Aaron Baddeley was on the clock and utterly out of ideas. It was a simple enough question and his silence was as condemning as any testimony or statistic.
In the waning days of the 2010 PGA Tour season GolfChannel.com asked dozens of players if the new rule regarding grooves in irons altered the way they played a single hole this season?
“Nope . . . not that I can think of. Not even once,” Baddeley finally admitted after a long pause.
For all the hyperbole, all the headaches, all the histrionics, the new rule – adopted by the PGA Tour as a condition of play for the first time in 2010 – was a non-story. Much ado about nothing, or at the least nothing much. That is, of course, if the players and the statistics are to be believed.
Consider the most telling indicators, fairways hit and proximity to the hole – two key stats that should have been impacted the most in theory by the groove rule. The Tour’s proximity to the hole average (35 feet, 1 inch) was the lowest it’s been since 2002 and as a group the fraternity brothers hit about the same number of fairways (63.51 percent) as they did in 2009 (62.91) and 2008 (63.16).
Associate editor Jon Levy also takes a look at who the grooves' rule really affected: mini-tour players, manufacturers and amateurs.
In theory the new rule was supposed to make hitting fairways more important and greens more difficult, particularly from the rough, but on this, ShotLink doesn’t lie.
“We made more about it at the start of the year than it turned out to be,” Ernie Els said. “The ball is still stopping.”
The new grooves debate seemed to reach a curious crescendo earlier this year at Torrey Pines when Phil Mickelson announced he planned to put a set of non-conforming but legal Ping wedges in play at his season opener. The move was criticized by some players, including Scott McCarron who likened it to “cheating.” The Tour adjusted the policy that allowed the Ping wedges to be played and the new rule faded into the background largely because of how quickly players adjusted to the new grooves.
More so than any other statistic, the circuit’s scoring average (71.15) suggested, as many thought, that the best players would figure it out. Only 2009 and 2008 (71.04 and 71.07, respectively) had lower scoring averages in the last decade.
“How many 59s have there been this year? You tell me how much harder it is,” Greg Owen said.
Before the season began some suggested players would try harder to find the short grass, but when asked if the bombers still bomb away with abandon, Heath Slocum didn’t hesitate, “Oh yeah,”
“I don’t believe there is any correlation between total driving (a combination of fairways hit and driving distance) and the money list,” Joe Durant said. “Total driving is a thing of the past.”
Just four of the last 11 winners of the total driving category finished inside the top 125 in earnings to keep their Tour cards and just two – Charles Howell III in 2002 and Tiger Woods in 2000 – finished in the top 10 in earnings.
That’s not to say a single season is a complete statistical snapshot and some attribute this year’s low scoring to more user-friendly course setups.
“It looked like they tried to knock down some of the fairways to bring some rough to promote the flyer more,” Slocum said.
Although Tour officials confirmed that they have changed their philosophy away from the traditional “chip out” rough, they contend the move has been ongoing the last few seasons.
“We kind of got away from the chip-out rough. We didn’t like that. We wanted to encourage them to strike the ball toward the green,” said Mark Russell, the Tour’s vice president of rules and competitions. “We came to the conclusion that it’s much more difficult for a guy to play out of shorter rough as opposed to chip-out rough.”
Russell also contends that 2010, as a rule, was wetter than previous seasons, an agronomic reality that lends itself to softer, easier conditions.
“The whole overriding thing is you have to have firm greens. At Quail Hollow we had that,” Russell said. “When it’s soft there’s not much you can do anywhere. Firm and fast is the key. Grooves aren’t going to make a difference when it’s soft.”
But soft conditions and generously cut rough only partially explain why a rule that was designed to make scoring more difficult was actually credited with simplifying things by many players.
Flyer lies, a thing of the past with older, more aggressive grooves, returned in 2010 with alarming uniformity. Now, instead of guessing if a ball will come out “hot,” players are virtually assured a flyer from the rough and can adjust accordingly.
“If anything it’s made it easier because it’s predictable. I actually prefer it,” Baddeley said without even a hint of pause before quickly offering numerous examples.
Asked, again, if he recalled hitting less club in an attempt to avoid the rough in 2010? Baddeley goes silent. As the Tour and U.S. Golf Association have learned, for this there is no easy answer.