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USGA Should Give Club Makers a Mulligan
[August 9, 2002]

By S. M. Oliva

Here at CAC, we earn our keep by taking on government threats to capitalism and free enterprise. We're not ones to go around criticizing decisions by private businesses and associations. But sometimes you have to make an exception, because there are times when private regulatory bodies act in a manner which would make even a government agency stand back and say, 'What were those guys thinking?'

Today, CAC asked the United States Golf Association, 'What were you guys thinking?'

Earlier this week, the USGA surprised just about everyone in the golf community when it announced a final rule regarding the permissible "coefficient of restitution" on clubs permitted for use under the official Rules of Golf. The gist of the ruling was, you can't use certain drivers that are being manufactured by Callaway Golf and TaylorMade-Adidas Golf if you want your scores to be legal under USGA rules. The banned drivers were the result of innovations made by the aforementioned companies, and are believed to add roughly 20-25 yards off the tee for even the casual weekend player.

Here's the problem, at least from our perspective. Back in May, the USGA issued a "proposed rule" which would have allowed the drivers to be used by amateur and casual golfers, just not professional players or individuals competing in a USGA championship event (such as the U.S. Open.) This would have brought the USGA's policy into conformance with the practice of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrew's, which allows the drivers to be used. The R&A has jurisdiction over golf just about everywhere on the planet, except the U.S. and Mexico, which fall under USGA control.

So after the proposed rule is issued, Callaway and TaylorMade kick into high gear on producing their new drivers, acting under the impression that the USGA is about to allow their clubs to be used legally. When the USGA reversed course this week, however, the companies were totally floored. They had no clue the USGA had just changed its mind.

To add insult to injury, the USGA has yet to offer an actual reason for its reversal. Their official statement said that they received a number of comments which said that golfers would be confused by the change of policy. That's hard to understand. It seems to us—and we're laypersons on the subject of golf—that the confusion resulted from the USGA breaking ranks with the R&A in the first place. How would making the two bodies' policies the same confuse anyone?

It would help if the USGA had actually defended their initial decision to ban the clubs in the first place. To this day, it's not really all that clear to anyone why the regular Joe can't take out his nice Callway ERC II driver and get another 30 yards off the tee on his way to a 82. Nobody was suggesting allowing the beefed-up clubs in professional competition. But there's no reason you can't adopt separate standards for pros and amateurs—after all, amateur golfers get to to use carts.

But at an absolute minimum, the USGA should have treated the equipment manufacturers with a modicum of respect. Callaway and TaylorMade stand to lose millions in sales because of the USGA's sudden renewal of its ban. The companies have offered to take back any clubs that were sold to consumers under the belief (theirs and the companies') that the USGA was on the cusp of approving their use.

The USGA acted in bad faith. You don't offer a proposed rule, solicit comments, then turn around and without notice adopt a final rule that has the exact opposite effect. To do without explanation makes it worse. To do so when you know that the result will be to cause significant economic damage to two companies that are only trying to improve and grow the sport you are charged with protecting makes it just plain wrong.

Capitalism requires all parties to a voluntary exchange to come to the table with clean hands. In this case, the USGA forgot to wash its hands before getting to the table. The result is two honest companies facing a loss of business for no good reason. That's a result which can't be good for anyone.

You can read the text of CAC's letter to the USGA here.   

(Oh, in case you were wondering what the "coefficient of restitution" is, it's a measure of the elasticity between the ball and the club at collision.)


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