The balls are in our courts

December 2, 2011

Dec. 7 marks the 224th anniversary of the First State. There’s an old political joke that says that while Delaware was admittedly the first to ratify the United States Constitution, it has been resting on its laurels ever since.

That’s unfair, but it’s still funny.

When it comes to golf, however, few would argue that Delaware retains its First State status. Most folks would suggest that Florida, California, or some other state far south or west of here deserves that honor far more than our tiny little slice of Mid-Atlantic heaven.

It depends on where you look, however.

For example, a number of golf balls have landed in our courts, both literally and figuratively - namely, the Federal District Court for Delaware, and in the state’s courts as well.

In 2005, for instance, two golfing industry heavyweights began years of hard-fought litigation over competing patent claims for their golf balls. Callaway Golf claimed that the Titleist Pro V1 balls, made by the Acushnet Company, violated several patents held by the company that made Big Bertha a famous name in golfing circles.

The parties reached a settlement, but then had another falling out, leading to another suit in Delaware District Court, one of the most popular federal jurisdictions for intellectual property disputes.

A Delaware federal jury ruled initially in favor of Callaway, but that decision was reversed and remanded for a new trial. On remand, the second jury ruled against Callaway.

The parties continued their fight in the U.S. Patent Office, which also ruled for Acushnet. This past July, a federal court upheld the Patent Office decision, putting an end to this latest round of fights over the intellectual underpinnings of certain small, white balls.

More recently, the Delaware Chancery Court issued a contract case decision involving some other famous golf names. Vice Chancellor Donald Parsons had to deal with complex corporate claims regarding the Pinehurst Resort and Country Club in North Carolina.

ClubCorp owns and operates golf, country, and other clubs in the United States, and at one time owned the Pinehurst Resort through a subsidiary entity. The company eventually sold off its interest in the resort to an entity affiliated with the founders of ClubCorp. The new company was called Putterboy, a name and image deeply tied to Pinehurst.

Most of this lawsuit involved legal issues not particularly golf-related, except for one part.

In 2006, a golfer who had been struck by a golf ball while at the Pinehurst Resort sued ClubCorp, Pinehurst, and several others, including the golf professional who hit the golf ball. This part of the ongoing Chancery Court fight dealt with who would be ultimately responsible for the $178,000 spent to defend against this one personal injury suit.

The vice chancellor’s Nov. 15 opinion put off making that determination until more facts could be developed.

Making yourself perfectly clear
A recent Ruling of the Day at the United States Golf Association website highlighted the importance of communication during a round of golf.

Suppose a player hits a ball so far offline that he’s sure it is probably lost or out of bounds. He drops another ball onto the turf and plays it.

Did his actions speak louder than words?

Not according to the USGA. The organization re-emphasized that if a player intends to play a provisional ball, he has to tell his fellow competitors of his intentions.

The rules mavens also give a few handy examples of other ways of failing to communicate one’s intentions to play a provisional:

(a) "That might be lost. I am going to reload."

(b) "That might be out of here."

(c) "I'd better hit another one."

(d) "I will never find that one. I'll play another."

Here’s the big hint. If you want to hit a provisional, tell the others that you are going to hit a provisional.

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