The Loop

Latest groove rule blunder a case of mistaken identity

It appears Taylor Fontaine thought he was doing the right thing. Instead, it ended up causing him to be disqualified from U.S. Open Local Qualifying for using a club with a nonconforming groove.

Getting ready to play in local qualifier at Newport (R.I.) Country Club, Fontaine, a member of the University of Rhode Island golf team, had received several e-mails from the USGA explaining how Local Qualifying would be conducted under the new groove rule standards. He realized his regular wedges, which are OK for elite amateur play until 2014, would not be allowed in the local qualifier being played Tuesday. So after a buddy told him he could borrow his wedges, which he said were conforming, Fontaine thought he was good to go.

Fontaine played a terrific round in windy conditions, shooting 76 on a day when only 20 of the 67 players in the field broke 80. That earned Fontaine one of the five qualifying spots to proceed on to sectional qualifying. Then Bob Ward, executive director of the Rhode Island Golf Association, who was the lead official running the qualifier, called him over. One of Fontaine's fellow competitors had mentioned to Ward that he thought one of Fontaine's wedges might be non-conforming.

Ward and Fontaine retreated to the pro shop to check the USGA's conforming club database and found that the Titleist Vokey Design wedge Fontaine was using did not conform to the new groove rules. Ward then called the USGA to double-check (Fontaine's wedge did not have the C-C designation engraved on the hosel), and was left with no option other than to disqualify Fontaine.

"It was a tough break, but he was very good about it," Ward told Golf Digest. "I am 100 percent convinced that the kid was under the assumption that the clubs were legal based on what his friend had told him. He had no idea that he was playing with a club that was no good."

The USGA certainly did plenty to alert players about the requirement that the new groove rule would apply not only to U.S. Open Sectional Qualifying this year (just like last year), but Local Qualifying, as well (a change from last year). In addition to the online application stipulating the new groove rule requirements, the USGA sent an e-mail to competitors on May 4 with similarly explicit instructions to competitors. The e-mail includes these words:

"The USGA strongly suggests that all players verify the conformance of their clubs well in advance of their scheduled qualifying competition. It is the player's responsibility - not the USGA's responsibility - to ensure that their clubs conform. Waiting until the day of the competition is the fault of the player. The Committee is under no obligation to test the club the competitor may play. If it is later determined that the club is non-conforming, including after the competition has closed, the player will be disqualified."

Ward said officials did not check players clubs on the first tee, and in fact, the non-conforming wedge likely was only discovered because another player noticed it and because Fontaine shot a low enough score to advance.

"It's a situation where if somebody doesn't question the kid's wedge, do you really know? Not really," Ward said. "It wasn't my stand and I don't think it was going to be anybody else's stand that we are going to go prodding around through people's golf bags. Golf is a game of honesty, and I think the kid made an honest mistake. He had no intention of playing with an illegal club."

Still, it was not the way Ward wanted his afternoon to end.

" I'm obligated to protect the field and to protect the kid that was involved," Ward said. "I would have hated to see the kid go on to sectional qualifying and find out there that he played with an illegal club.

"It's a game of honesty, it's a game of integrity and usually it shakes out properly. Unfortunately sometimes the rules of golf can be cruel, and that's what happened here. That's the way it goes sometimes." *

*--Mike Stachura