Getting to the COR of the technology debate

He did not accuse anyone of knowingly cheating, but Tiger Woods came close. He suggested that someone on the PGA Tour was using an illegal driver and getting big distance gains. He would not name the player, but he didn't mind the whispers. And he saw results.

Beginning this week at the Mercedes Championships, the PGA Tour will begin testing for illegal drivers. A portable device will be available at all tour stops so players can measure the "springlike" effect of their drivers, letting them know if their clubs are "hot,"or within the rules.

But in keeping with tradition, players will be expected to police themselves. The test will not be mandatory.

"A player who has the opportunity to make sure his equipment is conforming, by and large, will take advantage of it,'' PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said. "Players will all have the comfort level of knowing their equipment is conforming.

"This is nothing new. It's just taking the mystery out of the equation. The rumors are running rampant ... and we need to get the rumors out of the game. The only way to do it is to be able to verify. This is a system that allows us to verify without having to take the clubhead apart.''

Most players believe the ability to test their clubs is a good step. But is it enough?

And are "hot" drivers the only aspect of the game's technological revolution?

For years, there has been talk about how the huge improvements in thin-faced, metal drivers have changed the game at the professional level. The heads are big and forgiving, and many believe that is the reason the ball travels so far, making courses shorter.

But has it affected the game in a fundamental way?

Depends on whom you ask.

"The game has not been ruined,'' said Wally Uihlein, the chairman and CEO of Acushnet Company, which makes Titleist balls and clubs, in an e-mail. "In fact, (2003 was) one of the most entertaining, exciting and unpredictable in recent history. While the early season was fraught with doomsayers claiming that Armageddon was upon us because of the distance that some players were hitting the golf ball, the standards in place continue to prevail.''

Uihlein pointed out that only 15 players finished under par at the four major championships in 2003 and that no player shot four sub-70 scores at any of the four majors. And scoring records were not a weekly trend on the PGA Tour.

Still, there is no doubt the golf ball is flying farther. A decade ago, not a single player averaged more than 290 yards in driving distance. In 2003, there were nine players who averaged more than 300 yards off the tee and a whopping 64 who averaged 290 or better.

Getting much of the headlines has been something called coefficient of restitution, or COR. The concept is complicated, but in basic terms, it is the way golf clubs are tested. The United States Golf Association imposed a limit for drivers on COR at .83, which means the speed at which a ball rebounds off a clubface when shot by a cannon (the measuring device) cannot exceed that number. Any club that does is deemed non-conforming.

Testing, however, is not simple. The only way previously to test a club was to send it to the USGA's research and test center, where it was taken apart and analyzed. It is conceivable that players might have had drivers that were non-conforming, but did not know it.

Now, the PGA Tour test will use a small, metal weight on a pendulum. Hitting the club with the weight will measure vibration, and how long the metal weight makes contact with the face of the driver.

"I don't think any player would willingly use an illegal club, I honestly don't,'' said U.S. Open champion Jim Furyk. "But if they are and that gets found out, their career is done, it's over, from a respect issue.''

Club manufacturers, however, say there is far more to distance than COR. The golf ball is a big factor, too. And that has long been the cry of golf legend Jack Nicklaus.

"It sounds ridiculous, but Bobby Jones wrote in his book in the late '20s or early '30s that the biggest danger we have in the game is the golf ball,'' Nicklaus said. "He said we can always move up one tee, but we can't move back because the land is not available. Here we are 80 years later, and we have a problem that is magnified 10 to 20 fold.''

Nicklaus has long proposed putting a limit on golf balls, perhaps a uniform tour ball that all pros would play. Manufacturers, of course, are skeptical because much of their marketing strategy is built around big-name players using their ball.

"The ball is going too far,'' said Tom Watson, who recently tested the Precept ball he plays, hitting it into the wind with his driver. "I really only care about how far it carries. When I hit the ball well, I average hitting the ball 264 yards in the air. Compare that to the 1970s with persimmon clubs and golf balls for those years. Then, hitting in a 10 mph wind, I could hit it 245. That's a 20-yard difference and I'm swing the club slower now than then. That's an accurate comparison of how far the ball goes.

"I'm also using an Adams driver, which comes right to the tolerance of COR. That helps, as well.''

But, indeed, the golf ball is a big factor in distance, perhaps more so than the big-headed titanium drivers that get more attention. In fact, Tom Olsavsky, TaylorMade's director of product marketing for metal woods, said too much attention has been paid to COR when it comes to distance.

"It's really a matter of managing launch conditions,'' said Olsavsky, who figures COR accounts for only 8- to 10-extra yards. "It's really a combination of figuring out the best ball and the best launch angle that will create the least amount of spin. Guys are figuring this out and when they do, the ball takes off.''

In essence, the less the ball spins as it comes off the clubface, and the higher it gets launched into the air, the farther it will fly. Average players might not get the same benefits from COR because they can't duplicate the same conditions as the pros.

"There are factors such as lighter shafts, less off-center hits and getting the clubface square that also make the ball go farther,'' Olsavsky said. "We know there are gains beyond the COR issue.''

How much the game has been helped or hurt will continue to be debated. Scores are not considerably lower, but courses are being set up severely to compensate.

"We are to the point,'' Watson said, "where we are playing golf courses that can't be moved back any farther.''

It remains to be seen in 2004 whether the PGA Tour's new voluntary driver testing program will have any effect.

Bob Harig covers golf for the St. Petersburg Times, and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at harig@sptimes.com