Approaching A Ball That Bends The Rules
By BILL PENNINGTON
Published: April 22, 2012
No one has ever accused golf of being a lawless society. Indeed, one of the tenets of the game is that the players police themselves.
It is up to each golfer to determine when a rule has been broken, and at other times it is a matter of conscience. If you took two swipes to get the ball out of the woods, the proper thing to do is confess to two strokes, not one — even if no one could see you behind the trees. And throwing the ball out of the woods instead is definitely frowned upon. You can’t throw it that far anyway (I mean, or so I’ve heard).
As people are fond of saying: golf is a game of integrity.
But what if the notion of policing ourselves is itself a transient, unfixed golf principle? Who actually makes up the rules, especially if we are policing ourselves?
For many years and for most golfers, the standard code of playing conduct has, in theory at least, been the Rules of Golf as governed in this country by the United States Golf Association. In competitions sanctioned by the U.S.G.A., on the professional tours, in club championships, most other tournaments and organized leagues, golfers do their best to play by U.S.G.A. rules — or the common interpretation of them. In the worst case, someone usually has the slim, handy U.S.G.A. rule book tucked away in a golf bag. Golf courses often have a rule book behind the bar or in the pro shop.
Still, it is a categorical fact that many golfers wouldn’t know a U.S.G.A. rule book from a United States Coast Guard manual. Golf’s official rule book might be a slim tome, but truthfully, a Slim Jim is more common to most American golf bags.
What rules, if any, do those golfers play by? Are the rules decided on the first tee and do they change from group to group?
In other words, it’s O.K. to roll the ball over in the fairway, one mulligan per nine holes, no four-putt greens and never let the beverage cart pass without ordering more Slim Jims.
And, oh yes, I’m also playing with an illegal ball. That’s right, the kind that is engineered to neither slice nor hook.
Acknowledging the use of what is called nonconforming golf equipment — so categorized because the U.S.G.A. has deemed it not conforming to its rules — is becoming unavoidable. It may be a small, undefined subset of the golfing populace who play with nonconforming balls or nonconforming drivers that hit the ball 30 yards farther than usual, or who do things like spray the club face with a cooking oil. But it may also be one of the few sectors of the game that is growing.
Nearly a year ago, I wrote an article about the Polara golf ball, which because of its asymmetrical dimple pattern is nonconforming. The design of the ball corrects slices and hooks by 75 percent. When I took the ball to a New Jersey driving range, regular golfers and the occasional pro could not slice or hook the ball with any regularity.
About 70 percent of these same driving range golfers also said they would not use the golf ball. Summoning a kind of hacker moral code, they said it was against the rules. Interestingly, nearly every golfer wanted a handful of the balls anyway. As one duffer said: “Just to test out.”
Since then, the Polara self-correcting golf ball has generated close to $3 million in sales, which represents more than 1.2 million nonconforming golf balls in the market. The Polara, which had modest beginnings, now is available in about 750 stores nationwide as well as online at Polaragolf.com.
For many years, nonconforming drivers, balls and wedges were mostly seen only in small, peculiar ads at the back of golf industry magazines. The Polara golf ball is now being sold in 60 of the 86 stores within the Edwin Watts retail chain. Academy Sports, a chain with more than 140 stores across the South and Texas, sells the ball. Polara said that the ball was being test-marketed in 25 Dick’s Sporting Goods stores.
Steve Claude, an Edwin Watts purchasing agent who participated in the decision to place Polara balls next to the displays of traditional, established golf balls, said the Polara self-correcting golf ball was the only nonconforming item sold in the chain. But he said the company hoped more nonconforming equipment found its way into mainstream golf.
“Anything that gets more people playing,” Claude said. “We need to welcome everybody and grow the game. If that gets people out there, then I’m not worried about what they’re using. If they learn to love the game, in time they’ll want to try other kinds of equipment, too.”
The Polara ball’s penetration in the overall golf ball market is minor. According to Golf Datatech, which monitors many golf industry statistics, 204 million golf balls were sold last year in the United States alone. But Polara’s entry in the marketplace comes at the same time as the P.G.A. of America’s Golf 2.0 initiative, a strategic plan with other golf partners — including the U.S.G.A. — to retain current golfers and foster new ones. Parts of the initiative include experimenting with changes like an eight-inch hole (nearly twice the usual size) at family golf centers frequented by children.
Golf 2.0 comes a year after the “Tee It Forward” movement, which implored recreational golfers to play from the shorter-yardage tee boxes, another attempt to make the game easier and more appealing. Both programs are designed to create a less intimidating, less time-consuming version of the game for certain target groups: women, who make up about 22 percent of participants; juniors; and so-called lapsed golfers, the several million who have given up the game.
Polara claims that across golf, people want to enjoy the game more and they’re not waiting for permission from golf’s ruling bodies. It’s their free time and they don’t have that much of it. If there’s a way to keep the ball in the fairway more often so they have fun on the golf course, they’ll jump at the chance.
But, of course, some call it cheating. And then there are those golfers who have the same attitude I do. I wouldn’t use nonconforming equipment, not so much because it’s an ethical breach, but because I like the challenge, as grating as it may sometimes be.
One golfer with a 28 handicap said he often golfs with friends who use only conforming golf balls, and if they’re playing a match, he drops his handicap to 20 because he’s playing with a Polara anti-hook or anti-slice golf ball.
The management at Polara believes golf should consider separate rules for different segments of the golf world - It’s kind of like softball and baseball. The equipment in softball is different. It’s easier to hit a softball. Millions of people play softball and love doing it. It’s not baseball, but so what? That’s where our product comes in.
Polara began with two brands of golf balls last year and this year introduced two more ball types that cure the golf slice and fix hooked shots by only 50 percent but promise more distance. And the Polara golf ball may be just the most prominent of several products waiting in the wings to assist the troubled, occasional golfer.
Obviously, there is a need for a specific rule book to govern official competitions and for those golfers who want to measure themselves under those conditions. At the same time, it seems reasonable that all 26 million American golfers need not play by precisely the same rules every time out. But how far do you go once you start running down a path that deviates from a generally accepted rule book? It’s not that hard to manufacture golf balls engineered to fly 350 yards when belted off every tee.
That would be fun. But is that golf?
Like most things in life, it seems that a certain amount of flexibility might be appropriate. Maybe it goes back to the notion that golfers are expected to police themselves. And only each golfer, or group of golfers, can determine what’s within the rules. Or what’s lawless.