In juicing Golf

Is it possible to hit a golf ball too far? Not if you’re a duffer. We consider the so-called trampoline effect the greatest accidental discovery since Flubber. The wizards who design golf clubs happened upon this miracle in the mid-90’s, when they began making bigger and bigger driver heads out of metal stretched thinner and thinner, and found that when the club heads didn’t just cave in, the metal sometimes sprang back so quickly that it actually added a little something extra to the shot — a high-tech slingshot. Amateurs and pros alike eagerly embraced the new futuristic drivers, and while the former mostly hit deeper into the woods, the latter caused a problem for the PGA Tour. The clubs were making golf courses too short.

In 2001 the United States Golf Association stepped in and decreed that henceforth a driver’s coefficient of restitution or C.O.R. (which measures how quickly the metal rebounds) could not exceed .83. That’s on a scale where 0 means your ball is still stuck there, glued to the club face, even as you try to shake it off; and where a C.O.R. of 1 means that there is no energy loss whatever, and that — pointing! — you have just launched your ball practically into orbit.

Driving distances on the tour continued to soar, however, and last June Tiger Woods (who this year lost his spot on the list of the 10 longest hitters) complained that many of the drivers used by pros were juiced to a C.O.R. above the sanctioned limit. Was Tiger right? Here was a problem to delight Dr. Heisenberg, for the only way to measure a driver’s potency was to send it off to the U.S.G.A., where it would be taken apart and rendered useless. Until midsummer, that is, when the techies tournament-tested a little gizmo, called a pendulum tester, that measures not the C.O.R. but, rather, how long (in microseconds) a little weight lingers on the club face after striking it. Starting next season, the device will be available to tour players who want to test their own equipment, and officials hope that will end the arms race. They’re betting on golf’s ancient honor system and trusting the players to police themselves.

For practical purposes, though, a threshold may already have been reached. While golf’s big names were quibbling this summer with metallurgists and tape measures, every one of the major tournaments was won by a relative unknown, none of them particularly big hitters by today’s elongated standard. They’re merely where Tiger was just a few years ago, and that, it turns out, is plenty far enough. With so many golfers now reaching places on the fairway that used to be attainable only by the likes of Tiger and John Daly, golf has all of a sudden opened up again, and the leaderboards are often full of surprises.