December 21, 2009

Adaption Agents

The new groove rule could impact the PGA Tour by altering the way pros play the game. But as players adjust, the change will be more subtle than earthshaking

Spin Master: U-Grooves (left) have more volume to channel out debris and boast sharp edges that grab the ball for greater spin. Less Grip, More Slip: The new groove has more rounded edges, causing the ball to slide up the face at impact, thus producing less spin.

Spin Master: U-Grooves (left) have more volume to channel out debris and boast sharp edges that grab the ball for greater spin.

Less Grip, More Slip: The new groove has more rounded edges, causing the ball to slide up the face at impact, thus producing less spin.

In its first direct response to the distance explosion that detonated more than a decade ago at the game's highest level, the USGA, after much deliberation and many millions spent in research, has chosen to -- drum roll, please -- reduce the width, depth and sharpness of grooves on iron clubs.

Not by modifying the golf ball, or the size of driver heads, both of which would be a more direct way of slowing down the pro game. Rather the more indirect route of reducing the amount of spin that could be applied from certain lies, and then banking on a projected chain reaction of events to impede the further spread of the power game. Ta-da.

Although the modification officially takes effect Jan. 1, it has left the key principals -- players, equipment manufacturers and course set-up staffs -- wondering just what the net effect is going to be. Meanwhile, most golf fans still aren't sure what all the fuss is about.

So first, a clarification. Grooves on irons exist to create backspin that assists in control. Until 1984 uniform tooling and rules that regulated spacing produced a relatively narrow groove that was cut in a "V" shape from top to bottom. That year, Ping founder Karsten Solheim, under what he contended were the same parameters, created grooves that were more U-shaped and wider. It was soon found that Ping's grooves -- which came to be known as square grooves -- imparted more spin than conventional irons, particularly from the rough.

The reason is the same one that applies to rain tires. The bigger grooves in the tire displace more water, allowing the rubber to make more contact with the asphalt and thus have better traction. In the same way, grooves with more volume and less space between them take in more grass and moisture, leaving less debris between the steel surface and the cover of the ball, allowing more backspin and control.

On the PGA Tour square grooves had an important role in making the general style of play more aggressive. Because they made it easier to hit a controlled shot from rough -- both from off the fairway and around the green -- players began to worry less about placing their drives in the fairway and were more concerned with hitting as little club as possible for their approach. They also began firing at more pins, because even if they missed on the so-called "short side," the spin from square grooves on their wedges made scrambling easier. The style became so prevalent among top players such as Vijay Singh and Phil Mickelson that it got its own name -- Bomb and Gouge.

The USGA's new parameters on grooves for clubs of more than 25 degrees (basically 5-iron on up) allow for more volume than the original V-groove, but about 40 percent less than square grooves. They also mandate a more rounded radius on the edge of the groove than is currently the norm. The intent is to reduce the control from rough and thus reward players who find the fairway more often. Theoretically, a wider array of skills will be required to judge and execute shots from difficult lies from off the fairway and from taller grass around the green.

While many players have favored V-grooves in their irons through the 9-iron, virtually all have long played square grooves in their wedges. Those who had square grooves throughout the bag will presumably have a bigger adjustment to the new rules. They will have to deal with the possibility of more so-called "flyers" or "jumpers" -- iron shots hit from rough that carry little spin and fly farther than a shot from the fairway and land harder. Everyone will have to adjust to less spin and its consequences with the wedges.

How much difference will it make? Estimates range from dramatic to less than zero. I thought Steve Stricker nicely phrased the most sensible projection:

"It's not a huge difference, but enough to make a difference."

On the brink of a new season, no one knows for sure what the effect will be. Based on conversations with players, caddies and various wise heads from equipment companies and ruling bodies, here is what I think is going to happen.

1. Driving distance will go down: Some might shift to a softer, spinnier ball that could cost as much as 10 yards. With more incentive to be in the fairway, players will hit more 3-woods and cut drivers. This year the distance leader was Robert Garrigus at 312 yards. Look for the leader to drop to less than 310 yards. The average was 287.9 yards. The number has done almost nothing but go up since stats began being kept. I think in 2010 there's a good chance it go down by more than half a yard.

2. Driving accuracy percentage will go up: The combination of softer balls and incentive to be in the fairway will change things a bit. Players who are straight already, such as perennial category stalwart Tim Clark, probably won't play differently. But most B&Gers will probably pull back a bit to be in the fairway more. The tour's fairways-hit average of 62.91 percent in 2009 was one of the lowest in history. Chances are good that will remain a landmark of the B&G era.

3. Percentage of greens hit will go down: Flyers, and the doubt raised by the increased possibility of a flyer -- especially with middle and short irons -- will mean more greens missed. Reduced spin from the fairway and especially from the rough will mean more balls rolling to the back fringe. Players are reporting that reduced grab from the new grooves is causing balls to climb up the face, thus launching higher and traveling as much as five yards a club shorter. Lofts may get jacked a bit, but hitting effectively longer clubs into the greens will take its toll in accuracy. On the other hand, more players may settle for the middle of a green rather than shoot at pins because the penalty for short-siding will be greater. This year the category leader was John Senden at 70.89, the lowest percentage for a leader ever recorded. Might 2010 be the year no one hits 70 percent of the greens? As for the tour average of 64.7, it too will drop.

4. Scores up, birdies down: The new grooves make the game harder, not easier. The 2009 scoring average of 71.04 is the tour's all-time lowest, and won't be threatened by the new groove regulations. Meanwhile, the collective birdie-per-round average of 3.42, tying the all-time tour high, won't get better either.

5. More laying up on par 5s: The bomb-and-gouge principle of going for par 5s with frequency and generally getting as close to the green as possible in two (a strategy validated by ShotLink data), is about to come under serious reconsideration. Not only will recovery wedge shots from the rough be harder to control, but less than full shots, especially in the 35- to 60-yard range, will be harder to spin, even from the fairway. Look for more players returning to the bygone strategy of laying up to a favorite full-shot distance between 80 and 100 yards.

6. More variety of shots around the green: Because of less available spin, especially from longer grass, players will either play for more run or try to stop the ball with soft-handed high shots that land gently. The low spinner that checks after one bounce will become more difficult. When extra spin is necessary, there will be an increased premium on clean contact and correct use of the club head -- in short, skill.

7. Wedge lofts will go down: Although the need for more loft would seem to suggest more 62- and 64-degree wedges, the way the new grooves cause the ball to ride up the face and launch higher will make high-lofted wedges risky and probably inconsistent. Chances are good the highest-lofted wedge players carry will drop from the customary 60 degrees to 58 degrees.

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While that may seem like a lot of change, it will all be quite subtle. Only those who pay close attention and who are already familiar with how touring pros play will notice. The more important question is how grooves will change the comparative differences between players and alter the competition. In other words, who will the new groove rule help, and who will it hurt?

In general, players invoke the name of Justin Leonard as a representative of the not-long-but-straight, steady, low spin, well-rounded V-groove veteran who will most benefit. Meanwhile, young, relatively ham-handed bombers who've always played square grooves will face the biggest challenge. Theoretically, it means that Clark, for example, has a better chance than ever of getting his first PGA Tour victory. Conversely, it would appear that a multiple-winning B&Ger such as Dustin Johnson may have to tone things down.

But that underestimates perhaps the most important factor in this whole equation -- a tour professional's ability to adapt. In my opinion, before spring, the great majority of players will have figured out what equipment, strategy and style of shots will work, and will be executing without any longing for the past.

Sure, some will have to make more changes than others. But it doesn't mean they won't be able to. I think this will be especially true of players in the top portion of the World Ranking, which itself is a measure of good all-around skill. The new grooves might help drop a few players off the tour, but it will be those who have survived on the fringe.

Equipment makers will also adapt, perhaps even in ingenious ways that circumvent the intent of the rule. It already seems likely that players who prefer employing heavy spin with their wedges will be changing out those clubs as often as every tournament to get the sharpest grooves possible.

The X factor will be course setup. The PGA Tour's field staff will be making crucial decisions that will directly affect the week-to-week consequences of the new grooves. If it is determined that the new rule is causing the game to become more difficult than is good for the product's entertainment value, greens can easily be softened and pins set in more favorable positions.

But if the change is deemed a positive move toward rewarding golf skill, then I think the conditions that the groove rule was intended to address will be accentuated. That means more flyer-producing intermediate length rough as opposed to the deep rough that negates shot options. It will also probably mean firmer greens to further ensure that players put increased value on driving in the fairway, as well as requiring more variety from their short games.

If so, look for those conditions to carry over to the setups at the major championships, which will mean shorter rough at the U.S. and British Opens and PGA Championship rather than the long stuff that has too often made our most important tournaments the most tedious and, even more unfortunately, more susceptible to upset winners.

Any change in the game that more clearly separates the best from the rest is always welcome, and on that score alone, the new groove regulation is a good thing.