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Golf:  Tiger Woods Questions Legality of  'Hot-Faced' Drivers - 2003-07-09

World number one golfer Tiger Woods of the United States has recently charged that some of his competitors might be using so-called "hot-faced" drivers to give them an advantage on the pro tour. Woods cites as evidence the distance that some golfers are getting when hitting off the tee this year compared to last year.

The basic issue involves a player's distance off the tee, a driver with more spring in its face would produce more length off the tee, and possibly fewer strokes in a round of golf. When prize money is running in the millions of dollars, a few yards off the tee could make the difference between winning and losing.

Tiger Woods has said recently that he has seen other golfers whom he would out-drive easily in the past suddenly overtake and then pass his distance off the tee.

Woods, by contrast, has seen his driving distance ranking drop from second in 1997 to 21st this year. Tiger says that his concern, like that of legendary fellow-American golfer Jack Nicklaus, is that if other players are using illegal equipment that it will hurt the game by making some of the famous courses obsolete.

"We're going to get to the point where either you are going to see really low scores every week, or you are going to have to see all the old traditional golf courses be lengthened," said Tiger Woods. "And I think that that is where Jack [Nicklaus] has made his point about the golf ball, he wants to preserve some of the great golf courses. And that's just the way that the game has evolved."

The distance a golf ball flies off the face of a club is determined in large part by two factors: what the ball is made of, and the so-called coefficient of restitution, or COR, which is a measure of the transfer of energy from the club to the ball.

The U.S. Golf Association has determined that the highest this number could be for the titanium drivers pros use would be 0.83. The laws of physics dictate that some energy dissipates when the ball is stuck so a perfect transfer of energy is not possible.

Frank Thomas is the Chief Technical Advisor for Golf Digest magazine and helped write the rule that set the limit for the coefficient of restitution. He says that he thinks Tiger has it wrong, that no one on the pro tour would risk his reputation by using an illegal club.

"A gross violation would be considered at about 0.840 or 0.845," he said. "And manufacturers are certainly not manufacturing clubs out there and giving them to golfers on the [PGA] Tour that would be that much of a violation of the rule. Secondly, the actual increase in distance from 0.830 to 0.845 - which is, as I say, a gross violation - is only a matter of three or four yards."

PGA Commissioner Tim Finchem has said that the men's golf tour will soon have special devices at each stop to test clubs to see if they are hot-faced. Basically, a portable pendulum would allow players to see if their club has too much spring in its face to be legal. But the tests will be voluntary, and Tiger Woods says he thinks that the tests should be mandatory.

"I know that they are trying to protect the integrity of the game by not forcing us to have to do it, which I completely understand," said Commissioner Finchem. "But I wish they could do a little bit more. But we will see what happens."

Golf equipment expert Frank Thomas says that he thinks making testing of clubs mandatory would damage the game of golf.

"The game of golf separates itself from every other athletic activity in that we call infractions on ourselves," he said. "That is the essence of what the game is all about. And I think if ever we go ahead and try and police pros on the tour and make it mandatory to check their clubs, [that] implies that they are cheating and this is something that I think is going to have, would actually fracture the integrity of the game."

Tiger Woods favors control of distance off the tee, but did ask his club manufacturer- Nike - to send him clubs that conform to the standards and some that do not conform to the standards. From his own experience, Woods says that non-conforming drivers make a significant difference in a golfer's game. However, Woods has asked for and is using drivers that are below the limit so he can have more control over his drives.

For its part, the PGA planned to try out its new club test at the recent Western Open - which Tiger Woods won - but Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem has delayed implementing the voluntary tests until January.