USGA: There's Life in the Old Bear Yet

I can already hear the moaning from reader Blue Blazer for that headine. Yes, one of my favorite USGA insiders wasn't wild about the USGA annual meeting address by Jim Vernon.

Chair of the Equipment Standards Committee, Vernon's address is now online for all to read. And it is a must.

If you have any interest in the equipment issue or the way the game is played, it's a landmark moment for the current USGA regime.

Blue Blazer doesn't understand my enthusiam and wonders why the USGA is now stating that there have been drastic changes since the issuing of the Joint Statement of Principles, and yet, they need more study to address the issues. Fair point.

However I, being the never-jaded, always-positive blogger, will try to show him why this speech is significant. Vernon says...

The underlying philosophy is to set forth outlined in detail in the Joint Statement of Principles adopted by the USGA and the R&A in 2002.  In short, we are to remain vigilant to ensure that improvements in technology do not diminish the skill necessary to play the game.

I know you've heard this before. But there were concerns that they were going to be re-defining the Joint Statement at this meeting. Not so. 

Last April, we asked the ball manufacturers to participate in the project by developing and submitting to us reduced distance golf balls that would comply with an ODS of either 15 yards or 25 yards shorter than the current standard. All the major manufacturers agreed to participate.  Currently, we have received two sets of such balls.  We expect to receive at least seven more sets of balls within the next two months. We understand that creating new balls with playing characteristics that will be acceptable to today’s golfers takes time and we appreciate the thorough job ball manufacturers are doing in support of our research.

Okay, I agree with Blue Blazer that this was kind to the manufacturers, especially since one of them managed to produce a ball and distribute it with sarcastic stampings.

Distance And The de-skilling Of The Game

Yes, that was the title of the third and most important section of Vernon's address. Sure, he buried the lead, but the USGA is not in the business of publishing. Well, not really. 

We know that the way the way the game is being played by accomplished players has changed dramatically in recent years.

This is a major, major moment for the USGA.

Remember, until this point, there has not been such a clear and concise acknowledgement that the distance increases were anything but good old fashioned progress. In fact, the USGA has shrugged off nearly all criticism or observation that drastic changes have taken place.

All the research I have described has given us a much better idea what has made that change possible. It is not just that driving distances have increased among elite players. What I am suggesting is that we need to re-frame the discussion of how the game is being changed.  

Average driving distance on the PGA Tour continues to increase, but the increases have leveled off the last two years — 1.0 yard in 2004 and 1.6 yards in 2005.  At the same time, there has been a clear increase in the number of Tour pros who average more than 300 yards.

Blue Blazer was disappointed that Vernon ignored the "significant" distance increase since 2002 when the Joint Statement was issued (and the line was supposedly drawn). But the optimist in me didn't care because I was absolutely floored by the next statement.

We know from the ShotLink data provided by the PGA Tour that driving accuracy has ceased to be a factor in predicting success on the PGA Tour.

Ceased to be a factor. Shoot, even I haven't gone that far in even my most melodramatic rants on flogging.

We know from other data that Tour pros are swinging their drivers and faster, and that the larger, higher MOI drivers allow them to hit the ball farther even when they strike the ball well off the center of the clubface.

We know that the groove configurations and surface treatments on modern irons, when accomplished players hit their drives into the rough, they can generate more spin out of the rough, allowing them to hit more greens when they have missed the fairway.  The same spin generation features of today’s iron clubfaces increase accomplished players’ probability of recovering when they miss the green.

Again, major admissions, strong language. "We know."  Blue Blazer may be right to say, "if you know these compromises to skill have occurred, then do something about it."

But hey, this is a big step forward. No, it's a leap.

Our task this year is to continue to evaluate all these factors and to determine whether new regulations would be appropriate to require the elite players in particular to regain some of the skills that were more important in the past. The task is complicated, or course, by what I said at the beginning of my remarks -- we regulate equipment for all golfers of all skill levels, not just PGA Tour pros.
The Equipment Standards Committee has set an aggressive agenda for 2006, and we believe it accurately reflects the state of the industry and the game. Underlying all our efforts will be the philosophy set forth in the Statement of Principles: we will remain vigilant to assure that technology does not diminish the skill necessary to play the game.

 Let the skill debate begin!