If you're a very good player, the game might be about to get harder.
Today, the U.S. Golf Association and the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews jointly announced that the volume and edges of grooves on irons and wedges will need to be softened or risk being judged nonconforming under the rules for elite competitions beginning in 2010. While the rule change would not specifically eliminate the so-called "U-groove" or "square groove," it would force manufacturers to reduce significantly the size, shape or spacing of grooves in an effort to return shot playability to levels seen in the days when most face grooves were more V-shaped.
"We understand that this is a major step," said Jay Rains, USGA Vice President and Chairman of the Equipment Standards Committee. "It's only the second time we've rolled back equipment rules in our history, so we know this is an important matter but one that we have great faith in that it's going to be for the best of the game. We believe that it was necessary, but given the gravity of this, we did think it was appropriate to be very, very thorough in the process of evaluation."
The USGA's study of grooves has covered the last three years and a formal proposal adjusting the characteristics of grooves was sent to manufacturers in February 2007. The USGA and Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, which also adopted the same rule, studied comments from manufacturers and conducted additional research over the last 17 months before announcing the formal change today.
Specifically, the new rule will limit the groove volume and the sharpness of the groove edges in an effort to reduce their relative effectiveness on shots played from the rough. According to a notice sent to manufacturers on Tuesday by Dick Rugge, the USGA's senior technical director, "The objective of this change is to limit the effectiveness of grooves on shots from the rough to the effect of the traditional V-groove design, without mandating the use of only V-grooves. The new regulations permit club designers to vary groove width, depth, spacing and shape to create clubs that conform to this groove rule."
The cross-sectional area of a groove would be limited to .0030 square inches per inch, or approximately half the volume of the most aggressive grooves on the market currently. The edge radius, or sharpness of the corners of a groove, would be set at .010 inches, or about twice the radius of many of the most aggressive grooves today. In the simplest terms, the volume of a groove helps channel away moisture to provide a cleaner contact from the rough, while the edge of the groove can grab a softer cover ball (generally only the urethane-covered balls, like most high-end balls on the U.S. market) and generate increased spin. Rugge believes the combined effect of the groove volume and edge radius changes would reduce spin on shots from the rough by 50 percent.
The new limitations on grooves would apply in different ways to different clubs. For clubs with 25 degrees of loft (5-iron) or more, the stipulations limiting groove volume and dulling groove edge radius apply. For clubs with less than 25 degrees of loft, only the groove volume stipulation would apply.
The rule applies to all clubs manufactured on or after Jan. 1, 2010. The Notice recommends that the rule change apply to clubs used in "competitions involving expert professional players at the highest level of competition" after that date, and the rule will apply to the U.S. Open, U.S. Women's Open and U.S. Senior Open, beginning in 2010, including all qualifying events for those tournaments. All other USGA events will adopt the rule beginning in 2014.
According to a USGA press release, "The PGA Tour, the European PGA Tour, the LPGA, the PGA of America and the International Federation of PGA Tours have all indicated their support for the new regulations on grooves. Each of these organizations, as well as the Augusta National Golf Club, have told the USGA and The R&A, the game's governing bodies, that they intend to adopt the condition of competition, applying the rules for their competitions, beginning on January 1, 2010."
As for regular Joes at their local club events, the rule change may have no immediate impact. According to the Notice, "Currently conforming clubs manufactured prior to January 1, 2010 may continue to be used in all situations wherein the Condition of Competition is not in effect until at least 2024. The final decision regarding the ongoing status of these clubs will be reviewed no sooner than 2020. If it is determined at that time (or later) that the rule change should apply to all clubs, there would be a minimum 4-year implementation period."
The rule change represents a dramatic shift from decisions golf's governing bodies made nearly 20 years ago when it was determined that so-called "square grooves" were not a threat to the game.
"There were some research techniques available today at the [USGA] Research and Test Center as far as trying to find how important the U-groove was vs. the V-groove that were only available 20-25 years ago with the expenditure of a huge amount of money," said USGA President Jim Vernon. "We were able to do some things as far as putting together experimental club faces that just weren't available 20-25 years ago. So that enabled us to have a much better grasp of exactly what it was about the grooves and edge sharpness and groove spacing that made them important parameters in generating spin out of the rough."
"This is an acknowledgement that we have a lot more information today and we have a lot more equipment available today that wasn't available anywhere in the world for that matter," said Rugge. "When you have that, you have the ability to make different conclusions, and that's how we got where we are today."
In addition, Rugge said the way the game has been played at the elite level changed over the last 15 years. He has repeatedly pointed to the decrease of the correlation between driving accuracy and success on the PGA Tour money list to the point where it is now near zero today when in the past it was at a level nearly equal to putting.
"I think you look at the equipment and how players today decide to use that equipment and what that means in terms of an impact on some parts of the game that we might think are important," Rains said. "Obviously, we think that driving accuracy has historically been an important part of playing the game well."
More importantly, Rugge points to research that the rule largely will affect elite players overwhelmingly more than average golfers. According to USGA research, average golfers, don't hit greens with their approach shots from the rough with any near the accuracy that elite players do. Also, according to Rugge, two-thirds of the golf balls used by average players are not urethane-covered and thus would not spin enough to see green-holding benefits.
Asked if it weren't true that sometime in the next 15 years, all golfers whether they play on the PGA Tour or the third flight of the club championship would be using less effective equipment, Rugge disagreed.
"Less effective grooves perhaps, but that's a small part of the game and a small part of the reason for the way a club works," he said. "For the average player, it really makes no difference to them today. And [this change] is not going to be noticeable to most players one iota. The reality is what's important here: It doesn't matter off the tee, it doesn't matter off the fairway and unless he's hitting greens out of the rough, which people do very infrequently, the rule change will make no difference."
One company that was at the center of the square grooves debate 20 years ago and filed lawsuits against both the U.S. Golf Association and the PGA Tour is Ping. And initially its reaction sounds just as disenchanted today as it was back then.
"I am disappointed and intend to study this more closely," said Ping CEO John Solheim. "However, I already know it moves the rulebook backwards. How does this help the average golfer enjoy the game more?"
Others seem generally pleased that golf's governing bodies will enact the rule in a manner that delays at least in some ways the impact to average golfers perhaps by as much as 15 years and at the same time takes into account the concerns of manufacturers in building product that conforms to the new more exacting stipulations.
"We are very pleased to see the ruling bodies have carefully considered whether rules changes intended to address a perceived issue at Tour events should be applied simultaneously to Tour professionals, elite amateurs and other golfers, and ultimately opted to acknowledge those differences by separating their actions with respect to each group," said Steve McCracken, Senior Executive Vice President, Callaway Golf.
"We continue to believe the game isn't broken from an equipment regulatory point of view and that further regulation of equipment is not necessary," said Joseph P. Naumann, Executive Vice President, Corporate and Legal of Acushnet Company. "However, we did not object the notion of making a change to iron and wedge grooves.
"We were happy that the comments we made to both the USGA and the R&A were taken very seriously as a whole by the ruling bodies in their deliberations, and we were encouraged by the changes that they did make because we do think that they moved to a better place from a manufacturing point of view. Did they go as far as what would be ideal? No, but they did take a step in the right direction to give us a little more to work with from a manufacturing standpoint."
None of this precludes the threat of a lawsuit, but USGA officials believe the thoroughness and open nature of the process in coming to a decision on the new groove rule will serve them in good stead.
"You never know what any manufacturer is going to do on the legal front," said Vernon. "I think we are so well grounded in what we have done here that we are certainly confident that if there is such a lawsuit -- and quite frankly we don't expect there to be one -- we think we're in a very good legal position."