Much Ado About Grooves

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‘These guys are too good.’

That should have been the PGA Tour’s tagline this year in response to the U.S. Golf Association’s 2010 crackdown on the state of the game, its effort to get away from the ‘bomb-and-gouge’ style so many of today’s top players demonstrate by altering the legality of grooves.

In the end, however, there was plenty of smoke, but never a fire.

Ask different people and you’ll get different answers. Ask the USGA and it will likely stand by its decision to disallow clubs with square grooves.

But the facts prove advances in equipment over the years have allowed top players to drive it past the trouble on golf courses and spin the ball better out of the rough, thus dulling the need to hit fairways to score well.

We know the game is steeped in tradition – tradition that seems to buck the notion of allowing for too much change. So it's not surprising that golf’s governing bodies issued a callback to reform how much a player can and should be able to spin the golf ball.

But targeting the groove specifications on clubs as the culprit, and as a first point from which to jump – considering some have deemed the USGA’s testing on the matter as inconclusive – was a shock to many when the August 2008 announcement touched upon this particularly groovy subject

And it’s basically driven the golf industry into a tailspin since.

“How's the change going to affect the game?”

“Who's going to benefit from the new grooves?”

“Who's going to suffer?”

The media had a field day.

Now here we are, a year later, looking back at the first season of how the new regime played out.

Did it work? Were golfers forced to lay back off the tee and play more conservatively to hit fairways? Was it worth all of the effort to steamroll the change?

No, no and, well ... you decide.

GolfChannel.com’s Rex Hoggard wrote an article on how little of an effect the change ultimately had on the PGA Tour – showing how the change even helped PGA Tour players this year, considering the soft, benign conditions that yielded some of the Tour’s lowest scores in years. Even the media let the issue go a few months into the season because Tour players were still playing the same type of game, and still taking it deep.

So it wasn’t really a big deal for the players – once they got used to the new grooves, that is – because, after all, those guys are good.

“The truth is, that players are good enough that it doesn’t really matter what you give them – it doesn’t take them that long to adapt,” said Jason Schultz, a former PGA Tour player and winner on the Nationwide Tour. “I’ve basically forgotten about it. The only time you will ever really notice a difference is when the greens are real firm and fast. Other than that, you can’t really tell.”

Who has been lost in this issue – who has really been affected – are the club manufacturers and the mini-tours and their players.

Let's not forget the golfing public, either, which has also been given a countown by the USGA, allowing current non-conforming clubs to be used until 2024, but only conforming equipment to be accepted and sold at retailers after Jan. 1, 2011. Many like playing new sticks from time to time, which means hurry up and get into your local retailer before the ball drops to get those clubs that spin, because once they're gone, they're gone. Conspiracy theorists could argue that actually helps the manufacturers considering it has been an excellent platform from which to advertise (read: 'the year of the wedge,' etc.).

Regardless, manufacturers have been scrambling around like Santa's helpers two days before Christmas since the August '08 announcement to make things happen –  first to get the conforming clubs into their professionals' hands, and then to prepare for the aforementioned 2011 sanction.

They'll survive, though. They always do.

The developmental circuits and their players are the redheaded stepchild in this discussion – they’re around whether you like it or not, but no one really pays attention to their actions, nor really wants to.

It’s this factor that's been the most interesting offspring of the groove change, because the mini-tour world was forced to go out on a limb and decide what version of golf they were going to play in 2010.

Adhere to the change and follow the tours for which they hope to prepare their players or wait to help players struggling to get conforming clubs and, in essence, play a different game?

“We were definitely faced with a difficult decision last year,” says Ryan Pray, executive director of Arizona’s Gateway Pro Tour. “We tried our best to get a good hold on how the club companies were handling it and how much availability our players had to getting the new equipment before we decided to go in one direction or another.

“We normally try to follow the PGA Tour's policies as best we can, but, ultimately, we delayed the change in our policy until the spring because a number of our players were having difficulty in getting the conforming clubs before then.'

“Some companies got out in front of the situation better than others,' explains Pray, 'which gave us no choice but to cater to a lot of our players who couldn't get the new equipment and hold off for a while before the change.”

The Gateway Pro Tour decided to follow the USGA’s bill in full (affecting clubs of 25 degrees of loft), as did the eGolf professional tour, but the Hooters Tour waited until August to make their policy change, requiring conforming clubs of just 46 degrees of loft or greater to be used in their events.

Plenty of research had gone into the USGA's decision, relating to the timing, effect on the industry, etc., before they made it law. And there’s no question they instituted the new policy thinking and hoping the game would be dialed back to its strategical roots – putting an emphasis on hitting fairways and accuracy.

But the stats prove it didn’t work. Or, at least, it hasn’t yet.

Which begs the question – what’s next? No grooves? Scaling back old school to the gutta percha? 

Unless the next generation of player makes the Bubba Watsons and Dustin Johnsons of today look like Corey Pavin and Fred Funk driving a whiffle ball into into a hurricane, there's no more need for change, because it's Joe and Jane Mini-tour right now – and more importantly the whole of the golfing public – stuck paying the price.