Golf equipment tester talks technology, trends and the belly putter

Professional golfers are driving the ball 20 yards farther since 1996. Recreational golfers have increased their drives by 13 yards in the same time frame. The average men's handicap has dropped two strokes in the past 20 years, with women's handicaps dropping about 2.5 strokes during the same time frame.

Technology is to thank, or blame, depending on your viewpoint.

That's according to Dick Rugge, senior technical director for the U.S. Golf Association. NMTC, the Northeastern Maryland Technology Council, brought Rugge to Harford County to speak at its monthly Expert Speakers Series, held May 10 at Aberdeen's HEAT Center. The speaker was timely, with the NMTC's sold out golf tournament to benefit STEM education scheduled May 21 at Bulle Rock.

For the past 12 years, Rugge has headed research at the USGA Test Center in Far Hills, N.J. The USGA sponsors all the nation's major tournaments and makes the rules for playing golf.

Rugge's staff includes jet propulsion and aerodynamics PhDs and engineers, several recruited from defense contractors working at Aberdeen Proving Ground.

"Why does the USGA need that kind of brain power? Because the manufacturers have a lot more," Rugge said. "The market for high end golf clubs is relatively small. You have to sell to the same people over and over. How? New technological features."

Rugge told the technology-centric crowd that the U.S. Patent Office has awarded more than 20,000 patents for golf clubs and balls, more equipment patents than for all other sports combined.

"Each year, we get more than 3,000 new clubs to evaluate, about 15 per day. We get about 1,250 new balls each year," he said. "And yes, we know the best ball and the best club, but it's not our job to determine that, or to tell you that. We will tell you whether a particular ball or club conforms to the rules of golf."

Club design has had the greatest impact on the game, Rugge noted.

"In the past 18 years, the average drive on tour is up 30 yards, from 260 to 290. Today's clubs are bigger, more forgiving. They enable faster swing speeds," he said. "Arnie Parmer got a birdie that won the Master's in 1961. Today, two-thirds of the field birdie the same hole."

Rugge said the impact of technology on the game should be at capacity with new limits in place. Not that he feels the technological infusion is all bad.

"If average handicaps go down to 10, that's probably a bad thing," he said. "The fun of golf is overcoming the challenge. You experience the highs because you know the lows."

Rugge noted concerns for the game itself. He said the economy and the waning impact of golfing sensation Tiger Woods are to blame, but not completely. Rounds played by core golfers, as opposed to occasional golfers, have dropped, and more communities are questioning the wisdom of allowing large tracts of land to be cultivated for golf courses. Rugge noted an 11 percent drop in the number of courses nationwide since 2000.

The amount of water and pesticides used by golf courses is also a concern for an increasing number of communities.

"We have an agronomy section that develop and tests grasses that use less fertilizer and require less watering," he said.

Rugge noted that golfers should change their expectation that their home course look like Augusta.

"We call it the Augusta Factor," he said. "In Scotland, the rough is, well, rough. Brown in the new green."

Rugge said smaller courses, and therefore, shorter equipment, may be the major change expected in golf's future if water and land rights continue to be issues.

NMTC Board Member and Cecil College President Stephen Pannill noted the transfer of brain power to the USGA and asked Rugge whether any technology developed by the defense industry had impacted the game.

Without hesitation, Rugge said, "Titanium and composite structures."

The NMTC connects the world's most successful technology companies, growing technology enterprises and government and academic leaders to accelerate economic growth and expand the STEM Educated Workforce in Maryland. Created in 1990 and organized in 1991, the NMTC is Maryland's fast growing technology council with more than 180 members.

The NMTC operates from offices in the HEAT Center, 1201 Technology Drive, Aberdeen, MD 21001.

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