Technology Meets Tradition at a Golf-Equipment Test Lab

PLAYERS SEEK HIGH-TECH EDGE

JOE McDIVOT beats his brother Jim by just one stroke after 18 holes. Was it talent? His brother doesn't think so. He thinks it was Joe's $500 driver with the super-galactic graphite shaft.

In golf - a game of inches, a game where securing every possible advantage can mean the better score - does equipment make the player?

``People completely overemphasize the importance of equipment,'' says Frank Thomas, technical director with the United States Golf Association.

Mr. Thomas runs the USGA research and test center here in Far Hills, N.J., which sets the standards for equipment. Their mission: to preserve the challenge of this ancient and honorable sport.

``When people play by the rules, they enjoy the game more,'' says Thomas, a stately man who warns that he can talk 18 holes' worth of golf philosophy.

The test center keeps equipment honest: It blew the whistle on one particular ball because it was designed to correct itself in flight, for example. A certain putter got the hook because it had a mirror attached to its head, so putters could align the putting head with the pin.

Each year, more than 700 types of golf balls and 225 clubs swing through the labs, where technology meets tradition. The USGA works closely with the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, Scotland, for worldwide conformity. (The USGA oversees the United States and Mexico; the RAGC looks after the rest of the world.)

A tour of the labs reveals an arcade of space-age machines: An air gun shoots balls onto club heads to measure impact. A wind tunnel serves for aerodynamic study. ``Iron Byron'' - a mechanical golfer named after golfing great Byron Nelson - reproduces a golfer's swing for measuring distance. Outside, a consistent turf is maintained as a test range.

About 98 percent of all balls submitted pass; only 50 percent of the clubs do. The USGA also disapproves other equipment that interferes with ``fairness,'' such as a leveling device on a cap or lines on glasses.

Some manufacturers, however, see the test center as a water hazard in the billion-dollar golf-equipment industry. Thomas estimates he spends a quarter of his time mired in lawsuits from companies whose devices were disapproved. (None of the manufacturers have won a case.)

The equipment industry has an ongoing challenge - ``How does new technology interact with a game that's so old?'' says Ed Isaac, a plant manager with Titleist and Foot-Joy Worldwide, which manufactures golf balls and clubs. Basically, the USGA is responsible for ``protecting the game of golf,'' he says.

Thomas surmises that golf equipment is close to its optimum. ``I don't see any major difference in performance,'' he says confidently. ``The equipment has evolved. The game has evolved. It's so old, we've basically tried everything.'' However, he does see innovation in new materials such as titanium club heads and graphite and boron golf shafts. The fitting of clubs is also important. As for balls, ``there's very little room for innovation,'' except in customizing golf balls to individuals.

Making golf easier is not really what the golfing public needs, says Thomas. Sometimes this techno-referee resorts to sarcasm when he tells manufacturers or inventive golfers: ``Why don't we just make the hole two inches bigger!'' But for the most part, ``they subconsciously understand what we do,'' says Thomas.

Some people try to buy the game with fancy equipment, he says. And sometimes new equipment will develop needed confidence. ``You can see enhanced performance not because of the physical properties of the piece of equipment, but because of the confidence of the individual who purchases it,'' says Thomas.

Still, at the end of the day, an average piece of equipment is adequate: ``One-hundred-dollars worth of lessons is worth more than $2,000 worth of equipment,'' he quips.

``We don't want to stifle innovation,'' Thomas assures, speaking for the USGA, ``but we recognize that challenge is what makes the game attractive.''

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