I’m not easy to shock. Annoy, yes; rile, sure; amuse, definitely. But shock? No, except perhaps in the “I am shocked – shocked!” mode made famous by the ever-expedient Inspector Renault in Casablanca.
Yet I was nothing less than shocked that the New York Times ran two articles on the Polara golf ball last week – one of them on the front page.
Bill Pennington wrote about the ball in a piece that ran last Tuesday, citing the enthusiasm of duffers looking to improve their game. Don Van Atta presented a somewhat harsher view in the Week in Review section on Sunday.
The Polara ball is nothing new, merely a reworked version of a product that was first introduced in the 1970s. The name denotes a ball with an asymmetric pattern of dimples intended to correct the curving flight path known as a slice. It will also correct a hook, but slices are more common among the golfers who might be tempted to try it.
“You don’t slice,” reads a recent marketing release from Polara Golf. “Your ball does.”
There’s an arrow on the ball, along the longitudinal band of shallow dimples. When the ball is struck in the direction of the arrow, the deeper and more numerous dimples placed at the sides of the ball reduce the effects of sidespin imparted to the ball at impact. This sidespin, the result of imperfect contact, is what causes a slice.
The marketing email I received in the wake of the Times’ attention makes no mention of the fact that using the ball violates the rules of the United States Golf Association and the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, the two ruling bodies of golf throughout the world. In a video on Polara’s website, the company concedes that the ball is not intended for use in tournaments or competition.
I understand that golf’s a difficult game. Anyone who’s seen me play it knows how well I know that fact.
I understand that the golf business is facing serious difficulties in the current economic climate. Too many expensive courses were built in the 1990s and 2000s, anticipating a boom in popularity that never came. Spectator interest in golf grew once Tiger Woods came on the scene, but it did not translate into higher levels of participation.
Surveys have repeatedly shown that most people who stop playing golf do so because the game takes too long, costs too much, and is too hard to play well.
Is the answer to these problems really to encourage people to cheat?
In the last twenty years, there has been a steady stream of technological innovation aimed at helping the average golfer. Small wooden-headed drivers have been replaced by big-headed yet lighter clubs made of titanium. Balls filled with rubber winding around a solid core gave way to solid balls with multilayer covers that spin less in all directions when hit with a driver, yet still provide backspin when struck obliquely by a wedge.
The Polara people would like golfers to believe their ball is part of this continuum, helping the ordinary player perform more like the pros.
It is, in the same sense that bowling with the rails up to prevent gutter-balls lets you feel like Chris Barnes.
It isn’t just harder to slice. It corrects a slice in flight.
Yes, you can play one of these from the tee and hit every fairway. You can then pick it up and point it at the green – another violation of the rules, of course, but why worry about that now — and hit another straight shot. You might cut ten strokes or more from your score this way.
But you didn’t shoot that score. Your ball did.
“Golf’s more fun when you play from the fairway,” the Polara people say. And their ball does the equivalent of kicking itself out of the rough to seek that shorter grass.
If a golfer doesn’t want to play his shots from the woods and can’t develop the skill to hit it straight, there’s nothing stopping him from picking up his ball and dropping it in the fairway. (If he’s a beginner, this is a pretty good idea.) If he’s not in a competition and there’s no money riding on a match – and he’s not trying to maintain an official handicap – he can do whatever he wants on the course, though I doubt he’ll take much pride in the results.
Use a self-correcting ball and you’re doing the exact same thing.
Isn’t it easier just to lie about your score?