News From Terre Haute, Indiana

April 3, 2010

On and Off the Course: Examining the square groove rule change

By Jennifer Myers
Special to the Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Even though the Masters is going to have its own little drama going on with the return of Tiger Woods, an interesting thing to note will be how well the players are able to hold the hard fast greens at Augusta. An underlying part of the bigger picture that everyone might not realize is a rule change that could dramatically affect most, if not all, of the players. That rule change took effect on Jan. 1.

Many people think of it as the “square-groove rule,” when in actuality, square grooves themselves are not banned. The rule changes the way clubs can be manufactured. The grooves must now be placed farther apart. The milling process will now be changed, which is an effort to dull the edges that manufacturers had been creating on those grooves. The new rule calls for a minimum radius of 0.10-inch on the groove, which effectively rounds off the corner of the groove, in theory producing less bite on the ball.

The other part of the rule is that it allows for condition of competition so that its enforcement is up to the tournament rules committee. It also states that the rule be applied to expert players, so it should only effect the PGA Tour, USGA, and other high level competitions.

The PGA Tour has already adopted the rule (not without controversy), and the USGA will apply it to their competitions beginning in 2014. For the average, every day golfer and weekend player it doesn’t mean much, at least until the year 2024, when all rounds played for handicap purposes must use conforming grooves.

The reason for the change is to re-emphasize the importance of hitting tee shots into the fairway again. Many men, especially the pros, were barely affected by having to hit a ball out of the rough. They could still get plenty of spin to hold the green, even with a 5-iron in hand. The USGA contends that by taking spin off of the ball tournament officials won’t have to grow the rough to six inches or to speed the greens up to the speed of concrete.

 Already this year there was controversy on the tour over this rule change. Some of the tour players chose to use the Ping Eye 2 wedges, which were still allowed because of a 1990 settlement following Ping’s lawsuit again the PGA Tour and the USGA. Other players voiced their concerns, even including calling the act “cheating”, which caused Phil Mickelson to say he was “publicly slandered” and threatened a lawsuit.

Cooler heads finally prevailed. Ping and the PGA announced that they had agreed to ban the pre-1990 Ping Eye 2 wedges also.

Will this change impact the average golfer? Well, that depends on how much he used spin in the first place. Three factors contribute to generating spin on a golf ball: the quality of the swing, the clubs’ groove structure, and the ball itself. If you’re used to using a hard, surlyn covered ball like most of the less expensive distance balls, you probably didn’t rely too much on spin.

As far as swing quality, to produce spin you need solid contact and a fast moving club head. Forearm and wrist strength also have a lot to do with the ability to spin a golf ball.

By the end of this year I’d like to see some statistics on how the groove change has affected the tour pros. Will there be a greater separation of the “men and the boys” when it comes to raw power? Will finesse become more desirable than physical strength, or vice-versa? I’d like to see how many greens were hit and held from shots out of the rough.

I think the impact at the U.S. Open should be the greatest, if course setup is true to its typical form, with hard, fast greens and extra-long rough. Augusta National is known for its slick greens, so it won’t be a walk in the park to hold those greens either. Maybe we won’t see players hit the ball with so much backspin that it spins off the front of the green into Rae’s Creek.

It would be ironic if this rule change caused the players to back off on their drives so much that it made all of the course-lengthening (which used to be called Tiger-proofing) over the last few years completely unnecessary. I’m sure there are a lot of clubs that spent a lot of money in that endeavor, that wish the rule had come a little sooner.

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Quote of the Day: “I’m glad Ping took the bigger approach and waived their side of it, and I think the Tour did a good job sorting it out with them.” — Sean O’Hair, regarding the Ping Eye 2 wedges.