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December 2012

What Will Now Happen to the Future of Golf Equipment?

Jeff Summit - Technical Director for Hireko Golf

Earlier this week, I saw an article by James Achenbach (Golfweek) announcing the retirement of Dick Rugge effective February 2, 2013.  At first, I didn’t know if I should get up and clap or bury my head in a pillow and sulk about the future of not only golf equipment, but this great game in general. If you don’t know who Dick Rugge is, he might be one, if not, of the most powerful men in all of golf as his decisions are responsible for all the equipment rules at golf’s governing body (USGA).

His decisions are paramount to my livelihood as technical director of Hireko Golf, as well as all my other peers, who have to work within the scope (within reason) of the decisions that come down from him and his staff. Here is the dilemma; on one hand golfers want exciting and innovative golf equipment that will help their game out.  On the other hand, the Rules of Golf are designed to rein in technology so that it does not give an unfair advantage to players. As you can imagine, there is a fine line to the balance of these rules. Like any manufacturer, there have been times when an equipment decision did not come in our favor and either delayed or derailed a project from ever making it to market.

Prior to his 13 year stint as senior technical director at the USGA, Rugge worked eleven years for TaylorMade where he was instrumental in the design, marketing, research and testing of their products.  Having worked both sides of the fence, I have always given him the benefit of the doubt he understands what trials and tribulations a manufacturer has from a simple idea to bringing a product to market.

Lasting impressions
In my more than a quarter-century career in the golf industry, I have seen wooden woods become metal and then titanium.  I have seen blade style irons replaced by cavity back models or hybrid-type clubs.  Balls are much better as so too is the agronomy on the courses I can play.  In each case made it easier to for me and the average golfer to play this game and yet at the same time work within the Rules of Golf.  In his tenure, there were 6 major equipment decisions that changed the game as we know it today.

Volume
At the time Dick Rugge joined the USGA there was a proliferation of technology – most notably in the driver category. In 1999, the largest driver was 300 cc. The year 2000 saw the first 350cc driver, followed by 2001 with a 400cc driver and finally a 500cc driver was made in 2002.  It was well known at this time that the larger driver would have a higher moment of inertia and subsequently makes it easier to hit the ball straighter even on off-center shots. At this point, the USGA stepped in and began to propose limits on drivers (and other clubs) as they were potentially seeing technology threaten to diminish skill level. So in October 2003, the USGA imposed a 460cc limit on clubhead size effective January 1, 2004 to this date.  We have become accustomed to it and so have the headcover manufacturers.  Would golfers like this rule repealed so they can tote a bigger brick-on-a-stick?  I would say probably not.

Spring-like Effect
One of the byproducts of a larger, thinner walled club is the velocity of the ball coming off the face.  Probably the most notable and controversial decision was placing a limit on spring-like effect.  At the time (Jan 1, 2003), the C.O.R. (Coefficient of Restitution) limit would become 0.830. Later under his leadership, the C.O.R. test would be replaced by a simpler and portable pendulum test – Characteristic Time or CT for short.  This simple test allowed manufacturers to measure their clubs using the same procedure and accuracy as the USGA.

It didn’t come without some controversy though as you had the likes of Arnold Palmer publically railing against the rule.  Plus, the USGA and the R&A had separate rules as the R&A had adopted the higher (0.860) COR limit for a period of five years before backing it down to be the same as the USGA.  This had manufacturers making models for the US and Mexico market and possibly another more active face model for everywhere else in the world creating utter confusion at the time.

As the dust settled over that interval, we now have today a Conforming Driver and Non-Conforming Driver lists for golfers to follow.  That is assuming that a manufacturer elected to submit their product at all or the driver may not conform to one of the many other rules in which it would not show up on either list.

Personally this is one rule I wish would have been repealed or not enacted at all. The laws of physics become a limit not to mention the breakage that occurs by pushing the limits.  I can understand the reason for the rule as to limit overall distance and preserve land on existing golf courses.

Moment of Inertia
On Aug. 30, 2005 the USGA published a proposal to implement a test and limit for clubhead moment of inertia (MOI). In an attempt to cap technology and to not diminish the skills of the golfer, the USGA put a limit on the moment of inertia of a golf club and assigned a value to it (5900g-cm2 or 32.259 oz-in2).  At the time, this created a bunch of buzz amongst manufactures, but that buzz didn’t last long.  In order for the limit to be reached or rather approached, manufacturers had to resort to square and other oddly shaped clubs that either golfer’s didn’t care for the shape, the high pitched sound or both.  Plus out in the field of play the MOI of an ordinary 4500 g-cm2 driver compared to the maximum allowable (5900g-cm2) showed very little advantage in forgiveness.

While ear plugs are not essential attire for today’s golfer, this rule became much ado about nothing. The 460cc limit as well as the other dimensional requirements (shown below) was enough of a self-imposing rule.

     (a)    The distance from the heel to toe of the clubhead is greater than the distance               from the face to the back;
     (b)   The distance from the heel to the toe of the clubhead is not greater than 5              inches (127mm); and
     (c)    The distance from the sole to the crown of the clubhead is not greater than              2.8 inches (71.12mm).

Length
This is probably the least known of the rules implemented during his tenure, but at the time there was no maximum allowable length; only a minimum (18”).  In 2005, a conforming golf club (except for putters) could be no longer than 48”.  Let’s face it, the average golfer struggles hitting the ball in the center of the face and aiming at their intended target with a driver 2-3” shorter than the limit.  Plus, why punish very tall golfers too.  Maybe a fairer rule would be to assign a limit to the length of a club (again a non-putter) like 68.5% of the player’s height.  That is an average 5’ 10” male could use a driver no longer than 48” or a 7’ tall golfer could use up to a 57.5” if he or she so desires.

Grooves
The latest of the rules took effect Jan 1, 2010 and was a result of a 3 year study on more aggressive grooves on wedges and irons. A few major OEMs decided to make boutique or designer grooves that would allow golfer of the highest skill level under certain course conditions gain a small advantage.  What did the rule mean to the average golfer?  First, it meant higher manufacturing costs because it more expensive to produce grooves to the provisions in the rule which is then passed onto all consumers.  Second, the average golfer doesn’t play under the same course conditions as the top tier player to ever witness any possible spin difference.  Lastly, for golfers that are short of their target, then any additional spin will just make then further from the hole.

I believe the beauty of golf was there is one set of rules for all players.  Now that doesn’t exist.  There is no clear list of conforming and non-conforming irons like there was with drivers not to mention confusion on what some players can use in certain circumstances.  There were many other ways in my opinion to limit designer grooves on golf clubs that would not have willfully harmed manufacturers or golfer’s pocketbooks.

Adjustability
I saved this one for last. The greatest achievement I believe Dick Rugge deserves credit for is being open-minded and allowing for adjustability in golf clubs (2008).  As someone who grew up playing with Legos or an erector set, this was the vision I wished the golf industry to take. We are not just talking about removable screws to change clubhead bias, but allowing for pieces and parts to be interchanged, albeit within the Rules of Golf.  Not only does this save in tooling costs for manufacturers so they don’t have to meet every conceivable specification, but allows freedom in custom fitting to help optimize shafts and clubhead angles to the golfer’s natural swing. I give you high marks Mr. Rugge for this, but not quite an A plus as there is always some interpretation to the Rules of Golf.

The Future
Don’t get me wrong, we need rules and regulations and I think he worked with well with manufacturers by discussing their stance and letting manufactures weigh in and give their opinion.  That is open communication and how it should work.  What will be the next major equipment decision in the future?  Will it be on golf ball distance, anchored putters or maybe an on-going concern we are not aware of?  That is all to be seen.

I hope whoever takes over for Dick Rugge’s difficult position will not look at any decisions that hinder technology nor do I want it to be a free-for-all.  Put yourself in the position of those designing as not to hamstring innovation, which is the core to golf club sales and stifle an entire industry that is not exactly growing in an increased level of participation.  But maybe more importantly, look at decisions that will affect all and not just a handful of individuals at the top of the performance pyramid.  Remember the vast majority of golfers play recreationally and do not even carry a handicap.  Plus, low score wins and maybe an occasional sub-60 round on tour will create more long-time interest in this great game.



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