What Makes Equipment Tour Legal?

United States Golf Association, image: golf.com

United States Golf Association, image: golf.com

What’s in your bag? Golf equipment technology has progressed to the point that golf news outlets now report on the golf clubs that the winning pro used in that week’s tournament. You hear about extra degrees being added or taken off of lofts to individual clubs. Tinkering with equipment is as old as the game itself. Before drivers had individual weights that could be swapped out of club heads, players would simply put tape on the back of the club to increase weight.

Arnold Palmer was famous for having thousands of golf clubs in his workshop that he was forever fiddling with. There are also everyday golfers who enjoy taking apart clubs and integrating their own design ideas. Is all of this legal? If so, who decides?

Arnold Palmer Working in His Workshop, image: arnoldpalmer.com

Arnold Palmer Working in His Workshop, image: arnoldpalmer.com

The Ruling Bodies

Unlike many sports, the rules of golf are the same for the 10-year old beginner as they are for the PGA Tour professionals. Those rules emanate from a “Joint Statement of Principles” between the United States Golf Association (USGA) that governs play in the United States and the Royal & Ancient (R & A) in St. Andrews, Scotland that oversees play everywhere else in the world. These two organizations set the standards by which the game is played, and one of their missions is to protect the best traditions of golf.

That does not mean that the USGA and R&A are standing in the way of equipment technology. Far from it, as evidenced by how much larger the heads of drivers are in 2017 than they were a generation ago. The size that driver heads can grow is not unlimited, however, and is capped at 460 cubic centimeters.

How Are These Standards Determined?

Since 1984 the USGA has operated a Research and Test Center in Far Hills, New Jersey that is used to set golf equipment standards. From exhaustive testing and monitoring of equipment, the USGA officials make the final call on whether a golf club or golf ball negatively impacts the integrity of the game. The USGA will conduct conformance testing on any equipment that is submitted – either from a major manufacturer or a garage inventor.

USGA Research and Test Center, image: turfsociety.com

USGA Research and Test Center, image: turfsociety.com

In an average year, the USGA may put 3,000 pieces of equipment under investigation – balls, clubs, tees, shafts, gloves or anything else that comes into play on a golf course. From these submissions, the USGA puts out an annual list of equipment that is declared legal for play. Every month the USGA puts out a List of Conforming Golf Balls that are allowed in tournament play.

What Does This Mean for the Average Golfer?

While the USGA is making equipment standards that are in effect for the entire game, in point of practice the decisions on legal equipment only impact tournament conditions. If you only play the game for fun and never intend to compete in a local tournament or establish an official USGA handicap you never need to worry about whether the golf ball you play shows up on the List of Conforming Golf Balls. If you want to use a driver longer than the 48 inches allowed in tournaments, go ahead.

If equipment that would be banned in tournament play makes the game easier and more fun – and your golfing buddies don’t object – put some clubs of your own creation in your bag.

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