by a celebrity — Arnold Palmer himself. Driver loved it.

This is the same Arnold Palmer who sold his failed equipment company to the late Ely Callaway. Arnold then lobbied for two sets of rules so that Callaway's ERC2 driver would be OK. The ERC2 had a COR beyond even the USGA's soft regulation.

The ERC2 driver bombed. But the myth of Arnold is eternal.