Letter From Saugerties, The Grooves So Far

Former USGA Executive Director Frank Hannigan writes...

Dear Geoff:   

Have you noticed any difference in the way golf is being played on this year's PGA Tour?  I sure haven't.

That's in direct contrast to the prophecies of the USGA which assured us the game would be dramatically different in 2010 owing to the USGA ban on U grooves - a ban accepted by the PGA Tour which, like all golf entities, is free to accept or reject USGA Rules.

The last two USGA presidents raved with glee over what they said would be their restoration of a better game, one in which accuracy would once again matter as much as power.  Both said it had come to pass that it no longer mattered whether you hit the ball crooked, so long as you hit it far.  One of the executive committee members, a golf architect no less, famously pronounced that the ban on U grooves would bring the game "back to the good old days of the 1980s."

The issue is distance -- an attempt by the USGA to cut back driving distance on the Tour.  It's a reaction to the humiliation the USGA suffered when, owing to a burst of cowardice on the part of the erstwhile governing body, driving distance on the Tour soared by a whopping 9% from the mid 1990s until 2003 when it stopped flat at 289 yards.      

The logical way to roll back distance would be to reduce the spring like effect on today's drivers and/or to ordain that the fail point in the vital overall distance standard is 10 or 15 yards shorter.  The USGA dares do neither because of a fear the changes would be ignored.  Golf equipment guys exist to make money, not to make the game nice.  They'd go right on making today's equipment. Yes, only the shorter gear would be on sale at the golden triangle of Augusta,  Seminole and Cypress Point.  But how about Walmart?  There would be chaos, the exact opposite of what is the USGA's holy grail - uniformity in the Rules of Golf.

It would be akin to a happening in one of the Shakespeare Henry plays when a braggart swears he can "call spirits from the vasty deep."  To which his companion responds "Well, so can I, or so can any man, but will they come when you do call them?"

The prohibition on U grooves is the inspiration of Dick Rugge, the USGA Technical Director.  Rugge, an amiable man whose survival bespeaks genuine skill in the Byzantine world of USGA internal politics.  The Executive Committee is betting on Rugge.  Rugge conducted a massive research project. He lost me when he said he was seeing 5-iron shots played from light rough stopping quicker than the same shots played from fairways.

There would be other measurable changes in a sort of domino affect.  The percentage of greens hit in regulation would have to dip because the shots hit into them will be longer.  On the other hand,  the percentage of fairways hit should go up.  As for the newly fearsome rough, the distance to the holes after shots are played from the rough would be longer than in the past because the players no longer can avail themselves of the miracle of U grooves. Finally, the game having been made harder, scores would have to be higher.

Golf World Magazine is performing an excellent public service.  They deserve a Pulitzer.  Every week they show a horizontal box comparing performances this year with those for the same number of events last year - the last year of U grooves. They have tracked ten events so far, not enough to say definitively that the data is conclusive in a season of 40 odd events.  With no claim to skill in math,  I nonetheless sense that by mid-year, shortly after the US Open, we will know whether or not the game has been saved.

The Tour's statistical program is now so sophisticated that it reveals how close to the hole the field comes on average from various distances.  Moreover, it isolates shots played from the rough. Remember, this is at the heart of banning U-grooves - the belief that players found it relatively easy playing from the rough with U grooved clubs.

So far the opposite is true:

  • From 125-150 yards the average is 2 feet 4 inches CLOSER this year.
  • From 50 - 125 yards the average is a tiny 7 inches closer this year,  meaningless but perhaps not so given the USGA prediction that it was supposed to go the other way quite a bit.
  • Finally, there is "scrambling", the percentage of times tour players get down in two from 90 feet to 150 feet. Tour members predicted that this is where the change in grooves would make a difference. There is indeed a difference but it's the wrong way.  They are "scrambling" 3.7% more effectively this year.

It is not a surprise that the best players are wrong when it comes to evaluating  the performance of equipment. Are you old enough to remember the J Driver,  said to offer a frightening distance advantage by many of the game's luminaries,  e.g.,  Nicklaus, Floyd and Norman?

And well do I recall standing next to Mark O'Meara as he hit balls on a driving range using his new clubs with bubbles in the shafts.  When Mark came to his senses and reverted to standard shafts he won 2 majors in one season.  By the way, those bubbled shafts were the inspiration of Dick Rugge, who was at Taylor Made before lateraling over to the USGA.

The USGA did a massive 2 volume "groove study" in 1987 during the quarrel about grooves with Ping.  I sat in as an observer of a deposition of  Ping's John Solheim as he said the USGA study had advanced the "industry's" knowledge of groove performance by 10 years.

The main finding of that study was that grooves mattered very little, if at all, in scoring.  The maximum effect was that shots played from "light rough" when played by a pitching wedge with U grooves stopped 2 to 3 feet  quicker than the same shot with V grooves.   Note: that is not the same as saying 2 feet closer to the hole.

Full disclosure commands that I say I was the USGA Executive Director in 1987 although I had nothing to do with the groove study since I have trouble with replacing light bulbs.  When asked about the dramatic difference between then and now Rugge says its a different time and that he's got much better equipment.

We'll see.  If it should turn out that there is a 6-yard drop in driving distance this year I will propose that there be an equestrian statue of Rugge mounted not too far from the spot where the ashes of my dog were buried. But if it turns out that the ban on U-grooves amounts to nothing after a serious expenditure of time and money it might do well for Rugge to work on his resume.