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Brent Kelley

Possible Additional 'Equipment Rollbacks' Spur Solheim to Seek Patent on New Handicap Method

By December 19, 2012

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Ping Chairman and CEO John Solheim is seeking to patent a new golf handicap formula he has developed that includes equipment ratings in the handicap formula.

Why? Because he believes more equipment rollbacks by the USGA and R&A may be on the way, and he believes his new handicap equation is a way recreational and amateur golfers can keep using equipment that the pros are no longer allowed to use.

"The tone coming from the USGA and R&A in recent years suggests another significant equipment rollback may not be far," Solheim says in a news release by Ping. "We've already seen it with the groove rule and the proposed rule banning anchoring. We continue to hear whispers of more changes. But as we're also reading on the proposed anchoring ban, many directly involved in the game favor more equipment options, not fewer. I'm looking for ways to keep the game enjoyable for every level of golfer."

We continue to hear whispers of more changes. That's the part of this announcement that will catch the most attention. Are the governing bodies seriously considering a rollback to golf balls - balls that don't travel as far? That's the inference that many will take from this announcement, and it's known that the USGA has been studying and testing, for at least several years, golf balls that don't fly as far.

That's a rollback that would make the groove and anchoring controversies seem minor, so let's not get ahead of ourselves. Any such change - or any other equipment rollbacks - is not imminent and not inevitable.

So what would Solheim's idea actually do? The specifics aren't known - Solheim's patent application will be published on Dec. 20 by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. But Ping's news release tells us that Solheim's handicap includes an equipment rating factor.

The current USGA Handicap System already compares, for example, golf courses. It takes into account how easy or difficult a golf course is and adjusts one's stroke allowance up or down.

Solheim is talking about something that does the same for equipment. "The patent application details numerous scenarios in which equipment could be rated (balls that go varying distances, for example) and are also factored in with current variables, such as the challenge presented by each individual course," the statement says.

Solheim suggests that equipment that is non-conforming for professional golfers playing on the various tours could, through a condition of competition, be allowed for recreational/amateur golfers. Then, if Player A is using shorter-flying golf balls (for example) while Player B uses a distance ball (that might be non-conforming for pros), that would be reflected in the handicaps of each player.

We won't know for sure until more details emerge. But sounds complicated.

"One of the goals of this concept is to get people thinking outside the 'traditional' box that seems to have been built around golf - due primarily to the influence of the professional game," Solheim says in the statement released by Ping. "This alternative approach to handicapping gives golfers the options to play and enjoy the game with the goal of keeping one set of rules. All of us who are part of this industry need to be looking forward to ensure the game grows in both appeal and participation. This is just one example of things we should be considering."

Don't get too excited - positively or negatively - about any of this. It's an idea, and nothing more; an idea based on a prospect (further equipment rollbacks) that is probably years in the future, and may never happen (at least in any dramatic way) at all. Also, Solheim's handicap system would have no authority within the game unless adopted by the USGA and/or R&A. Right now, this is just an interesting topic of discussion.

Update: More details from Golf.com. It's clear Solheim sees this idea as a way to "bifurcate" - let the pros play with scaled-back equipment if that is deemed prudent, but let amateurs keep playing equipment that helps their games. Just adjust for that equipment within the handicap system, so that, in theory, everyone (with a handicap, that is) is still on a level playing field.

Here is the full text of the release by Ping:

Solheim applies for golf handicap patent
PHOENIX (Dec. 19, 2012) - PING Chairman & CEO John Solheim announced today he's applied for a patent that uses an equipment rating formula as a factor in calculating a golfer's handicap. The pursuit of the patent, according to Solheim, is to ensure amateur golfers who want more options in playing the game have another choice allowing them to do so in a globally available format.

"The tone coming from the USGA and R&A in recent years suggests another significant equipment rollback may not be far away," said Solheim, who applied for the patent in June of 2011. "We've already seen it with the groove rule and the proposed rule banning anchoring. We continue to hear whispers of more changes. But as we're also reading on the proposed anchoring ban, many directly involved in the game favor more equipment options, not fewer. I'm looking for ways to keep the game enjoyable for every level of golfer."

The patent application details numerous scenarios in which equipment could be rated (balls that go varying distances, for example) and are also factored in with current variables, such as the challenge presented by each individual course. Solheim suggests the expanded equipment options could be approved as "Conditions of Competition" so the new method of handicapping could exist within the current set of rules.

"One of the goals of this concept is to get people thinking outside the "traditional" box that seems to have been built around golf - due primarily to the influence of the professional game," said Solheim. "This alternative approach to handicapping gives golfers the options to play and enjoy the game with the goal of keeping one set of rules. All of us who are part of this industry need to be looking forward to ensure the game grows in both appeal and participation. This is just one example of things we should be considering."

The patent application is expected to be published December 20, 2012 by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (www.uspto.gov).

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