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A change in groove rules for irons is putting the guesswork back into the professional game

Groove Rule
David Walberg/SI
Under the new rules each groove has about 40% less volume and more rounded edges, which makes it harder to impart spin, especially from the rough.

The Tiger Woods scandal has garnered all the salacious headlines, but for those who care about real golf, the new year's primary talking point has been the reshaped grooves, and the consensus is that no one can yet agree on the impact. "Honestly, it's not that big a deal," says John Rollins. "You can still spin the ball fine from anywhere on the course." Pat Perez offers an opposing view. "It's a big change," he says. "The short side is over. It doesn't matter what you're chipping with ... you can't stop it."

Beginning on Jan. 1, a new USGA condition of competition went into effect. It mandated a roughly 40% reduction in the overall volume of grooves on irons with more than 25 degrees of loft and also called for a more rounded radius on the edge of the groove. The USGA's stated goal was to reduce the spin that can be imparted on a ball from the rough, thus putting a premium on finding the fairway. So how much has the game already changed? "I don't think it changes anything," says Ryan Moore. "You still have to attack, you still have to play aggressively." Adds Notah Begay, "No one is going to start hitting three-wood off every tee, because we're not that smart."

Dustin Johnson may be the clever one. In 2009 Johnson ranked third in driving distance (308.3 yards) but 169th in accuracy (55.4%). Three events into 2010 he has already begun rethinking how he plays. "I'm going to hit whatever club gets me in the fairway," says Johnson. As for trying to reach par-5s in two — something Johnson attempted 64.7% of the time in '09 — he says, "If I can't be sure of getting it on the green, I'll probably lay up to 100 yards so I can better control the ball."

The USGA has been loath to rein in the distance the golf ball travels, but the new grooves could serve as a backdoor rollback if enough players switch to softer balls, which offer more spin with irons but, theoretically, fewer yards with the driver. Steve Stricker hasn't seen that happen yet. "Guys aren't changing balls just because of their sand wedges," he says. "They're learning to deal with it." Paul Casey foresees that changing as players' equipment decisions evolve. "I think a lot of guys are going to wind up changing balls," says Casey. "It just may not be until later in the season when the conditions get really firm and fast."

Even as the debate continues, the new grooves have produced a defining shot. It happened on the final hole of last month's Sony Open at

Waialea Country Club, a short, waterless dogleg-left with a relatively unprotected green that has been one of the easiest par-5s on Tour. Tied for the lead with playing partner Ryan Palmer, Robert Allenby attacked the hole the old way, which consisted of bashing driver off the tee and then reaching the green from pretty much anywhere on the property. Allenby's drive blew through the dogleg into the bermuda rough. Trying to get to a front pin from 214 yards, he put a solid strike on a five-iron, then watched as his ball bounded over the green, leaving him in a dicey spot from which he couldn't get up and down. Palmer's birdie ended the tournament. Allenby is an old-school shotmaker, and he seemed at peace with having been sacrificed for a larger ideal. "That's the beauty of the grooves today," he said. "It's changed the game of golf, I think for the better. Now we have to all of a sudden manufacture our way around the golf course. Whereas before [that five-iron] would have come out soft and landed five or 10 yards short of the green and it would have probably checked up close to the front edge. Today, you don't know where it's going to go."

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