Golf may rely on an honor system, but there's lots of equipment to tempt the most abiding players to bend the rules.
Golf-magazine ads abound promising a ball "that flies too far," drivers that break the rules, and a wedge guaranteed to stop the ball on the green. But all of these products have one thing in common: They're illegal.
More precisely, they don't conform to specifications set by golf's official standard-setting organizations -- the U.S. Golf Association, based in Far Hills, N.J., and the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews in Scotland -- and so are banned from U.S. Golf Association tournaments, USGA-sanctioned events and rounds submitted for computing handicaps.
The USGA reviews only equipment it receives from manufacturers seeking golf officialdom's seal of approval. It ignores nonconforming gear that's never submitted. The sheer volume of new equipment is overwhelming, says Dick Rugge, the association's senior technical director. Last year, his department staff of 18 -- mostly engineers and Ph.D. scientists -- evaluated 1,948 clubs and 705 golf balls.
So, how do you know whether your weekend golfing buddy is playing an illegal ball or club? Here's a guide that should help.
There is a subculture of small manufacturers of illegal golf balls who use their outlaw status as a selling point. Bandit Golf Co. of Orange, Calif., for instance, trumpets in tongue-in-cheek advertisements that its Bandit ball "exceeds USGA distance limits" and is "illegally long." Cayman Golf Co. of Albany, Ga., markets banned balls with such provocatively named brands as Desperado and Pirate, while FlGolf Inc.-Volvikof Summerfield, Fla., claims its Raiders add an extra 30 yards off the tee. NGC Golf Inc. of Yalesville, Conn., has been marketing the banned Condor S ball for years.
Ranging in price from about $17 a dozen to $25 a dozen, in line with the cost of most other brand-name balls, these out-of-bounds balls tend to be smaller and heavier than strict USGA limits allow, and may have a harder core, too, all of which can give a ball extra distance. The USGA requires balls to be 1.68 inches in diameter and weigh no more than 1.62 ounces.
The target consumers for illegal balls are young, big-hitting guys in their 20s or 30s who are looking for extreme distances, or seniors desperate for a few extra yards, says Troy Puckett Jr., president of Cayman Golf. But the balls are particularly popular in Asia "because golfers there generally don't hit the ball as far," adds Mr. Puckett, who worked previously as director of research at two major golf-equipment manufacturers.
Golf-ball technology has created lots of controversy over the years. A famous court case involved the Polara Plus ball, which first went on the market in 1977 with ads that claimed the ball "self-corrects" in flight. Patented by a nongolfing physicist and a chemist, the Polara had distinctive shallow dimples at two poles of the ball and deeper dimples around the ball midway between the poles. Testing showed that the ball design could help straighten some poorly hit balls that spin to the left or right. The company immediately sold 100,000 packages of a dozen balls.
Although the ball met existing standards, the USGA outlawed the ball from use in USGA-approved competitions. That was based on a new rule disallowing designs that vary the depth of dimples in order to change the ball flight. When bad publicity put the company out of business, Polara Enterprises Inc. sued the USGA, alleging it colluded with the former Golf Ball Manufacturing Association, an industry group that no longer exists, to undercut the ball to protect the ball makers from competition. The USGA fought the charge, and in 1985 the case was scheduled to be heard in the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. But before the case was argued, Polara accepted a $1.4 million settlement.
Polara was a footnote in USGA lore until 18 months ago, when a group of investors in the Philadelphia area bought the rights to the ball and reintroduced it with the original design. Advertisements maintain the ball "reduces hooks and slices by 50 percent." Andy Gesek, general manager of Pounce Sports LLC, of Collegeville, Pa., says the firm has no intention of submitting the ball to the USGA for its approval. He says the Polara is aimed at golfers with high handicaps "who spend too much time in the woods."
Outlaw drivers also have a special lure for golfers looking for extra yards.
About a decade ago, the material of choice for drivers became titanium, a lightweight metal with characteristics well-suited to launching golf balls. But as the titanium club heads gradually grew to the size of grapefruits, the USGA in early 2004 imposed a size limit of 460 cubic centimeters -- which translates into a driver face generally about 4 1/2 inches wide and 2 1/4 inches high.
Size isn't the only driver characteristic reined in by the USGA. In 2000, the association made headlines when it banned a popular driver endorsed by Arnold Palmer -- the ERC II -- made by Callaway Golf Co., Carlsbad, Calif. The USGA charged that the face of the club exceeded a 1998 standard for the allowable trampoline effect of the ball hitting off the driver face.
Bang Golf Inc. of El Monte, Calif., makes some of the best-known disallowed drivers, which have club heads measuring 525 cubic centimeters and a monstrous 600 cubic centimeters. Kenneth Lawson, the company's vice president, says Bang has sold a total of 40,000 to 60,000 of its nonconforming drivers. "Seniors don't care about the USGA," he says. "They just want to beat their buddy out of $5 on the golf course."
Some makers of irons also stretch the allowable specifications, which dictate the depth and width of grooves on the club face. There are also limits on the roughness of club surface material.
For the amateur, one of the biggest challenges is to keep the ball from rolling off greens from short distances of 100 yards or less. That's the dilemma Spin Doctor Golf Inc. of Houston says it has solved with a wedge it guarantees will "hold any green, any ball, any time."
While the club is sold with six different interchangeable faces that conform to standards, Spin Doctor President Marc Davenport concedes that its illegal reverse-groove face "is what most people use." The face, made with General Electric Co.'s Lexan material, has a series of protruding grooves that grab the ball and create incredible backspin, causing it stop on greens.
Bandit Golf sells Wack-It-Wax, a nonsanctioned substance that reduces spin when applied to a club face, according to Jeff Bennett, the company's president. This wax is useful for hackers who have extreme hooks or slices. Mr. Bennett says the firm also is designing an illegal sand wedge, which will have open gaps on the club blade to allow sand to flow through as you make shots from bunkers.
No piece of equipment is too insignificant to escape the USGA's specifications. For instance, the association's Mr. Rugge says golf gloves must be plain fitting without any special padding or gripping. Gloves that brace the wrist in any way are out of bounds, he says.
Even the ubiquitous tee can be no longer than four inches and can't control in any way the flight of the ball -- which would exclude "anti-slice tees" sold by Charter Products Golf Inc., Bensenville, Ill. The plastic tees cup the back of the ball, which supposedly reduces side spin from poor contact, thus sending the ball straight.
New designs of the simple tee continue to proliferate, says Mr. Rugge, "but of all the (conforming) tees on the market, I've yet to find one that actually changes the ball flight."