Non-conforming equipment: Do rules or fun matter more?

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Why do you play golf? If it’s to play as many competitions as possible, abiding by the rules while maintaining an active handicap, the thought of using illegal, performance-enhancing clubs probably brings you out in a cold sweat. 

However, if you are one of the 3.3 million recreational golfers who play the game with friends, purely for fun, the prospect of a ball that cures your slice, a driver that helps you bomb it like Bubba, or a wedge that enables you to achieve Phil Mickelson levels of spin may be an appealing one. 

With participation declining and manufacturers finding it increasingly difficult to offer significant performance gains within the limits set by golf’s governing bodies, the debate about non-conforming gear has never been more feverish or pertinent. 

“There is a sense of urgency in the industry to be less intimidating and more fun,” says Bob Philion, president of Cobra-Puma Golf. “Do I think non-conforming drivers will be out there in 10 years? I do. Three years? I do. I think the street signs for the game aren’t positive enough for someone not to try it.”

Dave Felker, a former Callaway ball engineer and the man behind Polara Golf’s anti-slice balls, says his product is designed to help grow the game: “It’s for people who want to be embarrassed less, play faster and enjoy it more,” he says. 

Dunlop, meanwhile, produce a wedge for under £20 that promises spin far beyond that on offer from the leading manufacturers. “People like to spin the golf ball like the professionals you see on TV, and this wedge helps you do it,” says product manager Adam Moore. “It’s just for fun but we have had a lot of demand for it.”

Japanese manufacturer Honma make a non-conforming driver that promises an extra six yards on your drives. “[People who buy it are] usually older golfers who have lost a few yards and simply want to keep up with their friends in casual play,” says Honma’s Andy Hiseman. “They don’t tend to play in many formal events, so to them it is not important whether or not a club is conforming.”

It’s not just the smaller manufacturers who are dipping their toe into what could be a ginormous market. Callaway’s ERC II, released in 2000, exceeded the allowed limits and offered what they called their “hottest and most forgiving driver ever”. 

Non Conforming

Callaway’s forefather, Ely Callaway, said at the time: “We believe that recreational golfers should not be denied the benefits of modern technology that can bring them the added enjoyment that comes from occasionally hitting the ball a little bit further. The vast majority of golfers, we believe, are playing golf for fun and recreation, and we have now created a driver that will give them more of both.”

The ERC II was endorsed by none other than Arnold Palmer, who said, “It is my view that the use of the ERC II adds to the enjoyment of the game and is in no way detrimental to it. If my daughter who normally shoots over 100 can shoot 90 with a non-conforming driver, I can’t imagine that there would be anything wrong with that. It is something she would enjoy and it will keep her playing the game. We should focus on people having fun playing golf and using the equipment that they enjoy using.” 

TaylorMade has been experimenting with non-conforming clubs for years, including a prototype that self-adjusts during your swing and makes the necessary corrections to help you hit it straight.  

Forward-thinking manufacturers can see the potential in offering gear that helps the masses play better golf, but the golfing authorities, predictably, are less keen. Dick Rugge, senior technical director at the United States Golf Association, argues that improved equipment does not translate to increased participation: “For the last 15 years, advances in conforming club and ball technologies have made it easier to play, so we’ve already had a 15-year experiment on this ‘make it easier’ logic. And what have been the results? Participation has not gone up. So we’re not going to dumb it down.”

The USGA’s managing director of equipment standards, John Spitzer, agrees: “Multilayer balls and adjustability were a big benefit to golfers, but we didn’t see a boost in participation,” he says. “To think non-conforming clubs would somehow increase participation, I don’t see that. It’s not 1,000cc drivers or a ball that goes 30 yards farther that’s going to grow the game.”

The R&A’s Director of Rules and Equipment, David Rickman, says, “Golf is a sport and a challenge. It’s about golfers using their skill, ability and judgment; not about who can get the latest bit of kit that suddenly does a bit more and goes a bit straighter.”

Non Conforming

No one is asking for equipment that completely removes skill from the game. But let’s face it: no one other than Kim Jong-Il is going to score a perfect 18 on an 18-hole course, no matter how good their equipment, be it legal or otherwise. 

Golf is an incredibly difficult game to learn. It can take months of practice before a beginner even feels confident enough to go out on an 18-hole course. If equipment can soften the learning curve and get people having fun on the course, it could make the game infinitely more appealing to millions of potential golfers. Some may then get hooked on the game and start playing competitions, using legal gear that allows them to do so. 

“Our ball builds confidence and makes for a more relaxing game,” says Graham Ballingall, CEO of Polara Golf. “It’s faster as well, because you are not spending time looking for your ball. At the end of that round, you’re going to want to play another one, instead of thinking, ‘I’ve had enough of this’. Some customers were on the point of giving up golf until they played Polara balls.”

Golf Datatech surveyed 1,000 golfers and found that 28 per cent would be interested in using a ball that could improve their game, even if it did not conform to the rules, while a poll of over 1,900 golfers on mygolfspy.com found that 79 per cent thought non-conforming clubs should be widely available. 

You may be thinking that illegal equipment is against the spirit of the game, but as someone reading a golf magazine, you are probably already more invested in the game than those non-conforming equipment could help most. Take a friend or family member to the golf course for the first time, watch them struggle to hit anything that resembles a golf shot, and then tell them that equipment exists that could make it less painful and more fun. That could be the difference between creating a lifelong golfer or them walking away from the game because it is too difficult to learn. 

“If that’s what it takes to get people off the couch and onto the golf course, why wouldn’t you?” says Sean Toulon, TaylorMade’s executive vice president of product creation and marketing. “We need people to relax and have fun in all aspects of golf. If we keep protecting all these things, we’ll end up protecting nothing at all.”

Does it work? We put three illegal producs to the test...

Wedge

The wedge that spins like mad

What it promises
The Dunlop Rebel Wedge promises an incredible amount of spin, thanks to deep and sharp grooves that attack the ball to increase spin rate. Available in 56° and 60° lofts for just £19.99, the wedge promises stopping power like no other.

Does it deliver? 
We tested the 60° model, and the first thing you notice is how high it launches and how much it spins upon landing. It's immediately obvious to the naked eye, as your ball pitches and then checks back, that this is a club that generates serious action. We have genuinely never experienced the degree of spin we achieved with this club, the ball bouncing once before racing back across the green. The next thing you notice, however, is that the grooves are full of urethane. The club chews up golf balls like nothing we've ever seen. It's a good job the wedge itself is cheap, because you're going to be spending a small fortune on balls. On our launch monitor, well-struck shots generated over 11,000 rpm, although as with all shots and clubs, the spin rate is highly dependant on strike. If your swing is lacking or you make poor contact, you're not going to get the most out of the stopping power the club offers.

 

Ball

The ball that will not slice

What it promises
Polara Golf's 'Ultimate Straight' balls boast self-correcting technology that corrects hooks and slices by up to 75 per cent, without sacrificing distance. It has a distinct aerodynamic design and unique dimple distribution designed to lessen side spin, which is the root cause of hooks and slices. The ball features an arrow stamped on the side, which must be pointed towards your target for this to work.

Does it deliver?
Completely against our expectations, yes, it does. Provided you remember to line up the arrow and make a reasonable contact, the ball heads directly for your target. Even trying to hit the biggest slice or hook possible, it goes flying straight down the middle. It's a bizarre feeling. Looking up and seeing the ball heading for the middle of the fairway gives you that momentary feeling of huge satisfaction, but with this ball, it is fleeting, as you immediately realise you have the ball to thank, rather than your swing. It feels and sounds a bit like a cheap range ball and doesn't fly quite as far as a premium ball. A distance version is available, although reports suggest that a lack of spin on that version makes it hard to hold greens. Spin levels on the extra spin model we tested are good.

 

Driver

The driver that is big and long

What it promises  Honma’s Amazing Spec 480 Forged Driver features a 480cc head (the legal limit is 460cc) and promises the average amateur greater forgiveness and distance. It has a heavier heel and slightly closed face angle to promote a strong, drawing ball flight and maximum roll once the ball lands. A low centre of gravity is designed to promote a high launch with low spin. Depending on shaft options, prices range from £1,650 to £6,000. 

Does it deliver? The head looks much bigger than normal, despite only being four per cent larger than the standard 460cc. Many amateurs, particularly higher handicappers, find a larger head gives them more confidence, so that alone may encourage them to swing more freely, giving them a distance boost. Honma say that those with slower swing speeds are likely to get the most benefit. For the price, you would probably hope for something that launches 400-yard bombs in the hands of an amateur. The non-conforming line makes up just two per cent of Honma’s total business, and unless they release something offering gargantuan performance gains, it is likely to stay that way.