Letter From Saugerties, March 6, 2007

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

The recent USGA announcement proposing to get rid of U-shaped grooves contained every self-congratulatory cliché except “Mission Accomplished.”
Dick Rugge, USGA senior technical director, said “These proposals represent the comprehensive, deliberate and thoughtful nature of the USGA’s equipment research.”       

It’s Rugge’s own work.
Whatever happened to modesty?
The reality is that the USGA, unable or unwilling to do anything about the surge in distance that has polluted the game, is trying to pretend it is giving birth to an elephant. In fact, it’s not even a mouse.
Rugge correctly observes that "the skill of driving the ball accurately has become much less important in achieving success on the Tour than it used to be.”  From there comes his quantum leap in logic that by reverting to V grooves the rich, wild and famous will get so much less spin and loft from “the rough” that they might as well leave the Tour and look for jobs.
The balls used on the Tour, sure enough, are predominantly urethane covered, softer than the rocks used by the rest of us, and therefore spin more. Our balls, with surlyn covers, will not be affected, so the USGA says it has discovered a win-win situation.
Back in 1986 the USGA, with Frank Thomas as its technical director, published a massive “Groove Study”.  It said that soft-covered balls, with balata then in use, spun some more out of short rough  when struck with U-grooved clubs, but not enough to make any difference. The key word was “insignificant.”

Rugge & Co.  say “posh” to the original groove story. The difference they say matters a hell of a lot.

Alas, they provide no specifics.  Like so:
1.  The average score on the PGA Tour is stuck on 71.2.  If  U-grooves matter so much the average score then must surely jump come 2009, assuming the PGA Tour accepts the proposal.  I hazard the prediction that unless the Tour modifies the way it sets up courses the average score will stay the same.
2.  The USGA posture seems to be that the wrong people have been winning.    One wonders who they might be.  Surely not Tiger Woods,  who shares with the USGA a deep love for business deals with American Express.
3.  What is “rough” and what strains of grass are we talking about?  Is it what the announcers at The Masters are required to call “the second cut.”  It surely can’t be the USGA’s own famous “primary rough” because the grooves don’t get to the ball out of 5 inches of grass.
4.  U-grooves became permissible under the Rules of Golf in 1984.  So how come the tilt toward power on the Tour did not cause brows to furrow until the late 1990s?

5.  The USGA has a vast archive of television tapes.  How about pulling up about 6 shots that show the perfidious results of U-grooves and offering them as a display?

Almost nobody disagrees with the USGA observation that distance matters too much now.  That’s because the USGA blew it to the extent that the average distance per measured drive on the Tour is 289 yards, nearly 30 yards up since the early 1990s.         
The Tour has scrambled to stabilize scoring by making courses much harder today.  But  the power hitters benefit disproportionately.  Imagine it’s 1990 and a big hitter is 180 yards from the hole while his fellow competitor, an average hitter, is 210 yards from the hole.  Fast forward to 2007.  The  big hitter is now 150 yards away and the average hitter 180 yards distant.   I contend the difference between the two in what they score on the hole has widened in favor of the big hitter.
If the USGA is serious about restoring the virtues of accuracy all it has to do is roll back the fail point in its vital Overall Distance Standard test. Banning U-grooves is merely a way of pretending to do something.  The proposals for change are likely to sail through because they don’t bother anybody.

The USGA can declare victory, or at least until the end of the 2009 season when it becomes understood nothing has happened.

Frank Hannigan
Saugerties, New York

March 6, 2007

To read other Hannigan letters, here was his previous piece on the grooves story, his commentary on the recent USGA-AmEx deal, his thoughts on the USGA's private jet package and his take on USGA President Walter Driver's views on distance.