Last week golf lost one of the most influential contributors to the game as we know it with the passing of Frank Thomas. Frank was the technical director of the USGA from 1974 to 2000 and a major influence, both as an inventor and a ruling body compliance administrator, during the most innovative period in the 150-year landscape of commerce in golf.
For more than 50 years, beginning with his arrival in 1966 at the Shakespeare Sporting Goods until his passing on Wednesday, Frank Thomas was a man who personified the mystery of the game. His life revolved around the implements used to play golf, even authoring a book, From Sticks and Stones. In his role as the ruling body technical director, he represented the game’s traditions and technologies in a manner never previously seen, and likely ever to be seen again. Based upon his career benefactions, everyone who plays the game today has been influenced by his contributions and will be for future generations.
After earning his engineering degree from Western Michigan University, Frank went to work for Shakespeare Sporting Goods, which was a leading fiberglass fishing rod manufacturer due to its invention of the Wonder Rod shaft just after World War II.
Frank was given the admonition by Henry Shakespeare to “design the best golf shaft the world has ever seen.” Shakespeare’s fiberglass shafts used fibers that ran parallel to the axis of the shaft, good for fishing rods but not good for golf clubs due to the torsional requirement of a golf shaft. Frank began experimenting with filament winding which wove bundles of fibers around the steel mandrel.
This “cross weave” approach allowed the maker to control the stiffness and strength of the shaft. Hearing about the process Frank was experimenting with, Union Carbide contacted Frank and suggested he consider using graphite carbon fibers, which were lighter than both steel and fiberglass. Frank pioneered the use and application of graphite and the shaft was introduced at the PGA Merchandise Show in 1970. Frank’s graphite shaft invention is the genesis of the millions of graphite shafts in play today.
Frank was hired in 1974 as the USGA Technical Director. The early 1970s were the front end of what would be a 30-year period of constant invention of materials, constructions and golf equipment manufacturing processes. One of the early issues that Frank was to confront was the need for a golf ball Overall Distance Standard.
Golf balls had been and remain today the most regulated of all golf equipment, with size and weight specifications of today having been established in the 1930s and an initial velocity limit getting adopted in 1942. But with new cover materials, constructions and aerodynamic patterns, consensus suggested a new golf ball ODS was needed.
It was set at 280 yards (plus tolerance), based on the longest ball available during that period. While ODS launch conditions have been upgraded, the ODS remains the primary way for ruling bodies to control distance for nearly 50 years. Today, with wind tunnels and computer technology in place, using a simulated launch condition remains Frank Thomas’ timeless contribution.
In 1975, Daniel Nepela and Fred Holmstrom introduced a ball to the marketplace that claimed to be self-correcting. The Polara golf ball used a novel, asymmetrical dimple pattern that was to correct slices and hooks. While its quality was poor, the design premise was intriguing.
Frank Thomas disallowed the ball for play in competitive USGA events and it also was announced that the USGA reserved “the right to change the rules and the interpretations regulating clubs and golf balls at any time.” The ball was not included in the listing of conforming golf balls, and a symmetry standard and a test were added. Polara sued the USGA for restraint of trade and sued the manufacturers for conspiracy. Both cases were settled out of court.
In the aftermath of the Polara incident, the USGA adopted a primitive symmetry test to accompany this new golf ball conforming requirement. This test and its application would prove to be the beginning of our 38-year friendship.
When the Titleist 384 Tour golf ball was introduced in 1983 it quickly was adopted by more than 70 percent of golfers on the worldwide professional tours and was also one of the leading sellers in the marketplace. In August 1983 Frank advised the company that the ball had failed the symmetry test and would be removed from the conforming list immediately.
But the ball had been approved in 1982, as was another near-identical version in testing. I was part of a small team to visit the USGA and determine how two versions of the same ball could receive different outcomes.
Relations between the company and the USGA become strained. My twice-a-year visits to Far Hills, New Jersey, resulted, to spend the day with Frank to discuss then-existing equipment rules and test procedures, as well as planned changes to rules and procedures. The goal was that a Titleist 384 incident would never happen again.
Frequently during those visits, Frank would invite Frank Hannigan and P.J. Boatwright to participate in these discussions. For me, the sessions were akin to personal post-graduate mentoring. While we did not always agree, the dialog ensured we could resolve differences without outside counsel. Also, within that five-year span the symmetry test was revised for greater accuracy.
In 1984, Frank Thomas recommended a change to the groove specifications of golf clubs in the Rules of Golf, along with 20 other updates to the rules governing equipment. The regulation called for V-shaped grooves but by now most were U-shaped. The new rule allowed grooves to be square shaped but with diverging sides and no sharp edges.
Frank was in the center of a storm that involved discussions with Karsten Solheim (Karsten Manufacturing, Ping), Deane Beman (PGA Tour), Frank Hannigan and Thomas (USGA), Michael Bonallack (R&A) – all then giants of the golf industry – and was named personally as a defendant in a $300 million antitrust lawsuit.
In the end, no money was exchanged except for lawyer fees that were paid. The integrity of Karsten Manufacturing was validated and the authority of the USGA and the R&A to regulate golf equipment was affirmed.
Frank’s last chapter with the USGA was probably the most vexing.
Metal woods rose in popularity in the late 1970s with the advent of investment casting and the first generation TaylorMade metal woods. Callaway later enlarged the club and initiated the use of titanium.
Frank and his team developed a series of tests to assess exactly how much “rebound” the thin-faced, oversized drivers were providing, and confirmed the results were in contravention to the rule in force at that time. Frank recommended a grace period of six years for clubs on the market with an immediate rollback for all professional tours.
The integrity of the golf ball ODS was at risk if the spring-like effect with metal woods would become the new standard. With the resulting accommodation there would be a significant distance jump in the professional game, more due to the driver than the golf ball. Frank Thomas would once again prove to be prescient.
In the late 1990s, Frank would organize the World Scientific Congress of Golf, a convocation of the finest minds in the golf industry who would publish and submit papers on a variety of arcane golf issues. The materials presented are available in the book Science and Golf, edited by Frank’s counterpart at the R&A, Alastair Cochran. The World Scientific Congress of Golf organization continues to exist.
Frank would retire from the USGA in 2000.
With the arrival of the new millennium, there was no one who knew both sides of the golf equipment and golf equipment compliance landscapes better than Frank Thomas. Frank would later serve as an industry equipment expert for both Golf Digest and Golf Channel. His FranklyGolf website and blog would be the digital go-to location for all things related to equipment and testing.
With the assistance of the Acushnet Company, Frank conducted presentations with many of the regional PGA Sections, fascinating them with behind-the-scenes stories about the history and processes of equipment testing and compliance. These standing-room-only presentations were the basis for my suggestion to Frank that he, and only he, should be the person to write a history of the rules involving equipment.
In 2011, he and his wife, Valerie Melvin, published From Sticks And Stones – The Evolution Of Golf Equipment Rules. Frank also collaborated with Jeff Neuman on his biography, Just Hit It. These two books are must-reads for anyone interested in the world of golf equipment between 1970 and 2000, or anyone involved in the equipment community today, and should be required reading for all involved with USGA and R&A equipment oversight.
For the past 15 years, Frank and Valerie committed themselves to the science and art of putting. They co-invented the Frankly Frog putter, established a putter instruction and fitting certification curriculum and continued to make Frank available for anyone who wanted to learn from someone for whom it could be said that his vocation was his avocation, and the game of golf is the beneficiary of that reason for being.
In February 2021, the USGA and R&A announced they are proposing an update on the testing method for golf balls. They are proposing to use a golf ball’s optimum launch condition within a bounding window.
This proposed test procedure is called Optimization and it allows the regulatory bodies to determine the maximum distance any golf ball will travel based upon its optimal launch conditions.
Frank Thomas proposed adoption of this procedure in 1999. We disagreed then and we will disagree this second time around. But the fact that this proposal, what Frank Thomas referred to as the “mother of all tests” is being re-considered, is once again testimony to Frank’s analytical gravitas and the length of the shadow he will continue to have upon a game he loved so much.
The World Golf Hall of Fame has four categories, one being the Lifetime Achievement Award. Past winners of this award include Joe Dey, Deane Beman, Karsten Solheim, Michael Bonallack and Frank Chirkinian. Based on his accomplishments, contribution and legacy, Frank Thomas should be given serious consideration for World Golf Hall of Fame nomination and induction.
His bona fides include one of the three most significant inventions of the 20th century – the graphite shaft – and a period of USGA technical director stewardship whose decisions and contributions were both seminal and enduring. Sometimes the right thing to do is to do the right thing.
Rest in peace, Frank. We will work to preserve your legacy.
Wally Uihlein is former president and chief executive officer of Acushnet Holdings, now a member of its board of directors and a special advisor to the chairman.