News From Terre Haute, Indiana

September 29, 2007

Groovy wedges: Possible rule changes keep spinning

By Jennifer Myers

TERRE HAUTE — The USGA and the Royal and Ancient, through their distinctions of being the ruling bodies for the game of golf, have also been saddled with the burden or responsibility to protect the integrity of the game. In recent history this has meant keeping up to speed on golf balls, equipment being produced and setting guidelines for conformity. The latest equipment rules change is in regards to the grooves on clubs and their depth and shape.

Over the last couple of years the USGA and the R&A; have studied how groove design has an affect on the performance and spin of a golf shot. The data compared spin rates for “v” and “u” shaped grooves in wedges. V-shaped grooves played from the fairway have about 11,000 rpm of spin, while 10,000 rpm of spin came from u-shaped grooves. The bigger difference comes from shots hit out of the rough. There, u-shaped grooves create almost 2,000 rpm more spin than v-shaped grooves.

The catalyst for this study goes back to 1989 in the British Open that year, when Mark Calcavecchia, using a set of Ping Eye2 irons, hit a 5-iron on the 18th hole from a flyer-lie in the rough, that spun and bit just as if it had been hit from the fairway. The USGA and PGA tour were already in a legal battle over square grooves, that shot just did a great job of illustrating their point. Eventually a compromise was reached; the square grooves were modified slightly, and they were deemed legal.

The PGA Tour and USGA didn’t have much in the way of statistics to give their legal suit any girth at the time, but now they do. Since then, the USGA has been paying attention and compiling statistics. Their statistics show that scoring in PGA tournaments has changed drastically over the years, due to players’ abilities to throw balls at pins from farther distances and with worse lies.

Players are no longer penalized from missing the fairway because they can still spin the ball out of the rough. Today’s tour player spins the ball better from the rough with an 8-iron than what a player from 25 years ago could do from the fairway with a wedge. The correlation between winning money on the PGA tour and driving accuracy has diminished. In implementing new groove regulations, the USGA is trying to shift the balance of success coming from power or precision more toward the precision side again. After all, not all courses can be rebuilt to accommodate long hitters.

The proposal that the USGA made in February of this year was to make a change in the Rules of Golf that would regulate grooves on golf clubs, “to limit the performance on shots from the rough to that of the traditional v-groove design.” They would like to impose limits on the sharpness of the groove edge on clubs, other than driving clubs and putters, to a minimum radius of .010 inches, and to regulate the cross sectional area of the groove itself. The actual proposal includes a complicated formula which they sent in a letter to club manufacturers: the area of the entire groove, divided by the width of the groove plus its pitch (the distance between grooves) should not be greater than 0.0025 inches squared per inch, according to www.usga.org.

The USGA proposes that these new groove rules only affect clubs manufactured after January 1, 2010. The USGA Rules of Golf would add “A Condition of Competition,” effective Jan. 1, 2009, that would allow a Committee to require the use of clubs that conform to the new groove rules for competitive events. They recommend though, that the Condition only apply to competitions involving expert players. So the rule is trying to affect only the professionals, but if manufacturers stop creating u-groove clubs for the general public, the average player will be affected. What they will probably do is continue to make the non-conforming wedges, but label them as such. I’m wondering though, if the LPGA will implement this Condition of Competition. Women are not likely to get the loft and spin on the ball that men get, so diminished spin on their shots could really hurt them.

Will PGA tour players, with all their skill and strength notice the difference? Sure they will. Some of them PGA players, like Padraig Harrington and Vijay Singh, are so concerned with the spin they get with their wedges that they use new wedges every week! It will be interesting to see if the correlation between precision and scoring grows stronger again, and thereby forcing manufacturers to make drivers geared more toward accuracy than distance. Then again, wouldn’t all this be solved if they just backed off on the distance a golf ball will go?

Quote of the Week — “… 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.” — JP Bouffard (on the SandTrap.com, 6/28/07) on the USGA’s proposed rule on grooves.