Too Big? Why the USGA aims to ban supersize drivers

Scott Smith

On Dec. 19, the U.S. Golf Association shocked the golf industry by proposing for the first time to limit the total size of clubheads, to no more than 385 cubic centimeters. That’s nearly twice the size of an original Callaway Big Bertha driver (191cc, shown at top), roughly one-sixth bigger than the recent Ping TiSI (323cc, middle), yet far smaller than one of the biggest new drivers on the market, Jazz Golf’s 500cc Ball Launcher (bottom). The USGA also proposed limiting the length of golf shafts, other than on putters, to 47 inches.

Faced with a nearly unanimous response from golf-club makers that the call to limit clubhead size was out of bounds, on Jan. 10, the USGA took a mulligan. The new cc ceiling, it decreed, would be 460, plus an additional 10cc leeway for design and measurement tolerances. The 385cc limit was picked not for any technical reason, but because it was “middle ground,” says Dick Rugge, USGA Senior Technical Director. “It was above where the marketplace exists today and below where we were afraid the marketplace could get to very shortly.” The second, 470cc limit was selected, Rugge adds, because it was higher than the size of any club the USGA has ruled on to date. (Though clubs in the 500cc range have been submitted to the USGA in the past four months.)

The reason for the unprecedented–and ungainly–bid to cap clubhead size has nothing to do with distance, and all to do with tradition, insists the USGA. “There was a sudden appearance of excessively sized clubheads,” Rugge says. “This demonstrates the ability of golf-club manufacturers to stretch technological limits beyond what was anticipated. The USGA must act now to prevent erosion of club traditions.”

The golf industry reacted to the initial, 385cc limit with a mixture of befuddlement and outrage. Many complained that the proposed ban came with no advance warning, and would waste months of research and millions of dollars of investment in producing new, larger drivers. Others criticized the move as ill-conceived and unnecessary. Some companies prepared for legal action against the game’s governing body.

Many in the industry were heartened by the USGA’s concession, which came before the Feb. 19 deadline it set for receiving comments on the original proposals. “We appreciate that it has responded so quickly to feedback,” says Joe Gomes, director of communications for Acushnet Co., which has a 427cc Cobra driver in the works. “We remain, however, concerned that the USGA is attempting to regulate in areas where we don’t believe additional regulation is necessary to protect the game.”

(To gauge how the average golfer views new technology and its impact, Golf Digest conducted an in-depth telephone survey of its subscribers following the USGA’s initial, 385cc limit. Highlights are shown at right.)

The USGA claims that supersize drivers run counter to the Rule of Golf that states, “The club shall not be substantially different from the traditional and customary form and make.” Says Terry Hashimoto of Jazz Golf: “Our 500cc driver is not radical; it is a continuum of where the market is heading. The size limit is unfair. The USGA is trying to punish us for being innovative.” That such clubs are “excessively” sized is “purely a matter of opinion,” contends Marty Irving of Belly Golf, which markets the 500cc Hangtime X 25 driver. “You cannot make a ruling on opinion alone.” (Makers of drivers exceeding 470cc may yet catch a break: The USGA method of measuring clubhead size does not include the hosel, which can measure 30cc or more.)

Frank Thomas, technical director of the USGA from 1974 to 2000 and now Golf Digest’s chief technical advisor, notes that “terms such as ‘traditional’ and ‘customary’ have for years been reserved for radical change–such as a piston-powered driver or the croquet-style putter–when the personal challenge the game presents, or the game as a whole, was threatened. To try to ‘preserve’ the game by limiting bigger clubheads or longer shafts (but not the long putter) makes no sense. The amended proposal is no better than the first.”

Among companies off the hook with the more accommodating limit is Nike Golf, which was planning to debut a 400cc driver in January. In fact, PGA Tour player Mark Brooks said he would play the 400cc driver this season. “[Big] Bertha was odd-looking when it came out,” Brooks told Golf Digest’s weekly sister magazine, Golf World. “There have always been odd-looking clubs, dating to the 1800s. Is there a point where big becomes too big? Sure. We saw it with oversize irons. But we didn’t need a rule to find that out.”

If, as many in the golf industry suspect, the USGA is using the “traditional and customary” language to cloak its desire to limit distance, then it’s facing a still-determined crowd of skeptics. As Tom Wishon, a veteran club designer and member of the Golf Digest Equipment Panel, states: “There is no science that guarantees a bigger head and a longer shaft length will result in more distance.” He and other R&D experts argue that the USGA already has a control on distance in place–its limit on the coefficient of restitution (COR), or the springlike effect of thin clubfaces.

“The only advantage of a large head is that it will potentially allow for a larger sweet spot,” adds Thomas. “The unfortunate part of the USGA’s action is that it will have its impact on the wrong people–the seniors, the women and the beginners–all of whom need a little help.”

RELATED ARTICLE: Your Views on New Golf Technology

Golf Digest recently conducted telephone interviews of 300 golfers, asking them about the impact new technology is having on their games and the game of golf overall. Where applicable, the results of this 2002 survey are compared with those from a similar survey conducted in 1998. Among our findings:

Has new technology in golf equipment benefited your game?

2002 1998

Yes 77% 69%

No 20% 27%

Don’t know 3% 4%

How has new technology benefited your game? (Multiple answers)

2002 1998

More forgiving

on off-center hits 66% 61%

Longer shots 54% 49%

Straighter or more 44% 58%

accurate shots

Don’t know [less than] 1% 1%

Which one area of golf equipment

do you think is most responsible

for improving the typical amateur golfer’s

game and making shots go farther

and straighter?

2002 1998

The golf ball 27% 11%

Clubhead material 22% 22%

Shaft material 21% 24%

Size of clubhead 21% 24%

Length of shaft 1% 11%

Other/Don’t know 8% 8%

Do you think tour pros should abide by different equipment rules

than the typical golfer and be restricted from using certain equipment?

Yes 32%

No 67%

Don’t know 1%

Do you think that oversize drivers, exceeding 385cc, should be banned?


Yes 22%

No 74%

Don’t know 4%

Banned for Tour Pros

Yes 36%

No 59%

Don’t know 5%

If oversize drivers exceeding 385cc were banned

(ruled nonconforming by the USGA), would you play with one?

Yes 18%

No 79%

Don’t know 3%

Results projectable within a sampling

tolerance of 5.6 percent.

COPYRIGHT 2002 New York Times Company Magazine Group, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group

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