Letter from Saugerties, February 10, 2006

Former USGA Executive Director Frank Hannigan shares his thoughts on the ramifications and politics behind a possible U-groove rule change.

Having been afraid to do anything to restrain distance, which matters enormously, the USGA is evidently bent on trying to salvage what’s left of its reputation by being  dramatic on a subject that matters very little –  grooves.

A golf equipment manufacturer leaked a copy of a USGA report to Golf Digest magazine.  Mike Stachura, one of the editors, analyzed the report and then interviewed Dick Rugge, the USGA Technical Director.

The report seems to put the club-makers on notice that the USGA will soon change the specifications for grooves on iron clubs. The report says that, contrary to a central tenet of the USGA for the last of 20 years, modern grooves have changed the game dramatically.  The right U grooves, according to the new USGA, make the game much easier for Tour players.

During the 1980s there were great conflicts as to whether U grooves provided significantly more spin that traditional forged V grooves. (Full disclosure: I was then the USGA’s Executive Director).  The answer was presented in two massive volumes titled “USGA Groove Study”.  It said that grooves don’t matter at all on clean hits, which is what Tour players get on par-3 tees and in most of their fairway shots.  U grooves, the study said, sometimes put more spin on a ball played out of light rough but the difference is never more than a couple of feet when it comes to stopping the ball.   Moreover, there are a great many variables including the strains of grasses.

(Please note: when a ball stops 2 feet quicker it does not follow that the ball is 2 feet closer to the hole.  Most shots stop short of the hole anyway so that if a U grooved iron caused a ball to stop quicker the end result could be a 12 foot putt instead of a 10 foot putt.)

Meanwhile, the scoring numbers on the Tour don’t change. The raw average score in 2006 was 71.2, right where it’s been for more than a decade.  Greens hit in regulation numbers also remain the same.  The average is 11.7 per round, same as it was back before the distance explosion starting in 1995.  

The PGA Tour has kept these numbers static by making the courses much harder to play.  Courses are longer, have more rough, fairways are narrower and holes are cut today in parts of greens unthinkable 10 or 15 years ago as suitable locations for holes. Grooves?  Don’t matter.

Harder courses have been forced on the Tour by the USGA’s failure to control distance. Tiger Woods is 30 yards longer than Jack Nicklaus because the USGA blew it first on modern drivers with excessive spring like effect (the whole Tour got 10 yards longer overnight) and then with vastly improved balls.    

I found Dick Rugge’s answers to Stachura’s questions surprisingly hard edged.  I thought of Rugge as a nice man who is trying to hold on to a wickedly difficult job that is much more political in nature than scientific.  Dealing with the USGA Executive Committee, some of whom have a fair understanding of golf and others who have no clue, is no bed of roses.

But in response to Stachura’s probing as to how the USGA could now adopt a position diametrically opposed to what had been its policy Rugge made some smart aleck comment about how lots of people used to think the earth was flat too.   He went on to say that he has 3 people with Ph.Ds doing research, a kind of expertise unavailable to the USGA in the past.

This leads me to Frank Thomas, Rugge’s predecessor as USGA Technical Director and the overseer of its historic groove studies.  Thomas was not exactly working with guys he dragged in off the street.  His assistant had come to the USGA from West Point where he was a professor of ballistics.

Rugge’s resume includes a stint at Taylor Made where he was the enabler of bubble shafts. Remember those?  The marketing was effective.

Poor Frank Thomas had to put up with a scientific ignoramus, myself, demanding to know how we could allow bubbles in shafts that would change the game. Thomas laughed, saying that bubbles in shafts had nothing to do with performance and would soon go away, like so many hyped equipment products.

When I had a long chat with Rugge I tried to push a button by asking why I should take him seriously as the USGA’s wizard on golf equipment given his history of espousing bubbles in shafts. His face reddened.  

Rugge also told Mike Stachura something he had also told me – that he was tremendously influenced by Arnold Palmer who said to him that the USGA gave the game away by allowing U grooves.    

Arnold Palmer on golf equipment?  Whatever happened to all those Arnold Palmer equipment companies? But the Palmer magic endures.  If, perchance, Arnold announced that the world is flat, both Rugge and USGA President Walter Driver would be very careful where they stepped.

Frank Thomas now has a gig with Golf Digest where he is buried in the back of the book (Full disclosure: I used to write for the magazine). Not long ago I laughed aloud when I read some stuff of his in answer to ostensible reader questions about groove performance.  

He knows what the USGA is up to, considers it nonsense, and was trying to make the point softly. I suspect that when Frank left the USGA in a state of great animosity he signed a piece of paper saying that if he directly speaks ill of the USGA in public he endangers some of his tin parachute money.  These things happen.

As I’ve said, Dick Rugge is a pleasant man with political skills. If he were to run for public office, say for a place on a town council, with Frank Thomas as his opponent, Dick would come in with an overwhelming majority. On the other hand, I would rather have Frank look under the hood of my stalled car.

For the world of golf to get a feeling for what grooves do and don’t do, I offer a simple solution. The USGA should release Frank Thomas from whatever hold it has on him.   There should be a public debate on The Golf Channel, one hour, no commercials, with only Rugge and Thomas on stage.

We need a moderator. Tim Russert probably doesn’t play golf.  Tom Friedman, the esteemed columnist of the New York Times, a golf whacko who as a kid caddied for Chi Chi Rodriguez in a US Open, would be excellent.  But Tom might consider this too trivial. 

I know.  We get The Hon. Dan Quayle, former vice president of these United States.   He may not be Jack Kennedy, but he can break 80.

Frank Hannigan
Saugerties, New York
February 12, 2006

To read other Hannigan letters, here is his commentary on the recent USGA-AmEx deal where he revealed that the USGA lost $7 million this year. He also shared his thoughts on the USGA's private jet package, and provided this take on USGA President Walter Driver's revealing views on distance.