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Testing, Testing: How Equipment Goes From Idea to Your Bag
January 26, 2022 | Liberty Corner, N.J.
By David Shefter, USGA
Golf might be dormant in much of the country, but inside the walls of the USGA Research and Test Center in Liberty Corner, N.J., it’s a hectic time of year. Ahead of the annual PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando, Fla., equipment is being tested to see whether it makes the USGA’s Conformance Lists.
That is only one of the roles played by the USGA’s Equipment Standards team. Carter Rich, the senior director for Equipment Rules and Conformance, provided insights on the USGA’s evaluation process for golf clubs, golf balls and other equipment, as well as the protocols that bring the Equipment Rules to life.
Is there a time of year when submissions are heaviest?
Rich: Typically, it’s December. People are buying mostly in the springtime. This is the time of year when manufacturers are starting to market new equipment. For example, TaylorMade wasn’t planning to add its new Stealth Plus driver on the List of Conforming Driver Heads until it was ready to be launched in January. But then I got a call from our contact with the company, asking if we could list [that driver] by Monday of the PNC [Father/Son] Championship because Tiger Woods was considering putting it into play. Sure enough, he did. We’re typically able to respond to such requests if time and resources permit. But it’s up to the [equipment company] to tell us when they want [the conforming club] to be publicly listed.
Approximately how many submissions a year does the Test Center receive?
Rich: On the club and other equipment side of the equation – and we’ve been low the last couple of years – we get about 700 different submissions per year. A submission can be one club such as a putter, but a group of drivers or fairway woods or an iron set is considered one submission. That translates to approximately 2,000 pieces of equipment. While 2020 and 2021 were lower than normal, the average number of submissions has been about 750 the last several years. Prior to that, we were constantly increasing from 2001 through 2015 and settled on an average of just under 1,000 submissions (with a peak of about 1,400 in 2008).
What are the numbers for golf balls?
Rich: The total number of ball models on the List of Conforming Golf Balls is about 1,400 worldwide. Of that 1,400, we require two dozen balls per submission. So, when you think about it, you are looking at 24 times that number. That’s between the USGA and The R&A. We had an appreciable increase from 2019 to 2020 and we’re currently running at about 480 ball models submitted to the USGA for conformance every year.
What is the procedure for submitting a piece of equipment to the USGA for conformance?
Rich: Go to the website (https://www.usga.org/content/usga/home-page/equipment-standards/how-to-submit-equipment-for-testing.html) and just follow those steps; any manufacturer can submit their original product for evaluation. It’s similar for both clubs and balls, though the number of golf ball submitters is small compared to club and other equipment submitters. All you really need to do is send a completed submission form and your original product to the USGA for evaluation. We only issue conformance decisions on physical products; we’re not going to give you a decision if you send us a drawing, though we are happy to discuss a design concept with a submitter and help to identify conformance issues. Once the product is submitted, we take it from there, evaluate it and send you the decision certificate. It’s pretty basic.
How many people are involved in this process?
Rich: For clubs and other equipment, John [Spitzer, the managing director of Equipment Standards] is the final approver. We have a proofing process in place in which all of us have certain aspects of the decision that we review. We have three staff on the club [submission] side and three test technicians, as well as the assistant director of testing and Steve Quintavalla, senior director of Research and Testing. As many as eight to 10 staff members may be involved in the review of any one product. For golf balls, there may be as many as six or seven.
What is the time frame for approval?
Rich: We are ISO (International Organization for Standardization)-certified so we have quality objectives. One of them is customer satisfaction, one of them is turnaround time. We target a maximum average of 20 calendar days for club and other equipment turnaround. We ran last year at 18 days and it was about the same [in 2020], but it can be quicker if requested by the manufacturer. For golf balls, testing must be completed within a four-week window so that the balls can be published on the List by the first week of the month. Notably, golf balls require annual resubmission, while clubs and other equipment do not.
Do you have any recent examples of interacting with players?
Rich: I was texting with [2020 U.S. Open champion] Bryson [DeChambeau] on the Sunday before the Sentry [Tournament of Champions at Kapalua] because a club had just come in from Cobra during the week we were closed. He was wondering if there was any way we could evaluate his driver so he could put it in play that week. We told him we weren’t going to have the club in hand until Monday (Jan. 3), and the List of Conforming Driver Heads only updates on Mondays, so the club wouldn’t be able to make it to the list until the following Monday. However, we were able to test that club within two days of receipt. With this many people touching it, you have to give it some time to move from station to station. But we can turn things around, theoretically, in a day.
It was an unusual first Sunday of the year. I was also emailing with [reigning U.S. Senior Open champion] Jim Furyk. Jim found a set of wedges that he was given by a manufacturer in 2010, and he wanted to put them in play this week [at the Sony Open]. But he wanted to make sure they were conforming, so we asked Jim to send us a sample club. We got it on Tuesday, tested it on Tuesday, and put it back in the mail on Tuesday. We can’t be quick with everything because it’s a detailed process, but we can be responsive when we need to.
When the USGA and The R&A are considering a change to an equipment Rule, how much dialogue do you have with players and/or manufacturers?
Rich: That is another side of what we do here. Conformance is one. Rules is another piece of our puzzle, and research and testing, which drives [equipment] Rules and drives conformance, is the third. Conformance comes down to: we’ve made these Rules, so we’re going to provide a service that allows submitters to officially determine whether their equipment conforms or not. We also have the process of making the Rules. That’s done jointly with The R&A. If we are proposing a new Rule, we send it out in the form of a Notice and Comment. Prior to that, we might alert manufacturers that we are investigating a certain area of research through an Area of Interest Notice. That’s when we are going to manufacturers – and sometimes others in the golf community – to give notice that we’re considering a new or modified area of regulation. We’ll ask for comments and data, and we’ll take those under consideration before we make the final decision of whether to propose a Rule and, ultimately, whether to put the proposed Rule into effect. We have procedures that came out of the Groove Rule change that we enacted back in 2010. We had a symposium in 2011 and created a draft procedure for implementing Rules changes for equipment manufacturers. We had a discussion at the symposium and then put out the final Rule-making procedures, which we refer to during any Rule-making process.
How often does the USGA have dialogue with manufacturers?
Rich: Constantly. A manufacturer may call us about a club they are developing, and they may seek input before they get too far down the road to make sure there aren’t any conformance concerns. If it’s something unique, usually they will come to us before they expend serious resources on R&D (research and development).
How often do staff members from Equipment Standards attend professional events?
Rich: Several times a year. We’re there to provide support when they need it. Also, Rules Officials on the PGA Tour and LPGA will occasionally collect golf balls being played at an event and send them to us here [at Golf House] to test to make sure they are the same as the ball submitted for inclusion on the List of Conforming Golf Balls, which the tours adopt as a requirement for their competitions.
Do you still attend a number of USGA championships to answer questions or test for conformance?
Rich: We’ll probably be at 10 or so events this year. It makes sense to be there for the one or two, sometimes more [questions] that may arise. Sometimes, they can be handled by phone, email, text or conference call, but we don’t know what issue may come up, so it’s better for us to be on-site.
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.