PGA Tour players in search of the right groove


Farmers Insurance OpenSAN DIEGO – For the modern professional it had become something of an urban legend, pure fantasy like Sasquatch, Nessie and four-hour pro-am rounds.

Steve Flesch once declared it had been a decade since he’d hit one and even the word flyer had all but succumbed to the Draconian affects of neglect and faded from the golf lexicon.

That is until the U.S. Golf Association turned back the clock, however delicately, with a seemingly innocuous rule change that outlawed the modified U grooves for a less-aggressive version of the old V grooves.

Three events into the USGA/PGA Tour experiment and the impact of the new rule is still a mystery. The flyer, however, has made a comeback.
Grooves are the big talk on Tour this season. (Getty Images)
“I hit this shot on (No.) 16 at the (Bob Hope Classic) on Monday and I’m just posing,” said Ryan Palmer, who seemed to have little trouble adjusting to the new grooves considering he won in his first start of the year. “The ball still hasn’t come down. Man it just kept going over everything.”

To a man, players on Tuesday at Torrey Pines for this week’s Farmers Insurance Open had similar “flyer” stories.

Jay Williamson, never to be confused for one of the circuit’s most powerful, hit a “hard wedge” from 135 yards into a slight breeze two weeks ago at the Sony Open and watched in stunned silence as his ball shot over the green and onto the next tee box.

“It would have hurt someone if there would have been a gallery,” Williamson smiled, only half joking.

Boo Weekley, one of the circuit’s best and most consistent ballstrikers, launched a similar rocket over the eighth green on Sunday at the Sony Open.

“I had 168 to the hole and it flew 197 yards . . . all the way over the ninth tee box,” said Weekley, who said he’s hit about a dozen flyers this year, more than he did all last season. “It was like a Phil Niekro knuckleball, just low and hot.”

If the USGA, with the Tour’s tacit approval, wanted to liven up play the return of the flyer promises to keep galleries, and players, on their toes. But if the plan was to make driving accuracy, a statistic of little value on the modern Tour, mean something the jury seems to be hung.

Winning scores at the first three events remain consistent with tournaments played before the change, and there seems to be little interest in dialing back games or adjusting equipment to counteract the effects of less spin.

“No one is crying the blues yet,” said Todd Chew, a Tour rep for TaylorMade-Adidas. “No one is asking us for a ball that spins more. Our groove is a lot closer to last year’s groove than a (traditional) V groove.”

Most consider the new rule an indirect attempt to force the bomb-and-gouge set to give the middle of the fairway a chance, but if the first three events are any indication the adjustments have been minimal.

Palmer ranked seventh in driving distance at the Sony Open, Bill Haas was 18th last week at the Bob Hope Classic and Geoff Ogilvy won the season opener at Kapalua with a less-than-stellar combination of driving accuracy (T-16) and driving distance (17th).

Opinions vary, but most observers say the new rule will favor more consistent players like Tim Clark and Mike Weir, both of whom were in the hunt last week at the Hope, and those players with exceptional short games, like Palmer and Ogilvy.

“Players like Geoff are going to use the true loft of the club more now and not squeeze the ball like they used to,” said Dale Lynch, Ogilvy’s longtime swing coach. “The new rule is going to be an advantage for him because he has good technique.”

After the “flyer phenomenon” the biggest adjustment will come around the greens. The new grooves tend to allow the ball to travel up the clubface more, causing the ball to come off higher with less spin. An adjustment, to be sure, but hardly cause for concern among the world’s best.

According to Chew, players who produced a great amount of spin will feel the greatest impact, particularly from the deep rough, while those with less spin will have less of an adjustment.

“A guy like (Retief Goosen) who spins it a lot could have a large reduction (in spin) out of the rough. Maybe up to 40 percent,” Chew said. “But a guy like John Mallinger isn’t spinning it as much and won’t have that big of difference.”

Truth is it may be too early to tell what impact the new rule will have.

West Coast courses are generally softer than what is found the rest of the year, mitigating the impact of spin on approach shots, and the rough early in the season produces more consistent lies which makes adjusting for a flyer easier.

“I worked my butt off in the offseason to see what they would do,” Kevin Streelman said. “I can look down and see the lie and know if the ball is going to jump or not.”

Most agree the real test won’t like come until the Tour heads east, to the dryer and more demanding layouts at Doral and the Honda Classic where spin is crucial and judging lies from Bermuda rough is more of a guessing game.

Yet if early player reaction at Torrey Pines is any indication, don’t expect a wholesale change in the way the game is played at the highest level. Few players have switched to a golf ball that spins more in an attempt to make up for any perceived loss of control and for most a 120-yard wedge shot from the rough is still a more preferred option than a 160-yard 8-iron from the middle of the fairway.

“I’m not going to play any different because we have new wedges,” Palmer said.

Which may be bad news for defenseless galleries, to say nothing of USGA officials.