Banned clubs may drive action at British Open

As the world's greatest golfers meet on the bunker-riddled course at Royal Lytham & St. Annes this weekend for the 130th British Open, all eyes will be on Tiger Woods and his pursuit of a repeat championship there.

But another plot also will be worth watching at the fabled 6,905-yard course in Lancashire, England, where the wind whips off the Irish Sea: the ball, how far it is capable of traveling, and whether or not that even matters.

In today's age of golf - in which the average PGA Tour player drives 20 yards farther than he did 30 years ago - courses are being flown over by the big hitters. Players like Woods are stronger and more flexible than ever before. They drive beyond traps, their balls cruise down fairways, and they hit soaring wedges to the greens. On some courses, par-5 holes seem like automatic birdies.

At Lytham this weekend, pros will have a new weapon to add to their repertoire, if they choose. It's Callaway's ERC II driver, and others like it, including the TaylorMade "R" series, which have been deemed nonconforming by the United States Golf Association (USGA). The British Open, governed by the Royal & Ancient Golf Association (the R&A), is the only major tournament to allow the drivers.

For the first time since the new clubs entered the market two years ago, leading players from the European Tour - including Pierre Fulke, Mark McNulty, and Phillip Price, all of whom have won European Tour events with the ERC II - are expected to use them at the British Open.

If these players can parlay the extra 10 to 15 yards that the drivers are said to give them into success at Lytham, some vexing questions are sure to resurface - not only about the nonconforming drivers, but about other equipment that could threaten the game's tender balance, including the super-long Titleist Pro V1 ball.

A big showing by new technology would, in effect, affirm the USGA's position that the "springlike" drivers should be blacklisted from the professional game. The USGA's line in the sand would stick and, in all likelihood, embolden future efforts to curb new technology.

"We want to be more in a protective mode than a corrective mode," explains Dick Rugge, the USGA's senior technology director. "One of the things we're concerned about is extra yardage that comes without extra skill by the golfer."

If, on the other hand, the drivers fail to make a difference at Lytham - a course that favors accuracy over power - the R&A would be affirmed. The results would send a reassuring message to duffers and pros alike, that, at least for now, even the latest technology cannot beat brutal bunkers, thick rough, and testy greens.

"The drivers don't just magically hit the ball," says Callaway spokesman Larry Dorman, echoing the R&A. "They don't eliminate skill from the game."

Technology can undoubtedly alter a sport, and sometimes harm it. Look at tennis. After the oversized racquet was introduced in 1975, the game was never the same. The era of the rocket serve began; the sport dropped in popularity.

Golf, on the other hand, is only getting more and more popular. But who's to say the growth will last? One side argues that new technologies make the game more fun for recreational players. Others worry about the sanctity of a sport steeped in history. Either way, the massive amounts of money involved fog everyone's intentions.

The USGA measures a driver's effectiveness by a coefficient of restitution (COR). COR is based on the differences in speed of a ball before and after it hits the club face. In a test in which a ball is shot at the club at 100 m.p.h., for example, and leaves the club at 75 m.p.h., its COR rating is 75 divided by 100, or .75.

Wooden clubs from 20 years ago had little spring in them, and their COR rating was about .78 (although there was no means to measure at the time). Some nonconforming clubs, whose oversized, thin, titanium faces bend inward upon contact, reportedly have COR ratings as high as .90. The USGA, which figures that each percentage point of COR equals 2 additional yards of distance in a professional swing, has set a limit of .83 for official play.

What's more, despite popular perception, the extra power of these drivers doesn't necessarily detract from their accuracy. "Less harm is done to the flight of the ball," says Stanley Johnson, an engineering professor at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., who consults for the USGA. "Jumbo clubs straighten people's drives."

The effects of new technology - as well as stronger, better-trained athletes - can be seen at nearly every golf course that hosts pro tournaments. New courses are built longer, old ones are expanded. At the moment, officials at the Augusta (Ga.) National Golf Club, home of the Masters, have begun construction to lengthen their par-4 holes - they're even trying to buy land from an adjacent course. Lytham, meanwhile, has added 14 new bunkers (bringing their total to 196), many of them positioned to trap long drives.

"Everybody's trying to strategically place bunkers or add length to courses," says Dave Seanor, the editorial director of Golf Week, a publication for golf insiders.

For now, at least, the problem of longer ball flight applies mostly to the pros, a small fraction of all golfers. That has prompted some people in the golf industry to suggest using two sets of rules: one for the pros, one for recreational golfers.

"I'm not sure if I agree that two sets of rules is the answer," legendary pro Arnold Palmer said recently, "but, if moving to more than one set of rules is grounded in common sense and contributes to the growth and popularity of the game, why should we not at least consider it?"

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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