August 6, 2008

Ping Goes Public With USGA Letter

Discontent from manufacturers with the USGA's grooves ruling is growing and Ping has fired the first shot

While the announcement on Tuesday of a rollback in the rules governing grooves is still being digested by the industry, the heat of growing discontent between a few manufacturers and golf's ruling bodies is starting to bubble to the surface.

Not surprisingly, Ping is first to fire a salvo, providing to the public a letter sent from company chairman, president and CEO John Solheim to Dick Rugge, USGA Senior Technical Director in early January. It was 20 years ago that Solheim's father Karsten, founder of Ping, was embroiled in a similar grooves controversy with both the USGA and the PGA Tour.

According to the letter, Solheim questions the statistical link between a decline in driving accuracy and the effect of "square" grooves on success on the PGA Tour. It's a link Rugge and the USGA pointed to early on in establishing the need to study the effect of certain grooves on the spin being generated by shots from the rough.

Among the six-page letter's sharpest points is Solheim's belief that "the changes to historical money list/driving accuracy correlations the USGA relies on to prop up its proposed ban of conforming square grooved irons is likely the result of who is, and who is not, playing at various PGA Tour events--rather than having anything to do with grooves."

Also, Solheim says the connection is less certain because "there are far too many 'uncontrolled' or 'unrecorded' variables at play. He continues, "We do not know which of the many types of grooves were used by each tour pro for each iron and wedge shot at each PGA Tour event. We also do not know the condition of the grooves (whether worn or not) -- nor do we know the specific length of the grass from which each shot was taken."

Interestingly, tour players, generally, seem enthusiastic about the change, which goes into effect for elite competition beginning in 2010 and for USGA amateur events starting in 2014. Typical was a response from Sergio Garcia, who said on Wednesday at the PGA Championship, "I think it's going to take a premium into driving the ball well. Maybe make you think a little bit more off the tee. Maybe decide to give a little bit of distance off the tee to make sure you hit the fairway. And then it's going to get quite interesting when you hit it in the rough. Probably the rough won't be quite as high. I mean, the flyer lies will be a lot easier. You'll get a lot more flyer lies and things like that with the change of the grooves.

"It's going to come down to a lot of feel, a lot of kind of guessing game when you miss the fairway, which is good. It makes you think a little bit, and without having to make the rough really deep and really difficult, you still have to think your way around the course, which is good."

Rugge said Tuesday that he thought the level of cooperation between manufacturers and the USGA in developing the rule was "professional."

"The process was very inclusive and I think manufacturers felt that way," he said. "I would characterize the process as very professional. I would characterize all our relationships as friendly. In this case, I would say it was a very professional job that they did in giving us their inputs, and we very much appreciated that. It bodes well for the future."

Meanwhile, the PGA Tour has expressed its support of the rule change. "The new groove rule creates a greater array of flexibility for course setup because you're not boxed in to having to grow the rough deep," said Steve Horner, vice president of business development for the PGA Tour. "There are a bunch of great courses whose inherent design features do not call for heavy rough.

"Historically, driving it in the fairway used to mean more than it does today. The trend of making the rough more penal to control the competitive nature of the golf course is not necessarily in the best interests of the professional game."

Still, Solheim seems to be not alone in his frustration. Although most manufacturers have not offered extensive comments on the change, Benoit Vincent, chief technical officer at TaylorMade, told Golf Digest that he found the USGA's research incomplete. He also believes that a trial period for testing the rule on tour would have been a more palatable intermediate solution, instead of a change that he says "will affect 12 clubs in the bag."

"What we've seen from the USGA from Day One, once they've decided to make a rule, they make a rule," he said. "We've learned that. Now, we know. They propose a rule and they make a rule, regardless if this rule is necessary or even fully proven that this rule is going to solve the problem. It doesn't matter, the rule will go through. If they change anything [from the original proposal], it is going to be in the minutiae of the execution of the rule. That's what they call change. It's not what we call change.

"The jury was still out on the groove thing because it was so disconnected from the problem of driving accuracy vs. winning. They've totally overcome the disconnect because the new rule doesn't even talk about that at all. It doesn't say, for example, that 'In four years we'll repeal the rule if nothing has changed. They could have included that in the rule and said, 'Hey, you know what. We think we need to add this as a condition for now, and we'll watch it, but we're not sure that we're going to have to keep that parameter.' That would have been a dramatic departure from everything they have done."

Still, he says the new rule will spark new research. "We are not pessimistic about the future of golf-club performance," Vincent said.

Rugge said that such a trial period scenario was among the options considered during the process of deciding on the final rule. He also indicated another consideration was not making a change at all, though the latter had not been a serious consideration "for some time."

"We considered many comments from a number of sources, including those from Mr. Solheim," Rugge said in an e-mail Thursday. "Our final decision was made after considering the comments we received."

Golf Digest Associate Editor Max Adler contributed to this report.

John Solheim's Jan. 10, 2008 letter to Dick Rugge regarding the USGA grooves rule proposal