Saving Strokes

By Mike Stachura Photos by Mark Hooper
July 29, 2010

Since its proposal more than three years ago, including its implementation this year, the groove rule has been awash in uncertainty. Perhaps the biggest question might have been how elite players would adapt to the loss of spin, particularly on stroke-saving short-game shots. The early indication is that they've adapted quite nicely, thank you.

For example, the PGA Tour's average scrambling percentage (holes on which players score par or better after missing a green in regulation) is essentially the same this year -- 58.6 percent -- as it has been the past decade. This despite research from manufacturers and the USGA that spin rates on wedge shots from the rough could be reduced by 30 to 50 percent with the new grooves.

All of which leads to more uncertainty for the rest of us. If the precision game that tour pros play has not been significantly altered by the decreased volume in wedge grooves, will the change matter for average players?

We're on the verge of finding out because manufacturers can distribute big volume, aggressive-groove wedges only through the end of this year (see timeline). So should weekend golfers stock up on pre-2010 wedges, given that they can use them until at least 2024, as the rule states? Or should golfers not worry about their wedges and replace them as needed with new-groove wedges?


"Higher-volume grooves can get more of the stuff that's between the ball and the clubface out of the way," says John Rae, research group manager at Cleveland. "With the new groove, a lot depends on the lie. If there's a lot of grass behind the ball, there's a good chance you could get less spin, up to 40 percent. If the ball's sitting up, it'll be affected less."

That uncertainty is amplified by course conditions. On firm greens, less spin (from dull, low-volume grooves) will influence how quickly certain shots stop. Skilled players, of course, should adapt more easily to the change. But Titleist wedge designer Bob Vokey says other factors could play a role, too.

"If a player is what I call spin-biased with his short game, he's going to be more affected than a player whose short game is based on trajectory," he says. "A guy who's used to being able to take that 50-yard shot in low and have it check right around the flag is going to have to make some adjustments."

Vokey also believes average golfers could be affected more than tour players.

"Most average golfers have been able to rely a little more on spin with the grooves we've had," he says. "They got to where they could do the same thing every time and not have any reason to worry. In the future, it's not going to be about the grooves. It's going to be about how well you can educate yourself on executing shots from different lies."

But the future of wedges is different for average golfers than it is for tour players. Most of us will have at least 13 more seasons to use wedges with high-volume grooves before the rule applies to us. Why change your game if you don't have to?

"It would be like if the USGA rolled back the rules on coefficient of restitution [springlike effect] from .830 to .815," Rae says. "The difference might be only two yards, but we would still tell golfers to stock up on those .830 drivers."

Some experts believe regular golfers won't notice much of a difference. One reason: They don't switch out their wedges very often. "If you took a guy who plays once a week and practices only a little bit with wedges that are three years old or more, and you gave him a well-engineered wedge with new grooves, that new wedge would out-perform what he has in his bag because those old grooves have been worn down," says Mike Nicolette, designer of Ping's new-groove Tour-S wedge.

Says Dick Rugge, senior technical director for the USGA: "It's one of those rare things that affects the best guys way more than it affects the rest of us."

With aggressive grooves no longer an option, manufacturers could focus on other areas, especially fitting systems that match players to their ideal lofts, bounce options and sole grinds. A better set makeup might help players execute more shots regardless of their grooves.

In the end, the problem might be one of perception: overcoming the idea (not necessarily the fact) that the wedge you'll buy in the future is somehow worse than the one you have in your bag right now.