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Grooves Rules Change: A New Kind of 'Irony'

As the PGA Tour begins its 2010 season, the second most discussed subject on the practice ranges and putting greens in Hawaii is the change to the Rules of Golf regarding grooves in irons.  Most of that talk centers on how making them narrower and more rounded will affect play to the greens and around them. But there is also plenty of chatter – both in Hawaii and throughout the golf world – about the reasons those modifications were made, how and when they will be rolled out and the ways they will not only impact touring professionals but also equipment makers, retailers, elite amateur golfers and club players.

Not surprisingly, the Rules changes have engendered a fair amount of confusion.  But the following questions and answers should provide clarity:

What are the Rules changes? – Grooves on clubs with lofts of 25 degrees and above (essentially 5-iron and up) must be narrower and have more rounded edges than ones used in the past. Golfers on the major professional tours are required to conform to that regulation in competition as of January 1. Some of the professional mini-Tours will follow suit this year. The rule is scheduled to be applied to elite amateur competitions in 2014, but not all state and regional golf associations will adopt the rule in 2014. At least one major association is leaving a decision open-ended for now, saying it might choose to wait until later than 2014 to make the new grooves mandatory.

Equipment makers may continue to produce clubs under the old regulations through 2010; after that, their products must conform to the new Rules. Retailers are allowed to sell clubs with both specifications for as long as they are available.

The bottom line is that the new equipment Rules won’t affect very many golfers. Casual players have until 2024 to conform to the edict and, truth be told, not many of them will be worried about whether the grooves in their clubs are within the Rules. However, if you want a backup set of wedges with the high spin grooves that will see you through 2024, buy them this year.

Why are grooves important? – Grooves enable players to impart backspin on shots, giving them greater control. In addition, grooves act like tire treads, dispersing water and debris (i.e. grass and dirt) so the clubface may hit the ball in the cleanest possible way – and the player may maximize control of that shot, especially out of the rough.

For years, golfers used clubs that had so-called “V” grooves. Then in 1984, Ping introduced a version of its famous Eye2 irons with “U” grooves, which were wider and had more of a square design. The wider grooves allowed the club to disperse more debris and water on its face, which allowed players to better manage their shots from the rough. Performance was further enhanced in later years when equipment makers and golf technicians began sharpening the edges of the “U” or “square” grooves, making it possible to put even more spin on the ball from both fairway and rough.

Why were the changes made? – Golf’s two governing bodies, the Royal and Ancient and the United States Golf Association, became alarmed at the way modern players were able to control their short iron shots, especially their wedges, from the rough. The view was that as a result, there was no longer a premium on accuracy and finesse, and golfers could fearlessly boom their drives. It was a style of play that came to be known as “bomb and gouge.” Says R&A head Peter Dawson: “The research showed without any doubt at all that modern grooves in iron clubs were capable of spinning the ball from the rough as much as spinning the ball from the fairway. So, the controllability from the rough, or lack of it, was not causing a problem for players.”

The R&A and USGA felt the correlation between driving accuracy and success on Tour had disappeared and concluded that the new groove rule would restore some semblance of shotmaking ability.

What are the performance differences between clubs with the new and old grooves?  – “Trajectory, for one,” says longtime PGA Tour pro Brad Faxon. “The ball comes off the clubface higher with the new grooves, which means some of us might end up using less-lofted wedges. Also, the ball does not spin as much with the new grooves, so we have to allow for greater run-up onto greens.”

Players will see the greatest disparity with their highest lofted irons shots out of the rough. “Our testing has shown there is not much of a difference in spin out of the fairway with regards to both launch angle and spin,” says Brian Bazzel, who heads product creation for irons and wedges at TaylorMade adidas Golf. “Launch angle goes up five percent and spin rate goes down an equal amount. But there are significant differences out of the rough, with the spin rate declining by as much as 40 percent while the launch angle increases roughly 20 percent.”

Titleist found similar results with research it conducted with PGA Tour players at the company’s Oceanside Test Facility in California, and at 2009 Tour events. It measured performance differences between wedges with new and old grooves using full and partial swings from the rough with 56- and 60-degree wedges. And testers learned that spin rates dropped from 30 to 50 percent with the new grooves, launch angles increased by as much as five degrees (and from seven to 20 percent) and balls rolled out from nine to 15 feet more once they landed on the green.

What all that means is that touring pros will be hitting higher shots out of the rough with their wedges and short irons. Balls will run out more, and suck back less. In addition, the new groove rule will likely lead to the return of the “flyer” lie.

Adds Titleist wedge designer Bob Vokey: “The biggest loss of spin (with the new grooves) occurs from rough in wet conditions. However, greens hold better when wet. The most challenging shot (going forward) will be from the rough, to a tight pin, with firm greens.”

How significant will those changes be to the touring pros? – They will no doubt have a tremendous effect on wedge play from the rough. Shots from off the fairway within 100 yards of the green will be much more problematic. They will have to allow for more release when those shots hit the green. There will be no such thing as spinning a wedge to a stop from the longer grass.

It will be much the same for shots within, say 50 or 60 yards from the fairway. With the old grooves, a shot from that distance could come in lower and spinning. That won’t be the case with the new grooves. The art of the layup on short par-4s and par-5s will come back into fashion out of necessity.

How will the differences affect amateur golfers? – Elite amateur players will likely struggle with some of the same issues with wedge shots out of the rough as the tour pros. But the casual golfer will probably not notice much of a change. The vast majority of them don’t put that much spin on their shots out of the rough. They also tend to use hard-covered balls that don’t spin much even in the best of conditions – and certainly not as much as the urethane-covered balls favored by the best players that helped create the groove issue in the first place. And as Dick Rugge, the USGA’s senior technical director, points out: “Most of us (casual golfers) don’t hit greens out of the rough anyway. Time will tell if the rule change will make much of a difference. But you have to hit greens to try and hold them.”

What will be the impact on golf equipment makers? – Of course, club makers have had to absorb the costs of testing and re-engineering their products as they worked to conform to the rule changes. They have also had to deal with the confusion among consumers of having to make and sell clubs with different specifications – and the problems that may cause. It seems likely that club makers will try to make a marketing opportunity out of the rule change and heavily promote the sale of “high-spin” wedges in 2010. At the same time, they will no doubt seek to push the envelope under the new regs in hopes of wrangling as much performance from them as possible.

Will equipment companies make any changes to the golf ball to compensate for the lack of spin produced by the new grooves? – Not likely, because whatever is done to increase spin out of the rough will also increase spin off the tee and on approach shots off the fairway, which could well hamper distance and/or accuracy. Plus, no equipment maker wants to alter spin characteristics for a type of shot (wedge out of the rough to a green) that makes up such a small percentage of those played during a round.

What will be the impact on golf retailers? – While manufacturers may continue to produce “U” or square-grooved irons through the end of 2010, retailers may sell them for as long as they are available. They may enjoy a bit of a run in wedges this year as consumers look to stock up on ones built under the old regulations. At the same time, retailers might have to carry more inventory in their shops to accommodate club sets with just new grooves and club sets with just grooves.


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