In Phil Mickelson’s press conference this afternoon, he made a subtle but potentially crucial point about the difference between Oakmont at this year’s U.S. Open and Oakmont’s last U.S. Open in 2007. And it has nothing to do with the golf course.
Mickelson noted that players this year won’t have the luxury of aggressive grooves on their wedges like they did in 2007. The USGA and R&A rolled back the groove specifications beginning with the 2010 season for elite players.
“When you were in the rough [in 2007 U.S. Open at Oakmont], you still had a chance to grip the ball, put a little spin on it chipping,” Mickelson said. “You do not have that opportunity now since that groove change. So chipping downhill is impossible. You had a chance the last time we were here, but it is impossible this year. You have to chip uphill because you cannot put enough spin to stop the ball on these greens with this much slope and as firm as they are. It's just not possible.”
The scrambling average at the 2007 U.S. Open was 37.95 percent, or six out of 10 times players failed to get up and down from around the green at Oakmont. The scrambling average on tour for the year in 2007 was nearly 56 percent.
But has the scrambling average generally been impacted by the rule change? Depends how you look at it. The PGA Tour average for scrambling from the rough is worse in the years since the grooves were rolled back. But only microscopically so, and probably well within the statistical noise. From 2007-09 (the last year of aggressive grooves), players successfully got up and down 55.1 percent of the time. In the six full seasons of rolled back groove designs, the scrambling from the rough average was 54.7 percent.
Curiously, overall scrambling (getting up and down from the rough or bunker) is actually somewhat better on the PGA Tour in the post groove rule era (57.1 percent vs. 56.5 percent). And if you restrict your data to just U.S. Opens, scrambling average hardly changed at all. It was 42.9 percent from 2007-09, and 43.1 percent since then.
Still, fact-checking aside, Phil’s probably right. Chipping downhill at Oakmont this year will be impossible.