Kroichik On Distance, Masters Ball Possibility

Ron Kroichik looks at the possiblity of a ball rollback, a "Masters ball" and offers all sorts of interesting tidbits about a distance rollback:

Sandy Tatum barely hesitates before answering in the affirmative. Tatum, the former United States Golf Association president and patriarch of Harding Park's renovation, joins Jack Nicklaus in suggesting the USGA "roll back" the distance the ball can travel. Woods and his big-hitting colleagues on the PGA Tour routinely smack drives more than 300 yards, taking golf into once-unimaginable frontiers.

It's either a thrilling joyride (many fans), a fundamental affront to the game (traditionalists such as Tatum) or an unwelcome threat to booming business (elite players and golf-ball manufacturers).

Tatum begins his sermon with this premise: The ball goes too far. The faster a player swings, the greater the benefit from technology. Drivers with club heads triple the size they were 15 years ago collide with balls specifically designed to soar into the stratosphere.

"It puts the game seriously out of balance," Tatum recently said. "You get more emphasis on power and less on shot-making. The stats will tell you, accuracy is no longer anywhere near as important as distance."

These kind of numbers help explain why Chairman Hootie Johnson felt compelled to try to keep Augusta National "current with the times." He lengthened the course for the second time in five years, but only after hinting club officials might force players to use a "uniform ball" in the Masters, one unlikely to travel such prodigious distances.

That option still exists for Johnson and his colleagues in Augusta, but even then it would apply only to the Masters. The USGA and Royal & Ancient Golf Club, the game's governing bodies and rules makers, do not favor the idea of a uniform ball.

"That's not in the cards, for the same reason a baseball player doesn't have the same bat as any other player," said Dick Rugge, the USGA's senior technical director. "It's personal equipment suited to each player."

Rugge nonetheless elevated this long-simmering debate into another realm in April 2005, on the day after Woods won the Masters. Rugge sent an e-mail to manufacturers, inviting them to participate in a research project by making balls that travel 15 and 25 yards shorter than current models.

This would not be a uniform ball, because players still could arrange their own specifications (launch angle, spin rate, etc.). But the ball would not fly as far, exactly the kind of rollback Nicklaus and Tatum are advocating.

Rugge, in a phone interview last week, said the USGA expects to receive prototype, reduced-distance balls from manufacturers "very soon." Rugge and his staff -- 18 people in all, including six engineers -- will then embark on extensive research to determine how those balls would affect the game.

"To some people, it's as simple as a shorter ball," Rugge said. "I can tell you from our research, it's a much more complex issue than that."


Top players, not surprisingly, are cool to the idea of limits on technology. Woods, asked earlier this year about the ongoing chatter about a uniform ball, practically scoffed, saying, "I don't think it's realistic at all. Do you realize what that would do to the golf-ball industry?"

Gee, think he has a lucrative endorsement contract?

Mickelson similarly downplayed the possibility of a uniform ball. As for rolling back the ball, he said, "I don't think we'll ever get to that point," though the USGA's impending research project suggests it's possible. Woods, interestingly, seems open to rolling back the ball.

For now, technology rolls forward on several fronts. The USGA recently proposed a "liberal limit" on so-called moment of inertia, to address the modern drivers that create good shots even with imperfect contact. Rugge said a final decision will be made in the coming months.

In the coming days, all eyes will turn to Augusta and the stretched-out course awaiting Woods, Mickelson and their brethren. They will arrive armed with the finest equipment available, ready to tackle the beast. There will be much talk about those 4-plus miles of Georgia landscape -- and not as much talk about the little white balls at the center of the action.