Wednesday, January 24, 2001

Is technology leaving golf behind?

        Both specifically and implicitly, Arnold Palmer does not condone cheating. He's a stickler for the rules of golf, and he's prepared to punch those who would argue otherwise.

        He has endorsed Callaway's Big Bertha ERC II driver as a means to alleviate the suffering of weekend hackers, Palmer says, and not as a competitive shortcut for the serious player. His personal interest in promoting the club is of secondary significance to his overriding concern for the good of the game.

        Arnie makes a nicely nuanced argument — golf must be more accommodating if it is to grow — yet he finds himself under unprecedented attack. He has a 12-year contract with Callaway and, consequently,
a credibility problem.

        Because the ERC II does not conform to United States Golf Association specifications, it cannot be used in sanctioned competition or in regular rounds reported for handicap calculation. Those who shill for it, therefore, are seen in roughly the same light as a guy selling Rolexes from the trunk of a car.

Ethical tightrope

        ; Sunday, USGA president Trey Holland said his organization no longer would use Palmer as honorary chairman of its members program, had eliminated his signature from its mailings and was deleting his picture from its yearbook.

        Monday, Holland was in full retreat, recanting his threats in a conciliatory statement, but the impasse is unbroken. Palmer has not pulled his support of the oversized, titanium driver, and the USGA has not relaxed its rules.

        “It's going to be interesting,” said Scott Burnett, head pro at Four Bridges Country Club. “Arnold Palmer's not going to do anything to damage the integrity of the USGA, but he's stuck in a tough place, being the spokesman for Callaway.”

        Palmer is not alone on the ethical tightrope. Every club pro must decide whether to sell a driver that would disqualify its user from virtually any event in America. Burnett has decided against stocking the ERC II in his pro shop. Tom Mouser, head pro at Heritage Club, has concluded he cannot afford to boycott the $500 club.

        “It's a Catch-22,” Mouser said. “USGA rules apply in all our events. However, most of our members are high handicappers. If a 30- or 40-handicapper can hit it 10 yards further, that might help them stay interested. One of the problems we have in golf is that more and more country clubs are being developed, but the number of golfers is remaining the same.”

Technology vs. rules

        Palmer's point, and it's a good one, is there ought to be a place for equipment that enhances a golfer's enjoyment. Among the USGA's concerns — equally legitimate — is that technology is rapidly rendering older courses obsolete. Brian Overbeck, general sales manager of Tri-County Golf Galaxy, says his tests of the ERC II have shown 15 additional yards of carry.

        The USGA is naturally leery of a club's “trampoline” effect. Palmer's concern is for those golfers whose tee shots more often create a backhoe effect. Palmer's problem is with impartiality; the USGA's is with inflexibility.

        “Someone's got to write the rules,” said Ralph Landrum, former tour pro from Northern Kentucky. “Someone's got to draw a line in the sand.”

        It's hard to believe that job couldn't be trusted to Arnold Palmer.



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