Constraints in Sports & Technology
Dave Tutelman -- 1/22/01
revised  9/2/2007

This was instigated by a ShopTalk discussion on spring-face drivers.  I took the position that they never should have been allowed at all by the USGA.  By setting a limit on face spring (specifically coefficient of restitution), the USGA was already changing the sport in undesirable ways.  Terry Richard asked me if I viewed all design changes in golf clubs negatively.  I provided a list of changes I thought were positive, and we had the following [edited for brevity; complete text attached at the end]:

DaveT (me):

All of these advances had two characteristics that speed/thickness designs don't share:
(1) They are not destructive if misused, any more than the clubs that went before them.
(2) They require no stretching of the rules to gain their advantage.
... when I read your comments about stretching of the rules to gain their advantage, I get the impression that you think golf club advancement, e.g. flex face driver, is unfair.  Is that true?
Short form: "yes!"

But the long form begs to be told.  It includes a brief excursion through two other sports before we get back to golf.

The rules define the game

Rules are constraints!  In a sports context, they constrain what you are allowed to do.  As such they define the game.  Change a rule, and you will change the game, sometimes in small ways and sometimes large, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse.  (In the next section, I'll get back to an important question: who gets to decide what's better and what's worse.)

Let's look at American Football as an example of what happens when you vary the rules.

The game has a set of rules that are used in high school, college, and professional football.  There are variations among those, but the variations are mostly to protect the safety and health of younger scholastic participants.  But there are a couple of common variations that are very different, serve an important purpose, and are achieved by imposing additional constraints.

First additional constraint: No tackling.  Instead, the ball carrier is considered "down" if an opponent touches him with two hands simultaneously.  This variation, commonly known as "two-hand touch" football, makes it possible for adolescents and young adults to play "football" without pads or helmets.  It brings football to people who would never get to play the "official" organized sport.  Much less expensive, much more democratic.  But to remove the restriction on who gets to play, we had to add a restriction to the rules.

Second additional constraint: Restricted blocking and rushing.  Now lets add a few more constraints to "no tackling".  All blocking must be above the waist and you can't leave your feet to block.  To protect the quarterback with this restricted blocking, rushers must wait three seconds (count it out loud) before they can cross the line of scrimmage, unless the QB lets someone else touch the ball.
    This may sound pretty wimpy and a far cry from "real football", but it lets a city boy like me play football on paved playgrounds.  Again, adding additional constraints creates a whole new game.  It has some of the "flow" and some of the skills of football, but it's a completely different game.  Just by changing a few rules.

At the other end of the spectrum, consider what Vince McMahon is doing.  His new XFL is going to remove constraints, in the hope that the resulting game will draw spectators who feel the NFL is too tame.  Probably the same set of people who go to auto races solely to see a crash.  A few rules changes, and we have a different game that appeals to different people.

OK, enough of the football examples.  You get the idea: the rules define what the game is and who plays it.  Now let's turn to another sport -- sailboat racing -- and see what lessons lurk there.

The rules constrain special interests

For about a decade, I was involved in sailboat racing at the local and national level.  I raced in the Albacore class.  The Albacore is a two-person, 15-foot planing one-design sailboat with a mainsail and jib.  For much of that time, I was on the US specifications committee for the class, including serving as measurer for two national championships.  In that role, I was exposed to another important aspect of the rules.  This time, it's an unfortunate aspect.

There are many to whom winning is important enough that they push the rules, look for loopholes (advantages that the rules intended to prevent, but they weren't sufficiently tight), and occasionally exceed the rules and take their lumps.  Most serious competitors fall into this category.

But there are also those who want to win so badly that they deliberately break the rules and hope they don't get caught.  When we encounter people like this in society at large, we call them "criminals"; in sports, they are merely "cheaters".

An observation from sailboat racing:  all too often the cheaters had a commercial interest in winning.  Typically they were boatbuilders or sailmakers.  Not all of the special-interest guys were cheaters; I remember some highly competitive and scrupulously honest "professionals" who were also talented enough to win regularly.  But most of the cheaters I saw were indeed in the sailing business, and stood to make money -- either directly or indirectly through favorable buzz -- if they, or their boats, or their sails won a big regatta.

We on the specifications committee saw our goals quite clearly.  We were the elected representatives of the participants in Albacore racing, and our job was to protect their interest in fair competition.  The most pointed statement of our goals would be:

  • Racing in the class should be a contest of individual skill.  It should not be possible to buy an advantage by spending more money than your competitors.
This is the essence of a one-design class.  (The America's Cup race is different.  It is sailed in a "development class" which promotes design and technology advance as well as sailing skill.  The result is the expenditure of huge sums to win.)

In support of this objective, the committee had to (1) set the rules properly, and (2) enforce the rules strictly.  Both were essential to maintain the class as a "family-oriented" one-design class.

  1. Setting the rules:  Among the class rules were minimum weight restrictions (to assure that the boat could be both sturdy and competitive), maximum sail measurements (to assure that you didn't have to be a gorilla to win), and restrictions on how often you could buy sails (to keep the pocketbook from being a serious competitive weapon).  We annually faced challenges that had to be fended off with new or clarified constraints, usually due to some boatbuilder or sailmaker trying to come up with a faster product, and make more money.
  2. Enforcing the rules:  At the local level, every boat was completely measured, as was every suit of sails used in competition.  You couldn't enter a sanctioned regatta without a measurement certificate for the boat, and the fleet measurer's initials on the sails.  At Nationals, every sail was completely measured, and every boat was spot-checked.  We never announced beforehand which 3 to 6 rules we'd be checking.  And we weren't bashful about disqualifying competitors.
The pre-Nationals measuring produced some memorable moments.  I remember one nationals where six new XYZ-brand boats showed up for the day-before measuring with their centerboard bolt holes two inches too far aft.  The owners (and Mr. XYZ, who was present to compete) were up until the wee hours with drills, fiberglass, and resin.  Fortunately, the boats "measured in" (and did not leak too badly) the next morning.  But Mr. XYZ himself missed the first race because his sails were too large in a couple of dimensions.

Then there was Mr. ABC, who thought he could build a boat lighter than the minimum and have it "corrected" with additional weight.  The potential advantage was that all his boats would be right at the minimum weight, and the correctors would be low and centered, where they did the least damage to performance.  He sold a whole fleet of these Albacores before the first was submitted for measurement.  Most of them were below the bare minimum weight; they were never allowed to race outside their own home fleet (which "grandfathered" them, because the superlights were all in that one club).  The problem was not long-lived.  There was a reason for the weight rule: assure a sturdy boat -- remember?  The illegal boats had the longevity of a fruit fly.  In a couple of years none of them were around any more, so nobody had to listen to complaints about being restricted to their home club.

The lesson from this experience was that the rules, as constraints to level the playing field, are challenged mostly by the commercial interests, those with something to sell.  And, as often as not, they simply break the rule quietly instead of challenging it openly, and hope you won't notice.  The idea is to sell more of their goods, and charge more for their goods, because they can claim better performance in competition.

I'm sure y'all see where I'm going with this: right back to golf...

Back to golf

Golf and sailboat racing have a number of important similarities:
  • The equipment can have an effect in determining the outcome of competition.
  • Each competitor selects/buys his or her own equipment.
  • In the absence of constraints (rules), it is possible to build better-performing equipment.
  • In most cases of improved performance, the equipment carries a higher price tag.  (This may be due to real costs of technology or manufacturing challenges, or due to competitive "product differentiation.")
After my experience in the Albacore class, I know what I expect of the USGA rules committee as a dues-paying member.  I expect them to protect my interest in fair competition without an excess of pocketbook power.  I could easily paraphrase the goal I stated earlier for the Albacore specifications committee:
  • Golf tournaments should be contests of individual skill.  It should not be possible to buy an advantage by spending more money than your competitors.
This goal is obvious to me.  But, equally obviously, it conflicts with the goals of those selling golf equipment.  When I look at the roles of rule-setting and rule-enforcing, I see:
  1. The rules of golf have long said, "The club face must not be designed and manufactured to have the effect at impact of a spring which would unduly influence the movement of the ball."  The original specifications committee was not stupid; they understood coefficient of restitution, and what some potential future technology could do to the game -- and they set a rule to prevent it.
  2. Enforcement?  Ah, there's the rub!  Some manufacturer (I'm inclined to point a finger at Callaway, but would listen to argument that it's somebody else) quietly started manufacturing clubs that were in tangible violation of the rule.  But, because the USGA thought it would be a "future technology", it was not vigilant enough to pick it up -- not even to test for it -- before such clubs were in the hands of many thousands, perhaps millions, of golfers.
Let's not underestimate the dishonesty of the Callaways of the world here.  Having been caught breaking the rules, they point a finger at the USGA for being anti-golfer: "You want to take away the toys that your constituents love so much."  They never mention that they knowingly sold illegal toys, nor that they charge a lot more for the illegal toys than the legal ones.  (BTW, I use "illegal" here to mean in violation of the rules against spring effect, not just in violation of the arbitrary limit with which the USGA tried to appease the industry.)

I started this article with the thesis that rules define the game.  OK, how will the new status quo (relaxed rules against spring effect) change the game?  Here's my prediction:

  • Distances will increase.  They will increase the most for the best players.  That's because it's hard to design a spring face that isn't more effective if you hit the ball with the middle of the clubface.  So the Tour players, who are already pushing the limits of existing courses, are the ones who will push these limits furthest and fastest.  This seems a high price to pay for the rather minimal distance gains of the Sunday golfer.
  • Prices will increase.  That is because the gains come with sophisticated technology.  And, unlike the introduction of the steel shaft or cast iron head, the technology is not being used to improve the uniformity or yield of the process (which would bring costs down).  Maybe there is hope that competition and further advances in technology will result in a lowering of prices beyond the very short term.  But I'm not holding my breath.
  • Snake-oil will abound.  When you could be sure that clubfaces were effectively rigid, there was a sure-fire defense to someone selling a driver head that purports to hit the ball further: if it did, it would be illegal.  Now that defense is gone.  And we have nothing to replace it.  Manufacturers are refusing to compete on the basis of published COR.  And even if they did, what independent clubmaker could check it and call them for not meeting spec.  Face it, the golf club equipment industry is not known for technical honesty.  If the USGA won't test and specify, who will?
Except for the distant hope of decreasing prices if/when the technology is mature, I think these are uniformly bad changes to the game.

The following is the ShopTalk discussion that led to this article. I have changed the format -- but none of the words -- so it is easier to follow and to keep track of who said what.

From: Terry Richard
Sent: Sunday, January 14, 2001 9:46 PM

Just received the 2001 Golfsmith Clubmaking Catalog and have a question about one of the products....
What's the purpose of the face thickness increasing as the loft angle decreases or the swing speed increases?

From: Dave Tutelman

That's the way Golfsmith has been dealing with spring effect for the
last couple of years.  They did it with the Elasteel drivers, too.

As the clubhead speed goes down:
  - You need more loft for maximum distance.
  - You CAN make the face thinner without having it collapse.
    And the thinner the face, the more the spring effect.

The downside to this is, if you let your gorilla brother with the 115mph clubhead speed hit your 70-90mph driver, it will ruin the head -- and Golfsmith isn't about to replace it.  I don't view this as a positive development in club design.

Does anybody know if this is also the design philosophy for the new Taylor Made 300 series drivers?


From: "Dave Tutelman" <>
To: <>
Sent: Tuesday, January 16, 2001 5:57 PM
Subject: Re: ShopTalk: Extreme Steel Metal Woods

----- Original Message -----

From: Terry Richard <>
Sent: Monday, January 15, 2001 10:20 PM

> Dave,
> What do you think of the forged 17-7 stainless steel face?  Based on the
> club head materials reference chart on pg. # 65 in the 2001 Golfsmith
> Catalog ...

Actually, I haven't received my 2001 catalog yet.  I'd like to reserve comment until I do.

> Your statement below about not being a positive development in club design,
> what do you consider to be a positive development in club head design?

I can think of lots of them.  Where shall I start?
  - Cavity back irons (more forgiving).
  - Square grooves on irons (spin from the rough).
  - Metalwoods (peripheral weighting, lower cost).
  - Keel sole on metalwoods, even drivers.  (Reduce the
    lie angle dependency on golfer, on the ball's lie.)
  - Titanium metalwoods (Lighter + larger = more distance)
  - Tungsten sole weighting in fairway woods.  (Orlimar
    will take credit; I credit TaylorMade, GolfWorks, and
    Golfsmith as REALLY doing what Orlimar only advertised.)

All of these advances had two characteristics that speed/thickness designs don't share:
(1) They are not destructive if misused, any more than the clubs that went before them.
(2) They require no stretching of the rules to gain their advantage.

Hope this answers your question, and tells you my reasoning.

From: Terry Richard <>

Sent: Tuesday, January 16, 2001 9:41 PM
Subject: Re: ShopTalk: Extreme Steel Metal Woods

The list you provided is a comprehensive account of positive development in club head design, nice job.  But when I read your comments about stretching of the rules to gain their advantage, I get the impression that you think golf club advancement, e.g. flex face driver, is unfair.  Is that true? I wonder what the golfing world thought in the early days of the steel shaft when flex was being experimented with, to provide a little more kick for the light swinger (R flex) and more control, less flex for the high speed swingers (S flex)?  Do you think that the young developments of flex face drivers could relate to the early day development of steel shaft flex variations?

Maybe some day the consumer will have the ability to
choose a driver face flex that meets their swing characteristics, more so than today, and then combine that with a specific shaft.  Why not throw another factor in club characteristics, trying to discover that perfect stick.  As so eloquently stated by a ShopTalker recently, the search is fun!!!