Friday, August 8, 2008


I have had a few days to digest the USGA and R&A's decision to go forth with grooves regulation beginning in 2010 for major professional competitions and 2014 for amateur players. When the proposal was made almost 18 months ago, I was soundly against the decision to regulate grooves. At the time, I thought that the only way to get to appropriate regulation of golf technology would be through scaling back golf ball technology. The decision to try to regulate grooves appeared to be a weak attempt by the USGA to back door into the true regulation required.

Over time, though, I have come around on grooves regulation. In fact, this year, I went so far as to demand that it happen. I backed it in the shadow of doubt cast over the future of the regulation in the early part of the year, particularly because of the R&A's reported stalling on the acceptance of the rule change.

In the linked column, I noted PGA Tour data that I had analyzed to discover that players - on the whole - have not modified their club selection approach to par 4s and par 5s. Therefore, I drew the conclusion that the regulations for drivers already put in place by the USGA had no real impact on how players approach these holes. Additionally, the tightening of course setups by the PGA Tour in recent years has had a statistically insignificant impact of how professionals play from the tee.

The conclusion to draw from that fact now seems clear. Professional golf is a distance game. For the average professional, the rule off of the tee is to hit the ball as far as possible. This agrees with the USGA's initial research that indicated the lack of correlation between hitting fairways and winning golf tournaments. It also agrees with research I have done - even before the USGA proposed grooves regulation.

Therefore, if golf is a distance game and hitting fairways do not matter, then players feel more confident hitting their approaches from closer to the hole and in the rough than from the fairway and further back. In effect, this eliminates a crucial skill of the game from the equation. What is to blame for that? The USGA evidence suggests, and I agree, that golf club grooves allow players to spin the golf ball better in tandem with current golf ball technology.

Current U grooves allows players to have better control over shots from the rough and, combined with distance gains, lets them play with a shorter club in their hands. Regulating the size and shape of those grooves will reduce professionals' ability to control the ball from the rough. The stated hope of the USGA and R&A is that this will restore the importance of rough in tournament play. While that may be true, that stated hope is missing the point.

The real goal of this regulation should be that players would be encourage to put the ball in the fairway more often. On the eve of the PGA Championship, Trevor Immelman spoke very candidly about the reaction professionals will have to this regulation and spoke about how players will pursue shorter drives to put the ball in the fairway. In effect, this regulation could move the needle on the PGA Tour data I analyzed earlier this year. Players will leave distance on the table to avoid the rough and have ball control from the fairway. They will leave distance on the table by switching to a softer golf ball that will allow them better control from the rough than current golf balls. This is de facto golf ball regulation, and that is what I wanted in the first place.

This regulation is not perfect, though. After all, this regulation is reactionary. It is not proactive. With an 18 month window before this formal announcement of acceptance, and another 18 months before implementation at the professional ranks, the golf manufacturers may have sufficient time to develop golf balls that respond to the new grooves in a very similar fashion to the existing standard of U grooves. Basically, the manufacturers could out-maneuver the USGA and R&A before the standard even becomes enforced.

Immelman also spoke about how his sponsor, Nike, is already working on a golf ball that will allow multi-piece distance and control in conjunction with V grooves. No wonder a lawsuit is not imminent from the manufacturers. They would rather spend money beating the rule than fighting it.

If that does happen, and the manufacturers dupe the ruling bodies, then the USGA and R&A will be left with little recourse but to regulate the golf ball more than it does today. Fortunately for the ruling bodies, they have set a precedent for working with the manufacturers to design regulation and work out the kinks before implementation. They could do so again for regulation of the golf ball, if needed, and manage to avoid the massive lawsuit that causes the USGA to save money hand over fist.

In the end, this is a positive step forward for professional golf. No matter how we get to the end result, it will help restore skill to the game that is missing today.

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