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By E. Michael Johnson and Brian Wacker
The PGA Tour is set to implement a new driver testing protocol for the upcoming 2019-’20 season, which begins next week at A Military Tribute at The Greenbrier. Among the changes are a more thorough procedure for testing players’ drivers, Golf Digest has learned.
In an email sent to players on Wednesday, the tour specified that its in-use driver-testing program will consist of the following:
• Two weeks of informational sessions that will take place at The Greenbrier and at the Farmers Insurance Open in late January. During the sessions, members of the USGA Equipment Standards staff will demonstrate the testing procedure—which will be the same Characteristic Time (CT) test used on tour and at the Open Championship at Royal Portrush—and work with manufacturer representatives on site to review their own procedures. Additionally, they will test clubs of players on a voluntary, first-come, first-served basis.
Each manufacturer with driver heads in play will appoint a representative to be the on-site contact when testing is occurring. This representative and the player will be the only people who are notified of the results of the test.
• At various times throughout the season, testing will occur at PGA Tour events. The testing will be unannounced and on non-competition days when manufacturer reps are on-site. If a player has been selected, a rules official will notify him when he arrives at the course. The player will be asked to provide the driver (or drivers) he intends to use for that event. Each test will take approximately 15 minutes, be conducted by a member of the USGA Equipment Standards staff and be performed on a pendulum device in accordance with published USGA test protocols.
• Upon completion of the test, tour officials will notify the player and manufacturer rep of the results. Actual CT values will not be provided (CT is the amount of time the clubface remains in contact with a small steel ball swung from the pendulum apparatus at the moment of impact). Results instead will be delivered in categories.
GREEN: The club is conforming and may be used in subsequent rounds.
YELLOW: The club is conforming and may be used in subsequent rounds but the result is within the USGA published tolerance.
RED: The club is deemed to have been damaged into a nonconforming state and as such may not be used in subsequent rounds.
• All clubs tested will have their serial numbers recorded. Clubs that have test results that are green or yellow will be returned to the player. Clubs that have test results that are red will be returned to the manufacturer rep.
According to the email, complying with the program will be considered a condition of entry into a tournament. Existing driver head and golf-ball testing programs also will remain in place.
What remains uncertain is how many drivers will be tested at select tour events or how many tour events testing might occur at (PGA Tour officials had yet to reply to Golf Digest’s request for additional comment at the time this story was first published).
Driver testing on the PGA Tour is not new, but the diligence toward testing has changed over the years. In 2004-’05, it was mostly voluntary among players. Over time, events where testing took place dropped to non-existent. Recently, the number of tour events where some type of testing was done has increased, although all testing is conducted by the USGA (not the PGA Tour), and involves clubheads that are in the manufacturers’ equipment tour vans, not from players’ bags. This practice, according to the USGA, has been going on for six seasons with the results not communicated directly to the PGA Tour, but rather between the USGA and manufacturers.
The only tournament on the PGA Tour this past season where testing of individual players’ heads had been done was at the Open Championship at Royal Portrush. The testing was done by the R&A and was criticized by many for being too lax in its procedures after the identity of a player whose driver did not pass (Xander Schauffele) became public.
The tour explained in the email to players that the changes to the tour’s protocol were due to officials recently becoming aware that drivers on tour may be exhibiting a trait whereby through normal use, the club face “creeps” beyond the allowed CT limit under the Rules of Golf, despite having conformed to the CT limit when new.
Conforming drivers can become nonconforming over time either through play or by alterations made to the club without players realizing what they did changed the CT. Although most drivers will crack before reaching that point, some older drivers played over time certainly run that risk.
The addition of weight to a clubhead whether internally or externally—such as lead tape—also can cause issues. Adding weight in certain spots can raise a driver’s CT without a player knowing it. That normally would not be a problem, but if you start with a driver close to the limit and add a few microseconds of CT time, the red flag goes up.
Let’s remember as well that there is inherent variability in the test. Even though it might be slight, every CT machine in use is not going to produce exactly the same specific number as the one machine being used by the ruling body in its test. Microseconds are millionths of a second. For perspective, a millionth of a second is essentially 100,000 times faster than the blink of an eye. So if you’re a manufacturer or a player measuring a driver’s CT number one day and it registers at the higher end of the tolerance zone on your CT machine, there is a chance that the same driver on the next day could record a higher and nonconforming number on an R&A or USGA CT machine.
Although the new protocol does not address the issue of selectivity that some players voiced concern about during the Open Championship, it does take on some of the other issues brought forth by what happened at Portrush, namely that some drivers on tour can be over the CT limit along with a more formal and confidential process that includes serial numbers being recorded and making the process mandatory for those selected. While perhaps not as far as some may have hoped for, the new protocol appears to be a positive step forward in assuring that drivers in play on the PGA Tour are within the rules.