Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Callways Supports Bifurcation, for All the Wrong Reasons

A reader of Geoff Shackelford's found an Economist piece in which Callaways officially becomes the first golf manufacturer to endorse bifurcation of the rules of the game. The piece is actually a profile of head man George Fellows, but includes this tidbit that blows my mind:

Another obvious strategy, though a more controversial one, is to make golf more “consumer-friendly”—meaning easier. Golf's rulemakers have tended to focus on maintaining the integrity of the game for the best players, which has made life tough for the rest. Callaway has to conform to a welter of arcane specifications: there are regulations about how far from the centre of the club a ball can be hit and still go straight, for example. These are intended to stop Tiger Woods shooting 30 under par, but also make the game less fun for less gifted players. Golf needs to “bifurcate” into a professional sport and a game for the masses, says Mr Fellows. One opportunity is to think outside the old 18-hole, four-hour box. Callaway has recently invested in TopGolf, a business that turns a driving range into a sort of dart board, where players aim at targets and scores are calculated with the help of radio transmitters in the balls.
I love reading British journalism because it is way more biased than journalism here in the States. Seriously. "Life tough on the rest," "arcane specifications?" These are not even close to accurate. And I'm going to do something here that you might not expect - defend the USGA (and, kind of, the R&A).

Life is not tough on the 99.9% of golfers that are not scratch or better.

The average score of players using the USGA handicap system has improved in recent years at a modest pace. Players that care enough to have a handicap are apparently improving through some combination of increased play, technology, and sheer practice. Among the millions of golfers that do not have a handicap, the National Golf Foundation claims that the average golf score has not improved. The bottom line is that golfers are not getting worse as players.

Apparently, according to the espoused views of the Economist (which are those of Fellows), they feel that equipment regulations are holding amateurs back from even greater improvement. Seeing as though the average golf score has not improved - on the whole - since the modern age of golf technology development began, that is simply false.

Equipment, after all, can only do so much. It cannot swing the club for you. It cannot make you more mentally tough in order to handle the psychological battlefield of the game. Players improve at golf because they learn how to hit equipment properly and consistently, and execute all of the shots in the game better.

Whatever rules the USGA has created to this point impact almost no amateur player. The amateur doesn't make consistent, solid contact to the point that a change in the MOI or COR ceiling would actually help them. To imply that is just a cop out, especially coming from a non-golf guy in George Fellows.

Perhaps, though, I am misreading the implication of "fun" in golf. Fellows and the Economist writer may be implying that fun means hitting the ball further, but still scoring 110. I hope that is not the case.

Maybe the alternate implication is that equipment regulations have caused this statistic:
Since 2000, according to the National Golf Foundation, the number of players has barely risen. The number of “core” players, who visit a course eight or more times a year has dropped from 17.7m to 15m.
Again, though, to blame this on the USGA and their equipment standards borders on the absurd. Frank Thomas, among others, have spearheaded research into why golf participation is down on the whole (despite what the NGF claims). The reasons are plentiful: golf takes too long, it's too expensive, it's tough to learn, not enough time to play, have better things to do, etc. I would presume, then, that Callaway could attempt to pin the USGA for golf taking too long and being too expensive. Let's deconstruct those arguments.

Golf takes too long for several reasons. First, courses are much longer than they used to be and evidence shows that amateurs like playing from tees that do not match their skill level. This means that rounds take longer because players do worse than they could. Second, players like to emulate professionals - the same professionals that take over five hours to play a round of golf in a twosome. Long pre-shot routines and other nonsense on the course in the vain of getting one shot better contribute to lengthier rounds.

Even if equipment regulations were so wide open that Callaway could make any kind of club they wanted, amateurs would still engage in these practices that lengthen rounds and annoy other players.

Golf is an expensive hobby. Paying for green fees, carts, balls, shoes, bag, clothes, clubs, and the like can add up quickly - especially for a newcomer. The cost can be so high that even modestly well off amateurs have to ration how often they play. The USGA does not make the game expensive, though. Equipment regulations are standardized, so no additional research is being done by club companies on knowing the limitations presented by them.

Callaway simply sells clubs at an enormous markup, along with every other manufacturer. They are the reason golf is so expensive. Unless Callaway thinks that it can make the same profit by selling more clubs and apparel at a lower price, then that will not change.

In short, Callaway is advocating bifurcation for all of the wrong reasons. As I have written previously, bifurcation is only a good idea because it would allow for the regulation of golf for the greatest players while not having a direct impact on the amateur. Callaway would support bifurcation because they think it would allow them to sell more golf clubs.


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