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Here V Go Again: The Truth About the Groove Rule Change

Jul. 7, 2009     By     Comments (17)

Case in point: This isn't a return to "V" grooves as is widely being reported.

Bag DropLast August the USGA, golf's governing body in the United States since 1894, announced that they were enacting new regulations for grooves in golf clubs effective January 1, 2010. This change came after a fairly exhaustive study that was spurred on by the lack of correlation between driving accuracy and success on the professional tours of the world. In other words, the USGA didn't think "bomb and gouge" was the way golf should be played.

The rule applies only to certain clubs in the hands of certain players at and at certain times, so there is a lot of misinformation out there about what is really going on with this rule. This week, we take a look at it and set the record straight.

Brief History of Grooves
Prior to 1984, golf clubs had what we now refer to as "V" grooves. As the name implies, the grooves were shaped like a V. In mid-1984, Ping introduced the second version of the Eye2 irons which featured "U" grooves. The USGA outlawed them, a lawsuit followed, and to make a long story short: U grooves or "box" grooves were allowed to stay. Then Ping took it up a notch with the square groove. I bet you thought a square groove was the same as a U groove, didn't you? The design was the same except that Ping modified the groove with a small radius on the corners. This change reduced the distance between grooves but didn't change the actual width of the groove.

Wedge Cross Section Graphic
Seen here (L to R): current U groove, adopted new groove, traditional V groove.

Other companies adopted a similar style for cutting grooves into their irons. The days of the flier lie came to an abrupt end, and players were spinning the ball back from the tall grass and cabbage with regularity. Fast forward to August 5, 2008, and the USGA announces that they're changing the groove regulations on the pro tours effective January 1, 2010.

Common Misconceptions
Let me be clear about this first one, as it's the biggest misconception out there. A lot of people believe the USGA, with this rule change, is banning square grooves. This is not the case at all. In fact, it doesn't govern what shape the grooves can be any more than the current rule that's been in effect since 1984. Club companies can continue to make U or square grooved clubs. The new rule, as it it currently written, calls for a club's grooves to be straight and parallel, have a symmetrical cross section, and sides which do not converge. Also, the spacing and width of the grooves must be consistent across the face.

The Rule
wedge spinning a ballThe new rule actually changes the way club faces and grooves must be manufactured in three ways:

  1. Because square grooves can channel away more grass and moisture, they now must be placed further apart on the face than before.
  2. The milling process many manufacturers use now creates a very precise and sharp edge. In an effort to dull those edges, a new measurement has been added to the rule which calls for a minimum radius of .010 inches on the groove. This effectively rounds off the corner of the groove edge, in theory producing less bite on the ball.
  3. It allows for a condition of competition, which means that the implementation and subsequent enforcement of the rule is up to the tournament committee. It also states that, for now, the rule will only be applied to tournaments or competitions involving expert players. In other words, the rule will only go into effect on the PGA Tour, USGA, and other high level competitions.
  4. The rule applies to clubs with 25° of loft or more. The change will have the most impact on wedges - grooves on your driver, 3-wood, or 4-iron don't do much.
  5. Some dates: All other USGA events (the ones in which pros cannot compete) will adopt the rule in 2014, and the rule will go into effect for all golfers no sooner than 2024. Manufacturers must stop manufacturing nonconforming grooves by the end of 2009, but are still allowed one year to assemble, distribute, and sell the non-conforming clubs through 2010.

Those are the simple facts. Though there was some late doubt, the PGA Tour has decided with finality that they would adopt the rule as they'd previously stated in August, 2008 effective 1/1/10. What does this mean to the average every day golfer and weekend hack? Not much. After all, rounds played for handicap purposes must use conforming grooves starting no sooner than 2024. About the only thing that the non-elite amateur player will notice before then is that they won't be able to buy a "non-conforming" club after 2010.

PGA Tour Impact
Ernie Els Wedge ShotThis rule is primarily targeted at professional golfers and the USGA has said that they want to re-emphasize the importance of hitting the ball in the fairway. In recent years with the changes in grooves, golf balls, driver technology, and increased distance, golf has become a game where it's better to hit a wedge from the rough rather than an 8-iron from the fairway. The USGA simply wants players at the highest levels to return to having to judge the lies in the rough to avoid flyers, or be a bit more creative around the greens with chip shots. The USGA also believes that even a little rough will again become enough of a penalty that we don't need to grow the rough six or eight inches or tuck pins two paces over a deep bunker.

It's too early to say, but the rule change may prompt one or a combination of changes from PGA Tour players:

  • Players opt for a softer, spinnier golf ball. Softer balls don't travel as far off the tee and spinnier balls will hook or slice more.
  • Players gear back off the tee with the driver and put a bit more emphasis on accuracy over distance.
  • Players, when in trouble, opt not to fire at the flag, but rather more to the safe side or center of the green.

Early comments from several players indicate that these may be the case, with the first option - a softer, spinnier ball - being the primary possibility. Of course, switching balls may not be a "one and done" type of change, as Titleist is on record as pushing for a delay of the rule because they believe iterative changes to the set makeup of professional golfers will take more time than players have before January 1, 2010 (among other reasons). You can read their response to the groove rule change here.

Impact on the Rest of Us
So what will the impact on our scores be? After all, most average golfers shoot scores of 90 or higher. Will the groove change make golf tougher for these guys? How about the single digit handicapper?

Personally, I don't think the high handicapper, the average golfer, has much to worry about. For one thing, the average golfing public doesn't have to switch clubs until 2024 at the earliest. That gives everybody a good 15 years to get a few short game lessons. Secondly, most golfers don't generate much spin on their shots anyway. Dave Pelz told me that three factors contribute to generating spin on a golf ball: the quality of the swing, the groove structure, and the ball itself.

A lot of average golfers get one or two out of three: they often play with Pinnacles or other firm golf balls and the quality of the strike isn't high.

In terms of swing quality, to produce spin on a golf ball you need solid contact and a lot of clubhead speed. Most PGA Tour players swing much more aggressively and make better contact on short pitch shots and chips than amateurs. As a result, they hit the ball with more spin. Tiger and Phil have often befuddled crowds with the low flying pitch that bounces twice and stops on a dime - the average amateur doesn't have that shot in the bag.

Where the groove structure is concerned, from the rough a U groove produces on average about twice as much spin as a V groove. From the fairway, U grooves produce about ten percent more than a V groove. It's this factor that marks the main reason why the USGA made this ruling. A lot of average golfers will have a set of U grooves in their wedges, but one out of three won't put a lot of spin on the ball.

The third factor that contributes to spin is the construction of the golf ball. Balls with a hard surlyn cover like most inexpensive distance varieties don't spin nearly as much as balls made with a urethane cover, like the Titleist Pro V1 and other high-performance golf balls. The average golfer (remember, 90+) doesn't spend $40 or $45 for a dozen high-performance golf balls.

Given all that, the average golfer who uses a surlyn covered ball, doesn't produce a high amount of clubhead speed, and doesn't hit the ball solidly most of the time will see little or no effect on his results by switching to the new grooves.

The grey area involves the single-digit golfers. They play the premium balls. They generate clubhead speed. They even hit the ball cleanly on occasion (I kid…). Suffice to say they'll notice a change. It won't be as dramatic as PGA Tour players, who play for millions of dollars, are accurate to within a yard or two, and who could trace their ball's launch angle to within a degree or two with every club in the bag, but they'll notice it. It will, as with the pros, put a little more emphasis on driving accuracy and will force players to be a bit more creative around the greens.

2010 Prediction
I'm on board with the groove rule. I think it will, as the USGA intended, put a little more emphasis on driving accuracy and will return some interest to golf. "Bomb and Gouge" may decline in popularity, and the separation between the truly great players on the PGA Tour and the so-so ones will widen. Golf will be more interesting, with tamer rough that entices players to hit the recovery shot - the most exciting in golf - a bit more often.

I predict that the PGA Tour will go easy on the players in the first few months of the 2010 season by cutting down the rough, perhaps even more than we've seen thus far this year. But we'll see if that holds true - with the equipment resources available to modern tour players and the equipment companies already testing a variety of golf ball/groove combinations, the true impact may be minimal.

This article was written by a guest author. If you'd like to contribute, send us an email.

Photo Credits: © Titleist, © golf.com, © golf.com.

Discussion

  1. Fourputt says:

    Put me in the group that feels this is a good thing for golf. The typical amateur will never notice the change, and the skilled player should have the ability to adjust his game to compensate. My Vokey's will stay in my bag until they are worn out, but I won't have an anxiety attack when it comes time to change.

  2. KEW says:

    Put me in the group of amateurs that frowns on enforcing it against weekend amateurs (via the manufacturers) at all. If the goal is to grow the game and make people enjoy it more, why limit the weekend hacker's ability to do so? Whether that limitation exists in reality or only in their mind, at least for market success and golf participation purposes, it won't matter. What the consumer perceives the industry bears. Combine this with the obscene expense of golf currently, and the speed with which extremely difficult course designs are overtaking the industry, and you have a negative net impact on the growth of the game. In the end, when you look at the totality of the circumstances, enforcing this rule against weekend foursomes via what they can purchase from manufacturers (I am aware that they can still play their old stuff until 2024) is bad for the game. At least insofar as the vast majority of market share is from those who play the game casually. As for pros, it's fine. Enforce it. It is neither unheard of nor uncommon for professional athletes to play with more difficult equipment than is required of amateurs. (e.g., the basketball used under NBA rules).

  3. Aaron Basham says:

    Put me in the group of amateurs that frowns on enforcing it against weekend amateurs (via the manufacturers) at all.

    So you prefer permanent bifurcation of the rules (rather than the semi-bifurcation we'll have next year)?

    If the goal is to grow the game and make people enjoy it more, why limit the weekend hacker's ability to do so?

    :whistle: FOUL! That statement pre-supposes that big grooves make the game more enjoyable. Virtually none of those "weekend hackers" get any benefit from big grooves on their 10-year-old set of irons and their Top-Flite or Pinnacle or whatever.

    I realize you later talk about the perception vs. reality, but in my perception, the average golfer doesn't follow the rules and is virtually unlikely to know that anything has changed in their golf clubs. You can't perceive a change in performance if you don't know your clubs changed.

    It is neither unheard of nor uncommon for professional athletes to play with more difficult equipment than is required of amateurs. (e.g., the basketball used under NBA rules).

    See, it seems you support permanent bifurcation. I do not, because I think one of the core things in golf is the link we feel to the pros - and that's partly due to the fact that we play the same equipment and oftentimes we can play the same golf courses, all under the same set of rules.

    The PGA Tour has "more difficult equipment" - their courses are stretched to 7400 yards, the rough grown, the pins tucked, the greens shaved… but the equipment and the rules, well, those are the same. I don't think too many people would take kindly to bifurcation like that. Heck, I know a bunch of people who are going to buy new wedges next year with the weaker grooves just so they can continue to play what the pros are playing.

  4. Scott T says:

    "Manufacturers must stop manufacturing nonconforming grooves by the end of 2009, but are still allowed one year to assemble, distribute, and sell the non-conforming clubs through 2010."

    So, will we average joes be able to buy conforming clubs on 01/01/2010 or 01/01/2011? (or sometime in between?) Does it depend on the manufacturer's choice?

  5. So, will we average joes be able to buy conforming clubs on 01/01/2010 or 01/01/2011? (or sometime in between?) Does it depend on the manufacturer's choice?

    It depends on how quickly your local store and the manufacturer replace the "big groove" equipment with the "smaller groove" equipment. Some may have stuff ready on 1/1/10, others may take a bit longer to put it out there.

    Bear in mind people attempting to qualify for the U.S. Open will need the equipment, so I suspect a lot of companies will try to get it out there sooner rather than later.

  6. sharkhark says:

    I totally disagree with with what they are doing John. I know you clearly say you support it, but i do not.
    Here is why:

    I was raised that golf is totally different than any other sport. You play by a set of rules that is exactly, i mean down to every single rule or condition, for the pro's or amateurs.
    No other sport do you call a penalty on yourself that could disqualify you from winning something?

    You say something about it not being unusual for pro sports like basketball etc to use more difficult equipment at the pro level...well you are comparing a sport like golf in which you are brutally honest, calling penalties on yourself...to a sport in which a guy barely bumping into you...results in a player flinging themselves backwards in a fake fall as if they were shot from a cannon.

    Golf is etiquette, a game of honor and respect, a game that has a set of rules to play by to ensure the game is the same whether i am a hack shooting 10 over...or a pro shooting 10 under....

    .....at least it was the same until this change opened a can of worms...

    ...do you really think now that this is opened that it will be the last change? i think not.

    Does a player who can bomb it 330 yards still have an advantage over others and will they still have to make courses longer and longer to combat it?

    This is silly....i would have accepted and understood only one single change in golf for the pro's to combat the way the game has gone....and that is a pro specific ball, then we would not have to take these wonderful classic courses and bulldozer them until they are unrecognizable anymore...where people like gary player shake their heads at augusta as they no longer can reach greens with irons...or identify the holes like they used to.

    I really disagree on this one.

  7. Sullivan says:

    So, there will be a run on Vokey Spin Milled wedges at the end of this year. Will Titleist keep assembling them and selling them in 2010?

  8. Shane says:

    Bear in mind people attempting to qualify for the U.S. Open will need the equipment, so I suspect a lot of companies will try to get it out there sooner rather than later.

    What if I don't know what kind of grooves I have? Having until 2014 to change for the Amateur USGA events is fine, but attempting to qualify for the U.S. Open before then will require the new grooves, as you said. Can we expect that there will be a conforming clubs list (or rather, a non-conforming clubs list) much like exists for current drivers?

  9. I was raised that golf is totally different than any other sport. You play by a set of rules that is exactly, i mean down to every single rule or condition, for the pro's or amateurs.

    I think what you're missing is the fact that this is a condition of competition. Here's another such example: amateurs rarely if ever play under the "one ball rule" that is enacted as a condition of competition for every PGA Tour and USGA event.

    What if I don't know what kind of grooves I have?

    I would recommend you ask your club manufacturer. My AP2 irons from Titleist conform (all 2008 and onward Titleist iron sets conform, I believe). I suspect that next year they'll make it a little more obvious, too, which clubs conform.

    So, there will be a run on Vokey Spin Milled wedges at the end of this year. Will Titleist keep assembling them and selling them in 1020?

    I can't speak for them. I suspect they'll do what they think makes good business sense. If they think everyone's going to stock up on wedges, they may very well make a bunch this year.

    But golfers are a little weird. Many often opt to make the game harder (whether it's real or perceived is another thing entirely). So maybe a lot of people will want the "new" wedges… I don't know.

  10. Ernest Reed says:

    "What does this mean to the average every day golfer and weekend hack? Not much. After all, rounds played for handicap purposes must use conforming grooves starting no sooner than 2024. About the only thing that the non-elite amateur player will notice before then is that they won't be able to buy a "non-conforming" club after 2010."

    This is great!!! Great as in that you were able to answer a question that I have had for some time. My biggest worry was if I were to enter an amateur tournament, would I be called out immediately for having non conforming irons or wedges?

    I would suppose that should I still be playing golf in 2024; 1. that would be great, and 2. I suppose my clubs would be a tad bit outdated.

    This is great information you have provided, Adam. Many thank you's!!

  11. Gary Lewis says:

    VERY i nformative article. Thanks for clearing some things up for me on this issue.

  12. Donald MacKenzie says:

    Great overview, Adam. You're the first person I've seen outside the golf industry who actually understands what the new rule calls for.

    Another nice thing about the new rule: The added radius to the edge of the grooves should mean our Pro V1s will shred a little less quickly.

  13. Hideo Kobi says:

    Starting in 2010, the worldwide golf industry will literally re-tool its iron making facilities. Huge inventories of clubs are now effectively obsolete. The millions in dollars of costs will be passed on to the public as it always is. The change will require ball manufacturers to produce new lines of spinnier balls. That will cost millions and the costs will be passed on to the public.

    Maybe the integrity of the game is enhanced by a small margin but that margin is not comparable to the costs involved.

  14. Jason Anderson says:

    @Hideo Kobi

    I respectfully disagree that the re-tooling of their facilities will result in a dramatic increase in price for clubs. They are constantly updating their designs from year to year so this should not be any different than any other year for redoing their machinery. As far as their existing inventory, they will sell it off to people at a modest reduction in price as they do every year once the newer model comes out. For the average player the clubs conform to the rules until 2024, which is easily long enough to justify purchasing a set of these clubs now.

  15. Ronnie edwards says:

    I totally disagree with the new groove change!!! 1. The most fun an amatuer golfer can have is to be in a foursome and have a ball back up> Although it happens very rarely it is fun to say look at that pro suck!!!! Have another beer!!!! I love to watch the pros on t v back the ball up even if its from a cactus patch!! The best golfer is going to win no matter what!! Most of the time with a putter, when will they change that rule>. Sounds like board is loaded with liberal Democrates!!!

  16. 1. The most fun an amatuer golfer can have is to be in a foursome and have a ball back up> Although it happens very rarely it is fun to say look at that pro suck!!!!

    As explained, the groove rule doesn't really change that. A clean lie (like in the fairway) will generate as much spin as they would with the larger grooves.

  17. MANthrax says:

    This could be a fatal blow to some golf manufacturers. I for one will not go out and buy a new set of clubs that spins less. I'll be on ebay looking for used clubs. Unless everyone of my friends buys new conforming clubs none of use will put ourselves at a disadvantage. So basically you've taken all of us out of the new club market. So until the next generation of golfers learns on the conforming clubs the manufacturers will suffer. Good luck with that. Why not grow knee deep monster rough around the greens? Easy to care for and less water usage.

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