The clubface on my ERC II looks just like the clubface on any other driver I ever picked up, including my treasured Schwarzenegger Bertha. Of course, it could be my swing.
Callaway Golf says its new ERC II driver produces the longest and straightest drives of any club ever designed.
That's debatable. But on this point there is no argument: The new ERC II driver is the most controversial club ever introduced in the United States.
The ERC II has sparked heated clashes over whether players who use the club are going against the rules of golf, much like taking mulligans and 6-foot gimmes. There are those who charge that Callaway, in the name of profit, has stepped over the line--way over--in its desire to 'make the game more enjoyable' for recreational players.
And in the ultimate heresy, critics are claiming Arnold Palmer has turned his back on the United States Golf Association by using and endorsing the ERC. The notion of Palmer not playing by USGA rules is as unfathomable as him laying up.
One little club has caused quite a stir. Then again, it isn't just any club.
Callaway's ERC II recently became available in the U.S. It's the first time a major equipment manufacturer knowingly has marketed a piece of equipment that doesn't conform to USGA regulations.
In November 1998, the USGA, with Palmer's backing, implemented standards putting a limit on the spring-like 'trampoline effect' of the ball coming off the face of a driver. Callaway hasn't submitted the ERC II to the USGA because it already knows the results of the test.
'If this club isn't non-conforming, then nothing else in the world will be,' said Ely Callaway, the company's founder who remains very much involved in the company's business at the age of 80. 'It is way out there.'
Palmer, 71, agrees. Now a Callaway spokesman, Palmer has been using the first version of the ERC in recreational rounds. The club became available abroad in 1999. The USGA's counterpart, the Royal & Ancient Golf Club in Scotland, has declined to establish limits for drivers, making the ERC acceptable in Europe.
Smaller companies than Callaway have been producing non-conforming clubs for years, but they don't have Callaway's access to technology and materials. The ERC features an ultrathin and deep face. The club is composed of a specially made metal that Callaway says is more durable and allows for greater control than previous 'hot' drivers.
The result: Drives go 5 to 7 percent longer, maybe more for some players. Palmer is excited about being able to hit the occasional 300-yard drive again.
'If the ERC II is any better, I might get so long I'll have to play the PGA Tour again,' he joked.
What could be better than an endorsement from 'the King?' Of course, the driver comes with a price.
The ERC retails for about $625. Callaway also has introduced a USGA-conforming Hawkeye VFT line for $500. That's mere pennies for avid golfers who are unwavering in their quest for the longer, straighter drive that might make a difference in their game.
'All I can say is, we're going to sell a ton of drivers,' said Edwin Watts, founder of the retail golf-equipment chain that bears his name.
However, the ERC raises questions of integrity. The USGA says in so many words that if you tee up with the ERC, it is the equivalent of using the foot-wedge.
Virtually every golf course's scorecard includes the line 'USGA rules govern all play.' The USGA also administers the handicap system. The association says if a golfer uses the ERC II driver, the round can't be used for handicap purposes.
'The USGA is not the golf police,' said Marty Parkes, the association's senior director of communications. 'The problem is, how do you run a national handicap system if people are using different sets of equipment and rules? We don't like the trend of selectively ignoring rules. We have an obligation to set the standards, and we hope people will follow them.'
Most clubs and courses are expected to ban the driver from their tournaments. It already has happened at Butler National in Oak Brook. Head pro Bruce Patterson said Butler rejected five or six members who picked up the ERC overseas and wanted to use it in a club event.
'The USGA is our governing body,' Patterson said. 'Somebody has to make the rules.'
Callaway insists he isn't looking for two different sets of rules. He wants the USGA to realize there are two different types of golf: competitive and recreational.
ERC II, Callaway maintains, is targeted for the vast majority of players who get out maybe once a week.
'We have never claimed that any of our clubs reduce your score,' Callaway said. 'What this club does is give you a better chance to have a rewarding shot more often. It's not a sin to play with a non-conforming driver.'
No? The reaction among purists would suggest Callaway has committed the ultimate sin. Jim Awtrey, PGA of America CEO, used the pointed phrase 'skirting the rules of golf for the sake of profit' in coming out against the club.
Taylor Made-adidas, one of Callaway's main competitors, is contemptuous of Callaway's defense of the ERC.
Said Vice President Robert Erb: 'We look forward to seeing ERC II line extensions such as fairway tees, putting funnels, the Callaway-brand mulligan and 9-foot gimme certificates.'
Erb contends Taylor Made's new line of 300 series drivers is better than Callaway's ERC. Kim McCombs, manager of Pro Shop World of Golf in Skokie, has hit the original version of the ERC and says Taylor Made 'is one to watch.'
'Every manufacturer can go over [the USGA standard],' said Erb, whose company will market its non-conforming driver overseas. 'The best manufacturers are the ones who can position their clubs as close to the ceiling as possible.'
Palmer was one of those advocates who pushed for the ceiling. So it was stunning to see one of the game's great traditionalists jump on something so radical for golf.
Parkes said Palmer's stance puzzles the USGA. USGA Executive Director David Fay went to Florida to discuss the issue with Palmer, who has been taken aback by the criticism.
Jack Nicklaus even chided Palmer about the club recently at a news conference, with the discussion leading to which clubs they will use when they team up in April's Legends of Golf event.
'If I let you use an illegal one and I can borrow it, I think we'll both do a lot better,' Nicklaus said.
Though he'll continue as a Callaway spokesman, Palmer intends to take a lower profile on the ERC II. Initially he was out front, traveling to Southern California in October and holding the club during introductory festivities.
'I'm still a big supporter of the USGA,' Palmer said. 'This has nothing do with how I think about this club. This club will help people enjoy the game. Isn't that the bottom line for the USGA? Helping people enjoy the game?'
The USGA's Parkes agrees with Palmer's premise, but he disagrees with the notion that golfers have to have an ERC to make the game more fun.
'Who's to say you can't have fun under the rules of golf?' he said. 'Why do you have to go outside the rules of golf to have fun? Golfers have been having fun playing by the rules for 500 years.'
The ERC II will show just how far golfers will go, in terms of price and questions of integrity, to have their fun.