We Have More Golf Ball Drama as Golf's Governing Body Gears Up to Take On Major Manufacturers
About a year ago, we ran a story about the emerging legal battle between Costco and Acushnet, parent company of Titleist, and the spicy drama playing out over (what else) golf balls. While it was a whole complicated thing, the basic premise is that Acushnet believes Costco’s Kirkland Signature golf ball violates 11 patents relating to Acushnet’s popular Titleist Pro V1 ball. Costco had other ideas. Here's what we wrote at the time:
But Costco is not a small company. It's the second largest U.S. retail chain. And it isn't playing Acushnet's games.
Rather than rolling over or quietly settling the matter, Costco launched an all-out offensive. The wholesaler filed a formal complaint against Acushnet, not just claiming the Kirkland Signature doesn't violate any of the 11 patents, but alleging that the patents are invalid.
There haven't been any new developments on that front as the legal process unfolds. But we’re happy to report that, in the meantime, there’s now even more golf ball drama brewing—this time involving the U.S. Golf Association and, like, every golf ball manufacturer in operation.
See, the USGA thinks that today’s golf balls travel too far in flight, owing mainly to technological advances in ball manufacture. The numbers seem to back that assertion, with Golf Course Industry reporting that, since 2003, driving distance increased by about 0.2 yards per year before exploding to an increase of more than three yards in 2017. For a number of reasons, USGA thinks this is bad for the game—as does Jack Nicklaus, who despite owning his own golf ball company backed USGA’s recent calls for a rollback.
Nicklaus said the great distance gains players enjoy today is stretching courses, and that’s slowing play. He singled out one company when asked about push back from manufacturers over proposals to roll back the distance balls can fly.
“You can start with Titleist,” Nicklaus said.
Nicklaus would like to see the USGA and [Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews] roll back the distance today’s ball flies by 20 percent. He said that would put driving distances back to what they were in the mid-‘90s, but he believes Titleist is the manufacturer most opposed to any rollback.
“Titleist controls the game,” Nicklaus said. “And I don't understand why Titleist would be against it. I know they are, but I don't understand why you would be against it. They make probably the best product. If they make the best product, whether it's 20 percent shorter ... What difference would it make? Their market share isn't going to change a bit. They are still going to dominate the game."
This is a problem for Titleist and other major golf ball manufacturers likely because they've spent many decades and untold dollars researching, refining and producing balls designed to fly farther than the competition’s. Those are sunk costs, sure, but adjusting existing production facilities and equipment to accommodate a distance reduction would also be extremely expensive moving forward. Naturally, that doesn’t sit well with Titleist, Ping and other golf giants, who could be gearing up for a court fight to oppose any new regulations.
They may have a case, too. Modern driver technology, bigger and stronger players, and better course conditioning are among the factors that also contribute to flight distance, so pinning juiced-up drive distances solely on the golf balls isn’t exactly fair. But USGA seems intent on a rollback, likely putting golf's U.S. governing body on a collision course with the biggest golf ball manufacturers in the game.
As with Acushnet versus Titleist, this battle would mainly impact suppliers. If a rollback happens, manufacturers would adjust, and suppliers of promotional golf balls would have to replace their stock in kind. But there could actually be some short-term benefit for distributors if golf courses and other end-buyers rush to replace their branded golf balls to comply with new regulations.
There's been talk of bifurcation—wherein pro golfers would play by a different rule set than amateurs (who would still be allowed to use advanced golf balls)—but it's too early to tell if that will happen. If it does, it could also be a net gain for distributors, should end-buyers decide to carry a greater variety of promotional golf balls to meet updated requirements for pros and amateurs alike.
Regardless, this will take some time to play out, especially if it goes to the courts. For now, we'll keep an eye on the proceedings and try to enjoy the drama.
And they say golf isn’t exciting.
Related story: Get On Course: A Lesson In Selling Golf Products