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PGA Tour working out driver-testing kinks to create ‘level playing field’

LAS VEGAS – The PGA Tour, with assistance from the USGA, has this season put into place a new program aimed at testing drivers that can, through use over time, become non-conforming.

Per a Reuters report from earlier this week, at least five players’ clubs were found to be exactly that last week at the Safeway Open.

Michael Thompson confirmed to Golf Channel on Tuesday that his driver failed the USGA’s Characteristic Time (CT) test.

Thompson (pictured above) was approached by a PGA Tour rules official when he arrived on the putting green last Monday in Napa. He then went inside a nearby scoring trailer for club testing.

“I was in there, but I wasn’t really paying attention,” he said, honestly. “I didn’t think I would fail.”

That confidence was thanks to a test performed by his equipment manufacturer, Ping, just one week prior.

Equipment trailers are outfitted with the same testing devices used by the USGA. These CT tests are meant to measure the spring-like effect of a driver, or how much time there is contact between a ball and the clubface. The legal limit is 237 microseconds with an 18-microsecond tolerance, establishing an upper cap of 257 microseconds.

Ping had found Thompson’s driver to be within the legal limits.

“My driver wasn’t non-conforming a week ago,” he said.

Once Thompson’s driver head failed the USGA’s test, he turned to a backup he travels with, typically in case of an emergency. He also had Ping make him an additional backup, since he was one clubhead down.

“My job then is to get my backup fitting exactly the way I want it to,” he said. “Even though you make a club exactly the same, it’s going to feel different.”

Thompson said he had absolutely no issue with his driver being tested or it being found non-conforming.

“There’s gotta be a limit, right?” he said. “Drivers will go bad over time, depending on how many times you hit it. It’s just the nature of metal – it degrades over time.”

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But Thompson does have two issues with the process.

First, he cited an apparent disconnect between the manufacturers and the USGA as to how the test is being conducted on the clubface. Per Thompson, the USGA is testing specific “hot spots” its identified as being unique to each manufacturer.

“For Ping, it’s high-toe, which is the case for a lot of drivers,” he said. “You know, if you hit it high off the toe, you get a little bit more distance with regard to rollout. However, the ball speed goes down. So you’re not actually gaining speed hitting it off the toe, and no one in their right mind is going to try to hit a driver off the toe.”

A second player expressed similar concern to, wondering why the USGA was testing parts of the face that would make for poor contact and thus a poorer result, regardless of Characteristic Time.

“That doesn’t make a whole lot of sense,” Thompson said, “because, as golfers, we’re trying to hit the center of the clubface. So why not test the center of the clubface?

“So I think that was a big issue with a lot of the manufacturers, because they weren’t told that going into this year of testing. … They were told how it was going to be done, and the manufacturer’s testing is done to replicate what the USGA is going to do. And I was under the impression that last week [the test] was not done the way they said it was going to be done.”

The other issue – beyond having to adjust to a new driver on short notice – is that he’s now fielding questions about what is supposed to be a protected process.

“I think the biggest issue is the way they conducted the test and where they’re conducting the test. It’s supposed to be pretty hush-hush. It’s not supposed to be in public light, and now it’s my problem,” he said.

Speaking with on Wednesday, Tyler Dennis, the PGA Tour’s senior vice president and chief of operations, would not reveal how often tests will be conducted or how many drivers will be tested at any given event.

Dennis made it clear that the testing is not about the players, but about the phenomenon of clubface creep.

He added that the Tour is doing everything it can “to keep everything as confidential as possible on our end.”

“We’re going to try to minimize that as much as we can,” he said.

Asked for specifics about how the CT test is being conducted, Dennis largely deferred to the USGA, but did say that there is a published test protocol and that each manufacturer has a testing device that’s been licensed by the USGA. The Tour also conducted an information session for players at The Greenbrier and will hold another in January at the Farmers Insurance Open.

Dennis acknowledged that the difference in distance between a conforming and non-conforming driver is largely negligible, but stressed that the program – just like other testing programs the Tour has conducted or continues to conduct – is about establishing “a level of conformity.”

“Everyone can feel, week in and week out,” he said, “that we have a level playing field on the PGA Tour.”