As the USGA celebrates its 100th birthday this year, it can bask
in the remarkable knowledge that baby boomers and even a fair
number of Generation Xers have actually come to find golf cool.
But even as the guardians of the game have stopped being a joke
to America's youth, they have been taking a public pummeling
from a bunch of old friends -- some of them golf's biggest names.
More than ever, many of the game's heaviest hitters are unified
in the belief that, for tournament pros, the advances in
equipment technology have compromised golf's essential challenge
and made what used to be a most difficult endeavor way too easy.
The perceived mess has been blamed on the USGA, the game's
official watchdog, which has been called everything from asleep
at the wheel to scared silly of potentially litigious equipment
According to the antitechnology lobby, modern equipment is the
reason for most of the game's ills. These Luddites say the
game's new clubs and balls have destroyed the art of shotmaking
and brought a tedious parity to the PGA Tour. Maybe even worse,
they say, is that because the golf ball is being hit so far,
classic sites such as Merion and Inverness have been made
obsolete. And Augusta National could be next. Even on courses
measuring more than 7,000 yards, most long hitters are able to
frequently use one- or two-irons off the tee without paying a
significant penalty on their second shots.
With every major championship the critics have gained more
ammunition. This year the biggest buzz was all about 19-year-old
U.S. Amateur champion Tiger Woods's turning Augusta's par-5s
into the equivalent of medium-length par-4s with drives that
left galleries and playing partners alike in awe. If this kid
and his equipment is the future, the logic goes, something has
to be done fast before golf's monuments to history become
Such doomsaying might be easy to put aside if all the urgency
was being generated by cranks. But how can the game ignore icons
like Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Gary Player and
Raymond Floyd, all of whom have a ready response every time the
issue of equipment is raised.
"It's the Number 1 priority facing the game today,'' says
Nicklaus. Adds Player, "Technology is killing golf. There's no
way anymore to compare the scores from today to what Ben Hogan
and Sam Snead shot.''
It's not just the competitors, either. Course architects, too,
are riled up about how the courses they designed to be
championship tests are now less challenging.
"If something isn't done about the new clubs and the new ball
soon,'' says 89-year-old Robert Trent Jones, the dean of course
designers, "I may have to go back and move the fairway bunkers
and tees on every course.''
Even the carefully measured voice of this country's greatest
golf historian, Herbert Warren Wind, is strident when it comes
to equipment and technology. "We want to produce players who can
play the shot, and play different shots, and that's now out of
the game,'' says the 78-year-old Wind, who is critical of the
USGA despite being the recipient this year of the organization's
highest honor, the Bob Jones Award. "The USGA has not been good
for the game in allowing all those special balls and clubs to
come in. The quality of golf has changed in the wrong way.''
These grandees leave the distinct impression that good golf is
going the way of good service, good manners and a decent Danish
pastry. The sky is falling and the apocalypse is upon us.
Standing squarely under this avalanche has been a lone figure,
Frank Thomas, who as technical director of the USGA for 21 years
is the gatekeeper regulating what new equipment gets into the
game and what doesn't. If Thomas feels buried by all the
criticism, he isn't letting on, perhaps because he believes
nearly all of it is a snow job.
"My estimation,'' says Thomas, "is that equipment has had
virtually no measurable effect on the game in the last 30 years.''
Statements like that have infuriated the game's titans. They are
not used to being so totally dismissed, as if they were merely
laboratory hamsters churning away under the dispassionate eye of
a haughty scientist. The psychic wound that Thomas has inflicted
is golf's version of the Big Hurt.
But to perceive Thomas as arrogant is to get the man wrong. In
fact, Thomas is an avid lover of the game, a six handicapper
with a breathless admiration for the skills and talents
possessed by the best players. He understands emotional
reactions to equipment controversies, but as a trained
mechanical engineer he must filter them out and look at the cold
"The people who are complaining love the game,'' says the
56-year-old native of South Africa in his rapid, neatly clipped
voice. "But I'm as concerned with protecting the game as they
are. I express it by saying, 'Before you make changes, make sure
you know what you are doing.' Right now, I'm very secure with
where golf is. I don't care how many players say they are
hitting it 30 yards longer. Right now, there is no evidence that
we have a problem.''
Thomas can cite chapter and verse. Since 1968 the USGA has
statistically monitored some 40 professional events a year. The
results reflect a surprising uniformity. They say that in that
time the length of the average drive on the PGA Tour has
increased only five to eight yards. Driving accuracy has
improved by only 0.2%. And the rate of greens hit in regulation
has actually dropped slightly.
Thomas thinks that players certainly have improved, but it is
because of factors far more significant than equipment. His take
is essentially Darwinian. As more players have been drawn to the
game and the rewards for success have increased, competition has
intensified, and that has forced players to practice more
rigorously, which in turn has led to advances in technique,
fitness and mental skills. "Let's assume for a moment that
equipment hadn't changed one iota for the last 30 years,'' he
says. "Would the players still be better and the shots hit
longer? Absolutely. People are going to improve.
"What confuses people is that the improvement takes place faster
in the pack than at the very top. It's happening in golf the
same way it does in any other endeavor, from the 100-yard dash
to the marathon. That's because humans are getting closer to the
point where they can't get any better, so there's a bunching
near the top.''
Thomas also emphasizes that the improved condition of golf
courses plays a big role in the ball going farther. "Many of the
fairways the pros play now are as fast or faster than the
average green speed that we found on courses in the mid-1970s,''
he says. "Tiger Woods obviously hits the ball very far, but the
distances he achieved at Augusta were also due to the firm and
closely cut fairways there. When a big drive lands in the
fairway today, it just goes and goes. But nobody has said we
should back off improving course conditions."
Thomas believes that because players aren't trained scientists,
they are as susceptible to hype as the average fan. The pros see
claims about advances in equipment coming from members of the
media enthralled with long-hitting stars and from manufacturers
who try to portray their products as performance-enhancing, and
they believe what they read.
"First, the media has concentrated on the extraordinary and
treated it as commonplace,'' says Thomas, citing the focus on
the exploits of John Daly in particular. "Second, golfers, even
top players, want to believe in magic. They want to believe that
the equipment is going to make the game easier for them. When
they try a new club, they want it to perform, and that creates a
positive attitude that can in fact improve performance while the
Indeed, most players are willing to admit that recent
improvements in golf clubs, like oversize metal wood heads and
perimeter weighting in irons, have not drastically changed the
nature of the game. Nicklaus, who is part owner of a club
company that bears his name, has been using an oversize titanium
head with a graphite shaft in his driver but otherwise plays
with a wooden-headed three-wood he has carried for more than 30
years, as well as forged irons with steel shafts. However,
Nicklaus is ready to go to war over his belief that the golf
ball now goes too far, flies too straight and cuts through wind
too well. He strongly feels that the ball should be souped down.
"I respect Frank Thomas and the USGA,'' says Nicklaus, "but they
aren't out there on the Tour day after day seeing what we see.
The golf ball definitely goes farther, and it's changed what a
whole flock of players can do.''
The effect, according to Nicklaus, has been to reduce the
advantage of the power player, an advantage he and Palmer
employed to ride herd on the Tour in the early 1960s. With
improvements in the aerodynamics and physical construction of
the golf ball, more and more players can reach par-5s in 2.
Meanwhile, truly long players like Daly or Davis Love III are
discouraged from using drivers off the tee on many holes that
weren't designed with suitable landing areas in the
"I think the current ball disproportionately helps the shorter
hitter,'' said Nicklaus. "Guys who were short, who had to have
great short games, are now pretty long. I would be much shorter
off the tee now if the ball hadn't changed. With the old ball, I
wouldn't be playing competitive golf at all.''
Nicklaus also believes the golf ball has compromised him as a
course architect. "How do you build golf courses if you think
the golf ball is going to go 10 yards farther in 10 more
years?'' he asks. "We'd like to do golf courses comparable in
style to a Merion or a Cypress Point. But if the driver has
already been taken out of your hand on the original, how do you
build a course like it?''
The capability of the new golf ball, in Nicklaus's opinion, has
caused officials to unduly trick-up classic tracks to keep the
scores historically viable. On Nicklaus's current endangered
list is Augusta National, where in 1965 he set the Masters'
72-hole scoring record of 17-under-par 271. "The course that I
played was a much easier course than the guys play today,'' he
says. "The Bermuda greens were about a third slower, there were
none of the new tees they've built to make the course longer,
they didn't shave the banks then, and they didn't put pins
where, if you hit a putt a little too hard, it would run off the
green. If I had been playing today's setup in 1965 and tried to
shoot 271, I wouldn't have a prayer. The problem is, they are
trying to handicap against length, against the distance the ball
is going. We are getting too close to the game bordering on too
Thomas listens closely to such analysis and gives extra credit
because it is coming from the player with the greatest record in
the sport. Then he methodically shoots it full of holes. First
of all, according to Thomas, the USGA did put limits on the ball
when it established the Overall Distance Standard in 1976. That
standard allows a ball to go a maximum of 296 yards when hit by
a machine armed with a 10-degree driver set at a club-head speed
of 110 mph. Room for a bit of extra distance was built into the
ODS to permit some innovation by manufacturers, and as a result
the golf ball is now flying about eight to 10 yards farther,
according to Thomas, who in a perfect world would have liked the
regulations to have been a little tighter. "Overall, the
restrictions have worked," he says. "If we had allowed the ball
to go 30 yards farther, we would have a problem. The point is,
the ball is not going to go any farther than it is right now.''
Second, Thomas thinks that Nicklaus's idea of somehow gearing
down the current ball, even if only limited to those used in
Tour competition, would create a nightmare of problems. For one,
golfers have shown a hunger to play the same equipment that
their heroes play. For another, some ball makers might be
inclined to sue as Karsten Manufacturing did when the USGA and
the PGA Tour tried to ban square-grooved clubs in 1989. (The
case later was settled out of court.) Finally, a rollback on the
balls might be the beginning of anarchy. "If you cut the ball
back, 99 percent of the people would want to continue to hit the
ball they're playing today,'' Thomas says. "Those who did would
be breaking the rules."
In fact, very little noise about the ball going too far comes
from players under 40. Nick Price, for example, who strongly
believed that square grooves adversely affected the integrity of
competition, doesn't consider advances in the ball a big
problem. "I think today's ball is certainly more consistent,''
says Price. "It goes farther, but that's due more to perfect
course conditions and the improved fitness of players. I
disagree with those who say the skill is going out of the game."
Such a statement by a top player is music to Thomas's ears. "Ask
the guys who aren't hitting it as far, or aren't playing as well
as they used to, and they say, 'Boy, this equipment is spoiling
the game,'" says Thomas. "If your own game is decreasing, then
other players' shots look like they're going farther. It's hard
for a great player to admit he isn't what he was.''
That assessment draws a chuckle and what some would consider a
surprising amount of self-effacement from Nicklaus. "My ego has
nothing to gain from this,'' he says. "There are a whole bunch
of guys who are better than I am. They are much better today
than we were. They should be. But I don't think their skills are
developed enough because the equipment doesn't force them to
develop certain skills. The ball is doing too much of it for
them. I don't want to see the game get out of hand to where
tournament golf is all one-irons and wedges.''
Neither does Thomas, but the difference is that he believes it
never will. "Perhaps it might have been a more interesting game
before,'' Thomas says. "Golfers have always said that about
their eras. And maybe they were right, although I doubt it. But
the point is, you can't go back. We don't want to preserve golf
as it was 100 years ago, or 50. If that had happened, we
wouldn't be where the game is today. And the game has never been
COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN Thomas uses a very consistent (though a bit mechanical) swing to monitor the impact of new clubs and balls. [Frank Thomas kneeling beside machine] COLOR PHOTO: JACQUELINE DUVOISIN Nicklaus has no beef with modern clubs (and still uses an old wood), but he feels the balls are too lively. [Jack Nicklaus]
COLOR PHOTO: JACQUELINE DUVOISIN [John Daly]
TALE OF THE TAPE
Everyone talks about how far today's pros, like John Daly
(above), hit the ball, but PGA Tour yardage statistics tell a
surprising story. A look at the driving-distance standings on
the Tour during the past 25 years shows that top to bottom,
there hasn't been that big a change in how far the ball is
1969 1984 1994
Winner 273.0 276.5 283.4
5th Place 269.0 274.6 278.4
15th Place 262.0 269.7 273.7
25th Place 259.0 267.0 271.4
Source: PGA Tour