WSJ Story: "Maybe the problem isn't the ball, after all"

Thanks to reader John for this Conor Dougherty story in the Wall Street Journal, where the USGA continues to try desperately to shift the distance issue to a grooves debate:

Is the long debate over golf balls cooling off?

One day after the Masters Tournament last year, the U.S. Golf Association, golf's U.S. rule maker, sent a letter to ball manufacturers requesting prototypes of balls that wouldn't fly as far as those in use today. The announcement, which came amid claims by traditionalists including golfing legend Jack Nicklaus that longer drives on the PGA Tour were changing the game for the worse, sent waves through the industry.

The USGA emphasized it wanted only to get a better understanding of golf-ball technology, in case "the need to change the rules arises," but the move was viewed by some as a first step toward a dead-ball era.

Now the rhetoric from some of the most vocal traditionalists has softened, and the USGA says changing golf balls may not be the best solution to curbing longer drives. What happened?

Not sure which "vocal traditionalists" have gone quiet, judging by this site's listing of recent remarks from famous golfers calling on a rollback.

The USGA says its research has caused it to look beyond the golf ball. The issue may be not the changes in the golf ball, the association now says, but rather the way players have reacted to those changes.
Dick Rugge, the USGA's senior technical director, says pros have probably changed their style of play to accommodate newer golf balls that fly far but are also easy to control. In generations past, players had to make precise shots onto the fairway to win. Now they're increasingly trading accuracy for distance, hitting powerful drives that land in the rough more often and then hitting shorter irons to the green.


These very visible changes, coupled with the new, sloppier style of play, angered traditionalists. Rather than lengthen golf courses each year, they argue, why not wind back the golf ball instead? "We've noticed that, in a lot of cases, [technology] makes our golf courses play quite a bit differently than they were intended when they were originally designed," says Alan Fadel, who is on the board of governors of the Ohio State Golf Association.

At its Champions Tournament in August, the association will issue a single kind of ball to all of the competitors, a high-spin model with a soft cover. This, in theory, should even the playing field for players with slower swing speeds. "It's more of a political statement than anything," Mr. Fadel says.

Dougherty recalls the 2002 Joint Statement of Principles, often forgotten these days in Far Hills:

In 2002, the USGA, which governs golf in the U.S. and Mexico, and Scotland's R&A, golf's ruling body for the rest of the world, said that if driving distances continued to increase they would consider changing the specifications for balls. Three years later, the USGA sent the letter asking manufacturers for prototype short balls.

Naturally, ball manufacturers oppose a rollback, and they argue that a change wouldn't be easy. Golf balls are built to an "overall distance standard" of 320 yards, which is defined as the maximum distance the ball will travel when hit by a titanium club, at 120 mph, under certain launch conditions. To change the standard, companies would have to fiddle with variables including the weight and size, as well as the cover and dimples, to change how the ball spins during flight.

"Then all iterations must be tested off the tee, as well as through the green, to confirm how the prototype is going to perform with all golfers and with all clubs in the bag under all conditions and types of shots to be faced," says Wally Uihlein, chief executive of Acushnet, based in Fairhaven, Mass.

Uh huh. Here's the part where somehow they think that changing groove specs will be less complicated and more important than a ball change:

The USGA has been busy researching hard data on the performance of golf balls. It crunched statistics on everything from the accuracy of drives on the PGA Tour to the correlation between accuracy and winning. The USGA made some discoveries that went against conventional wisdom -- and strengthened the case for keeping the balls as they were. The growth in driving distance, for instance, has tapered off in recent years. More important, distance alone doesn't help pros win. The longest hitters, the USGA found, do not win a disproportionate amount of tournaments, although they do win slightly more than in the past.

For now, the USGA is experimenting with new ways to penalize sloppy drives. For its U.S. Open Championships, the organization has traditionally had courses cut a narrow band of shorter rough along the fairway, and the rest of the rough -- called the primary rough -- cut to a uniform height of around three to five inches. But for this week's U.S. Open at Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, N.Y., the USGA varied the primary rough: It will start with a 20-foot-wide band about three inches high; beyond that out to the spectator ropes, it will be at least five inches high. This deeper rough will hurt the least-accurate drivers the most, while rewarding cleaner play.

"We noticed that a shot that barely trickles into the rough has a similar penalty as a ball that goes 15 yards into the rough, and that just didn't seem fair to us," says Marty Parkes, a USGA spokesman. "We were trying to match the penalties with the crime."

And, just in case you weren't sure that these people have lost their golfing soul...

Another way to force golfers to be more accurate, Mr. Rugge says, would be to modify irons to make shots from the rough harder to control. The key to this is a series of small grooves on the face of irons: When the ball is struck from deep, wet grass, the grooves allow water trapped between the club and the ball to disperse, increasing the friction between club and ball and allowing a more controlled shot. Changing the guidelines to require smaller grooves would make for less friction, and more erratic shots, thus giving golfers more incentive to keep the ball in the fairway.

One advantage of a change in iron specifications would be that it would affect only those players who can shoot from the rough with pinpoint precision -- the top percent of golfers. And while the USGA suffered a contentious lawsuit about an iron change in the 1980s, it might be able to sidestep the issue by grandfathering in older-model irons.

And does this also mean that the message is: harvest more rough?