In 1989, Mark Calcavecchia hit a remarkable golf shot into the 18th green at Royal Troon, setting up a birdie that lead to an eventual victory in the (British) Open Championship. Almost 20 years later in the Tiger era, we have become awash in so many remarkable golf shots that Calc’s 5-iron is almost forgotten today. But it is a very important shot historically, and it’s worth recounting today. Especially as the USGA is about to embark on the biggest rule change in the last 30 years.
What made Calc’s shot noteworthy was that it was from light rough – a “flyer” lie – yet Calcavecchia spun the shot with his Ping Eye2 iron as if it were from a clean fairway lie, moonwalking the ball within a few feet of the hole. While this might not seem so unusual to someone who has only been watching golf for a few years, to golfers raised in the pre-Ping Eye2 era, seeing a shot like this elicits a reaction similar to what might be expected from a group of nuns brought to a Chippendale’s club: a mixture of wonder, shock, and disgust. For many, including a few prominent pros and other members of golf’s elite, this evasion of the expected punishment for missing the fairway is tantamount to a moral transgression, and seems even more egregious given its pivotal role in deciding a great national championship.
To boot, it occurred near the end of an almost decade-long legal battle between Karsten Manufacturing (makers of the Ping Eye2), the USGA, and the PGA Tour, over the legality of square grooves. As most of you no doubt know, a compromise settlement was reached in that lawsuit, and slightly modified square grooves were deemed legal. At the time, many thought the USGA and PGA Tour had sold out the integrity of the game in the interests of fiscal expediency, and seeing Calcavecchia’s 5-iron must have felt like salt in the wound. Well, 20 years later, the USGA has come back, looking to set things right. At least that’s what they think they’re doing.
The details of the current groove controversy have received considerable attention in the golf media recently. The crux of the story – as told by the USGA – is that the relationship between hitting fairways and winning money on the PGA Tour (traditionally a strong, positive correlation) has declined markedly in recent years. In other words, success on Tour in the 70s and 80s could be predicted reasonably well by looking at a player’s driving accuracy stat. The more accurately you drove it, in general, the more likely you were to be a winner.
In recent years, this correlation has almost vanished, and many place the blame on square-groove irons, which allow players far greater control from shots in the rough than was the case with balata balls and V-grooves. And while a correlation does not prove causation, in enacting new groove regulations, the USGA believes that they can significantly increase the penalty for missing a fairway, and thereby restore the proper role of driving accuracy in success on Tour. In other words, they hope to shift the sport’s balance of power and precision back to the latter.
While the basic beef against square grooves is no different than what the USGA alleged in the 1980s, a few other things are different this time around. The USGA’s testing center, unable to muster convincing data to indict square grooves in the 80s, has recently completed a two-year study of staggeringly impressive detail and precision which shows beyond a shadow of doubt that modern grooves and balls outperform their ancestors, and all indications are that the USGA isn’t backing down this time.
While this groove business raises a host of interesting questions, the one I find most interesting is a simple one: will it work? And by “work,” I am referring not to whether or not balls will spin less with the new grooves. There is no doubt in my mind they will. But whether or not this will translate into a difference in scoring patterns on Tour is, in my mind anyway, much less certain. To me, this is the part of it that amounts to a big experiment.
What the USGA is trying to do, in essence, is to change the basic approach golfers take to scoring. Whether we think of it as micro-managing, operant conditioning, or genetic engineering, the upshot is that the ruling bodies object to how these guys are playing the game, and they are rewriting the rule book, mandating large-scale changes in manufacturing practices, and getting into the golf bags of millions of recreational golfers, all in an attempt to change a few hundred athletes’ behavior patterns. Gosh for their sake I hope it works.
At first glance, the tendency is to conclude “of course it will work.” I mean, if every time – or even most of the time – you try to hit from the rough, you hit a low flying shot that bounces and rolls 60 feet after hitting, you aren’t going to be knocking down pins as well as you could with a spinning shot. The obvious response, assuming you want to make birdies and avoid bogies, would be to alter your approach to the game and try to hit more fairways. Those who take their medicine and embrace accuracy will be more successful in the long run, because they’ll have more control with the approach shot and have the best chance to hit it close to the hole. In other words, ditch “bomb and gouge,” and embrace “fairways and greens.”
Sounds simple enough. But as Einstein said, everything should be as simple as possible, but not simpler. Scoring in golf is an often mysterious thing, and we know that wild hitters who can scramble and putt are a match for anyone. So before we try to change everyone’s clubs, wouldn’t we want to know where the bombers’ birdies and bogies are coming from? I mean, do we even know that the gouged shots from the rough are leading to birdies? Maybe it’s the ones that find the fairway that are leading to the good scores, and the penalty of the errant drives is being swallowed up by the players’ skill around the greens with the lob wedge. For all the screaming about bomb and gouge, aren’t the successful bombers the ones who also happen to have great short games? Who is to say that they won’t go on playing the same way they do now, V-grooves or not, taking their chances at scrambling?
In golf, sometimes a miss is as good as a mile, and simply making it harder to control the shots from the rough does not guarantee you’ll see more bogies from there (remember that magic lob wedge). Also remember that the stereotyped, “wild” bomber golfer still hits 50-60% of the fairways, which allows more than ample opportunity for scoring. The new grooves will perform the same as the old from fairway lies, and it will always be better to be hitting wedge from the fairway than 7-iron from the fairway. In short, the USGA might think they are getting to Achilles’ heel, but I’ll believe it when I see it.
There are other potential flaws in the USGA’s logic. I am not old enough to have seen much golf played in the 1960s and 70s, but I think it is definitely possible that the correlation between driving accuracy and success in years past is a statistical illusion. Maybe in those days the sport of golf attracted a class of athlete that was, shall we say, less “dynamic” than the strapping lads prowling the fairways today. Maybe the accuracy formula was in vogue because it was the best fit for the type of athlete playing the game at that time, and today’s athletes are simply playing to their strengths. Sort of a Darwinian, “natural selection” process.
Also, it’s not like we never saw people overpower golf courses in the 1970s, is it? How about Nicklaus’s third round at Augusta in 1965? Style of play, be it power or control, is a personal decision. And while I respect the opinions of golf greats and the intelligent folks in our ruling bodies, the fact is we don’t really know why people favored the contol approach in the past, much less if it was the best method. Yes, Jack won more than anyone with superior control, but is it at least possible he could have done the same or better had he played a more power-oriented game? If I sound like I’m off my meds, just think for a minute about something that happened once in the baseball world. In the first part of the 20th century, the great baseball minds all thought it was a fool’s game to try to intentionally hit homeruns, and for this reason nobody did. Then Babe Ruth came along and, well, you know the rest of that story.
As Lee Trevino used to say when people questioned his unorthodox swing, golf is not a game of “how,” but “how many.” Today’s players don’t really care, I don’t think, what the USGA or Mac O’Grady or the ghost of Tom Morris think of their aggressive, bombing style of play. They just want to win, baby, and they are doing it the best way they know how. That, in itself, should count for something. While this style of play has certainly been encouraged and facilitated by better, more forgiving golf equipment, it is just a guess to conclude that the equipment is the root cause.
Sorry, but this whole groove thing – from its genesis in a flimsy, non-causational correlation statistic, to its fruition in sweeping rule changes – strikes me as almost hubris, as if someone in golf’s holy temple has decreed that today’s champions are somehow unworthy of the title, because they go about it in a way that we find crude or unattractive. Or, if you like, picture a bunch of curmudgeons, sitting in rocking chairs on the front porch, complaining about the kids these days, and marveling at the memory of how they used to do it.
Okay, maybe that’s too harsh. After all, someone has to look after the game and exert some control over it, lest we end up with X-game golf played in half-pipes or on ski slopes. The reader is also perfectly justified in looking at my handicap and concluding “this chopper has no clue.” Maybe so. It is hard to argue with great champions like Arnold and Jack and literally hundreds of others who apparently believe that equipment is at the root of the changing style of play today.
And maybe precision really is paramount in golf; the list of championships won by the controlled, grinding method certainly seems to outnumber those won à la Daly at Crooked Stick. And I guess if I’m forced to rank my preferences between skill and raw power in golf, I’d choose the former, and the intention of this rule change is certainly in line with that hierarchy.
So for now, all we can do is sit and watch. Maybe the rule change will have its intended effect, and we will see Bubba and Camillo punished for their sins, making room for a new generation of accurate shotmakers in the mold of Lee Trevino. But don’t just assume it will happen, and certainly don’t put money on it. In the meantime, we can all rejoice in the fact that we now have an official excuse to go out and buy a new set of clubs.
Can’t wait to go tell the wife.