Letter From Saugerties, Bifurcation Edition

The latest letter from Frank Hannigan, former USGA Executive Director, responding to the recent talk of bifurcating the rules.

Dear Geoff,

From During a recent exposure to the press tour commissioner Tim Finchem mused about the occasional benefits of bifurcation-, that awful word-, citing instances when the Tour went off on its own, presumably to its benefit.  Specifically, he cited grooves and adoption of what is generally called the "one ball rule."
U-grooves were introduced into the Rules of Golf by the USGA in 1984. Finchem's predecessor Deane Beman was obsessed with grooves. He felt the U-grooves changed the essence of the game. The USGA did not agree.     
The Tour announced it would ban U grooves. Ping, the first manufacturer to adopt U grooves, sought and received an injunction restraining the Tour. Ping first sued the Tour and a little later the USGA which had ruled that the Ping version of U-grooves alone did not conform to the Rules of Golf.
Ping charged the Tour with 9 violations of the law. The case was heard by a federal judge in Phoenix, Ping's home. The judge ruled from the bench that the Tour had acted so outrageously that it was guilty per se of  one of the 9 charges. As a consequence, if the case came to trial the jury's only role on that count would be to determine a dollar amount representing damage done to Ping.
Since it was an anti trust case that amount would be automatically trebled.
The jury would consist of 6  local citizens trying to stay awake during a lengthy trial on an arcane matter.   They would have surely have been aware of one factor:  Ping, with about 1500 employees, was good for the economy of Phoenix.Might they have been influenced on the remaining 8 counts by the judge already having labeled the Tour as bad guys?  I think so.
Karsten Solheim, the owner of Ping, opted to settle.  The key point in the settlement was that the Tour would not ban U grooves.  Quite simply, the Tour lost. I can think of no other instance  in which a professional sports entity is legally prohibited from determining what its equipment will be.  It's as if major league baseball could not ban metal bats.

The other settlement terms were not announced I have always assumed the Tour had to compensate Solheim for his considerable legal fees. As for Beman, the late Leonard Decof,  Solheim's lawyer, once boasted to a group of anti trust lawyers at a Chicago meeting "He'll be gone soon."      

Ping's suit against the USGA was also settled. No money changed hands, I know that because I was named with others in the USGA hierarchy as an individual defendant and therefore had to sign the settlement. The USGA relented on an important point. All Ping clubs made up to a specified date  would be grandfathered eternally under the Rules of Golf. Solheim, however, changed his grooves on  the same day  so as to conform with USGA rules,  which he had vowed never to do,

The Tour, to this day, flinches when it hears a threat of anti trust behavior.  

As for the one ball rule,  it was enacted with the concurrence of the USGA. It was directed at the use of balls performing differently in different conditions. The 2 piece balls of the 1970s had a distance  advantage depending on the angle of launch.  This advantage peaked at about 19 degrees, 5 ironish. (Incidentally, the two piece ball also putted longer.  A stroke producing a roll of l0 feet with the 2 piece ball would roll 9 feet with the softer balata ball).  
It was also a time when Acushnet was producing a different version of its Titleist balls.  Seve Ballesteros used the one with larger dimples driving downwind as he won his first British Open at Lytham. He reverted to a  traditional ball on the other holes..  
I once had a conversation with Tom Watson when he expressed outrage about ball changing. He had ripped a 3 iron, using a balata ball, to the green of a hard par 3 hole.  Watson said he then watched in dismay as  fellow competitor Rik Massengale unzipped  his ball pouch,  pulled  out a Molitor, and used  a 5 iron successfully.

The USGA felt that the choice of different brands of balls during a round should play no part in the outcome. But it wanted to know what the players felt. So we sent a letter to every member of both the PGA Tour and the LPGA (having obtained the mail addresses from both organizations). The players were asked if they would favor or oppose a local rule which would limit them to use of but one brand of ball during a round,   

Remember, this happened during the days of snail mail. Tour players were not famous for being correspondents.  But they reacted in large numbers.  Overwhelmingly, including those who had taken to switching brands during rounds, the players favored adoption of the one ball rule.
During this episode the USGA said not one word to ball manufacturers. The USGA didn't give a damn what manufacturers felt. They are involved in golf for the purpose of making money. The USGA exists in an attempt to preserve a game.
Those who favor bifurcation never explain what it is they want to happen. They are in the business of golf, and the golf business is bad.  So they blame the USGA, defining it as a totalitarian entity that does whatever it feels like doing without any concern for or interest in what the rest of golf thinks.   The head of the Taylor Made outfit recently predicted the absolute demise of the USGA, a death which would presumably cause golf to glow again.  I took that to mean that Addidas, the sports equipment colossus that owns Taylor Made, is not thrilled with its subsidiary's performance.
In point of fact,  the rules-making process is remarkably democratic.   There are 5 members of the committee proper  drawn from the USGA executive committee. They have no axes to grind.  They are influenced and to some extent educated by the USGA staff. Additionally, there are 4 advisory members representing the PGA Tour, the LPGA, the PGA of America and the country's regional golf associations.  They matter.  I can't conceive of the 5 regular members shoving a rules change down the throats of the advisory people.
The Tour representative, named by Finchem, especially matters. For better or worse, the Tour has come to have something close to veto power,particularly when it comes to equipment. If there is a discussion about a rules change and should the Tour's man says "We will not play that rule," the discussion is over.

Frank Hannigan
Saugergties, New York