With the USGA's recent announcement that they've glommed onto yet another corporate sponsor (I wonder how many Open tickets American Express and Lexus bigwigs are getting?) ostensibly to help with legal bills, it would appear golf's ruling body in the U.S. is feeling frisky.
Last August they issued a 104-page report to club manufacturers indicating that currently permissible grooves allow the game's best players to impart more spin on the ball from light rough than should be acceptable. While they promised no immediate action, it seems obvious they seriously want to consider an equipment rules change.
My question, and the question of many others, is whether a rules change on grooves is necessary or even advisable. Are they making rules for the top 0.5% of players in the world, or for they rest of us?
How We Got Here
When golf club makers started casting iron heads, the USGA revised the rules on grooves to allow them to make U-shaped grooves instead of machining or stamping V-grooves. It began as an accommodation to a new manufacturing process.
The Ping controversy really had nothing to do with a new rule on grooves, but rather centered on how the USGA chose to apply the existing rule to Ping's version of U-grooves. The resulting litigation and subsequent settlement had a far greater impact on the game than any performance enhancement from grooves.
The specter of non-stop lawsuits seriously compromised the USGA's ability to regulate equipment. Since that time, equipment rules changes have done little to stem the emergence of the "bomb and gouge" style of play now seen on the professional tours. In fact, new rules have actually contributed to it.
Dropping the Ball
When you look at recent equipment rules changes, it would appear the USGA has been inconsistent and inconsequential at best, and incompetent at worst. Consider this:
They've placed a length limit on drivers and tees but not on putters. For heaven's sakes, why?
Originally intending to set an arbitrary limit of 385cc on driver head volume, the USGA caved in to lawsuit threats and set the current 460cc maximum.
According to Frank Thomas, the former technical director for the USGA, the industry-coerced rule on COR (coefficient of restitution, or spring-like effect off a driver face) combined with the modern ball instantly added 25 yards to the driver distance of the best players in the world and was "the single biggest change in the history of golf equipment."
A rule adopted in 1984 stated, "… the face or clubhead shall not have the effect at impact of a spring." Which was fine since the wooden-headed drivers of the day had none. A decade later when club makers started making heads out of titanium, they inadvertently created clubs with a spring-like effect.
Discovered after the fact, the USGA decided it couldn't or wouldn't enforce the rule and so instead created a limit on COR of 0.83. According to Thomas, this was a bit like saying, "no smoking in this restaurant, but six cigarettes is OK."
Still, to fully benefit from this effect, you have to be swinging your driver at 110 mph or better. So the best players benefit, while the rest of us see only marginal improvement, if any.
Dealing with Bomb and Gouge
Apparently unable to head off distance gains by the best players thanks to their own rules compromises, the USGA seems to have turned their attention from the "bomb" to the "gouge."
The recent study on grooves indicates that tour-level players can indeed generate more spin out of rough less than four inches tall with today's U-shaped grooves than yesterday's V-shaped grooves.
USGA Senior Technical Director Dick Rugge was quoted in Mike Stachura's Golf Digest article citing statistics indicating the correlation between driving accuracy and rank on the money list has dropped to zero when in the 1980s it was as statistically significant as greens in regulation and putting. [Editor's Note: Our Numbers Game columnist, Dave Koster, determined that it factored in at only 10% or so. For more on his 40-30-20-20 rule, read the original article.]
While Rugge says the study was done only to start a "conversation" on the issue, that he and his staff of engineers and technicians spent 18 months putting it together would indicate he considers grooves a serious problem.
Not everyone agrees. John Solheim, chairman and CEO of Ping, was quoted in Stachura's article as saying:
Golf doesn't need another groove controversy. The rulebook is already filled with rules on grooves. Growing our sport presents enough of a challenge. The game does not need its rules-making body focused on an issue that was resolved nearly 20 years ago. We have been there, and done that. Let's move on.
And you have to wonder if a rules change is even realistic. What are they going to do, rule every wedge and iron now in existence illegal? Rule them out over a period of time so that, say, in 2012 you can throw your classic Mizunos in the garbage?
It's the Course, Stupid
U-grooves are an advantage from grass less than four inches high. They are not from rough higher than that. So, instead of changing the specifications for an entire industry, why not just grow the grass a little higher?
The USGA did just that at Winged Foot last June and saw a winning score from the best players in the world of five over par… with U-grooves.
Equipment expert Tom Wishon of Wishon Golf is quoted as saying:
Why can't they increase average rough height to bring it more in line with swing speeds? I guarantee that the iron-speed equivalent of a 125 mph driver swing can't cut through six-inch rough, but it sure can get through four-inch rough.
They don't grow the grass because the PGA Tour wants to see its players posting red numbers to entertain its fans. And, apparently, the USGA looks to the PGA Tour as the definition of the game today.
And that's my problem. Golf isn't about the PGA Tour. It's about you and me and everyone who plays it.
What's Really Important?
Somehow, somewhere, the USGA has lost its way. In the midst of all their rules changes and gnashing of teeth over the performance of the best players in the world, they're presiding over a game that has stopped growing.
It's stopped growing because it's too hard, too expensive, and takes too much time. Focusing resources on such a seeming non-issue as square grooves doesn't address any of the fundamental issues in the game today.
For all their worry, the USGA should realize that driving distance and scoring haven't changed for the average player. Trying to control the best players in the world shouldn't come at our expense.
Frank Thomas says it even better on his website:
The real problem in golf is not that the pros are hitting the ball too far. The game is becoming less popular, and fewer people are enjoying it. Yes, some golfers are masochists and love to play courses that are forever being made longer and harder and more expensive. Most aren't. The disproportionate attention to distance leads developers and architects to build courses that take longer to play, cost more to create and maintain - and thus to play - and are intimidating to the less-skilled golfer we should be encouraging instead of driving away.
These are the issues we should urge the USGA to focus on. Even though the popularity of the game is not an explicit part of its charter, it is nonetheless a good measure of how effective it is as the game's guardian.
Golf needs strong and sound leadership to reinforce some of its cracking foundations, and the USGA is the only organization we have that can play this role. Worrying about new specifications for grooves, to solve a problem that has not been adequately defined, may not be the best focal point for the USGA at this time.
In the End…
I'm not happy with the USGA right now. I don't like their direction on rules. I don't like the idea of their corporate sponsors. I don't like what they're not doing to grow the game. I'm not alone. In a poll Frank Thomas conducted on his website, 89% of the respondents said they did not believe the USGA was properly representing the average golfer. What do you think?