Golf ball standards; left-handed catchers; unusual college nicknames

A funny thing happened on the way to the Buick Open golf tournament last week. Players who would normally have teed up the popular Titleist Tour 384 golf ball found it had been banned by the United States Golf Association. The Wilson Aviator was also dropped from the list of conforming golf balls, of which there are about 350.

This sort of thing might have gone unnoticed, except that Hal Sutton had used the 384 (so named because of its dimple count) a week earlier in winning the PGA Championship. The scenario, critics felt, was all too similar to what happened last year, when Tom Watson's ball, the Golden Ram Pro Tour B, was declared illegal after he used it to win the US and British Opens.

In both instances, the victories stand, since the Titleist and Ram models were on the conformity list at the time Sutton and Watson played them. And in neither case were the golfers trying to gain an unfair advantage.

What we're talking about here are very minor violations of tremendously exacting standards. For example, the Ram ball was only one- to two-thousandths of an inch under the 1.68-inch limit. The Titleist ball didn't pass the rigid guidelines dictating spherical symmetry.

''Golf balls are very complex projectiles,'' says Frank Thomas of the USGA, ''and right now there seems to be a dimple race going on. People have gotten the idea that the length of a shot and the number of dimples on the surface of the ball are proportional, which is not necessarily the case. But it all becomes a very sensitive thing determining which balls meet the standards.''

The USGA checks balls during the winter for size, weight, and initial velocity before putting them through a second battery of tests outdoors during the summer, using a mechanical driver. Three times each year a list of conforming balls is issued, but landing on this list is no guarantee of staying on it. Balls are constantly being tested, and the slightest alteration in the manufacturing process can sometimes cause a ball to lose its legal status. New balls, which check out OK during the indoor inspection, are essentially conditionally approved, pending further testing. Wherefore art thou, lefties?

Major league baseball is loaded with left-handed players, at least in certain positions, namely pitcher, the outfield, and first base. But when was the last time you saw a left-handed catcher? Or, for that matter, a left-hander at any of the infield positions but first?

The fact is, certain positions are almost the exclusive province of right-handers. Hardly anyone gives this a second thought. But then a player like Mike Squires will come along to remind us of this seeming oddity. Squires is a first baseman with the Chicago White Sox, but in 1980 he worked behind the plate twice, making him the first left-handed catcher in the majors since Dale Long in 1958.

The other week, announcers on the Monday night game between Chicago and Detroit shared this bit of trivia, but without really getting into the reasons for it.

Putting a left-hander at catcher poses a few problems, even if seemingly minor ones. Most batters are right-handed, and therefore more likely to be in the way of a left-handed catcher trying to throw out a runner attempting to steal second. On plays at the plate, the right-handed catcher has his glove more conveniently positioned on the third-base side.

Variations on this sort of logic can be used to explain the absence of lefties at second, third, and short. For example, a third baseman has to cover more ground to his left than down the line. Consequently, it's an advantage for a player to wear his glove on the left hand, since it makes for greater reach - and throwing to first is less awkward, too.

Dale Long, incidentally, was a journeyman first baseman who made more of an impression hitting home runs than he did during two games catching for the Chicago Cubs in 1958. While with Pittsburgh, Long set a major league record by homering in eight consecutive games. Among the pitchers he connected against were Warren Spahn, Carl Erskine, and Lindy McDaniel. The no-joke Artichokes

West Coast football writer Mike Welds has put together a list of the 10 most unusual college nicknames. Spiders, Blue Hens, Presidents, Fighting Engineers, Student Princes, Vulcans, and Poets definitely rate as different. Still further out are the Flying Nanooks of Alaska and the Fighting Kangaroos of Missouri-Kansas City. Most outlandish of all, however, may be the Artichokes of Scottsdale (Ariz.) Community College. Now there's a name only a vegetarian could love.

According to the school's athletic department, the nickname was chosen by the students as a ''putdown'' earlier in the college's 12-year history. Campus activists were concerned the school was gaining a reputation as a farm club for Arizona State University and decided to deflate the sports program with a name-the-teams contest.

The athletic department lives with ''Artichokes'' uneasily, basically choosing to ignore the nickname. Yet there are no indications it will change, this despite once using Drovers (animal herders).

Others may laugh, but to their credit, the Artichokes are serious and sometimes superior competitors. The men's golf team and women's volleyball squad are junior-college champions, and the school's football team is consistently in the top 10. She said it . . .

* Tennis veteran Rosemary Casals on playing in youth-laden women's pro tournaments: ''I don't know anybody anymore. I look around the place, and here are all these kids who should be in school. This is supposed to be women's tennis, but it isn't women's tennis anymore - it's kids' tennis. And in a lot of ways, it's kind of sad.''

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