Equipment

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

Photo: 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."

To appreciate what befell Allenby it's necessary to understand how grooves work. Tom Stites, Nike's master club designer, offers a primer: "There's water in every blade of grass, and the club cutting through the grass basically liquefies it. Box grooves [the old, larger, squarish kind] channel more of the water away and allow the clubface to grip the ball and impart spin. By rule the new grooves are a lot smaller, so the water won't be channeled away as effectively. There is going to be a little film of water on the clubface. The new rules also dictate that the edges of the grooves must be more rounded. These factors combined mean the grooves won't be able to grab the ball, and it will climb higher up the face. It's going to launch higher with less spin, and therefore fly a lot farther. The problem is the player is never going to be certain just how much farther that's going to be."

According to Stites's extensive research, Tour players are generating about 50% less spin out of the rough. Hitting it in the fairway is more important now because, says Stites, "science tells us that on a dry lie, with no grass between the ball and the clubface, there should be zero difference between the old grooves and the new."

That's theoretically true but not always the reality. Shots from that same fairway can also be affected by moisture. "One thing no one is talking about is damp conditions in the fairway," says Stites. "On a dewy morning the ball is going to fly differently than with the old grooves, even from the short grass. Early tee times have always been coveted as the best scoring conditions, but if it's wet, those players are definitely going to be at a disadvantage."

The flip side is that when attacking soft greens, Tour players have traditionally fretted about generating too much spin. "So often we're worried about sucking the ball back off the green," says J.J. Henry. "A lot of good wedge play comes down to reducing spin. These grooves may help us on more shots than they hurt us."

Despite Allenby's misfortune, many pros are reporting that they prefer the new grooves when playing full shots from the rough. "There's more predictability," says Stewart Cink. "Every shot is a flyer, so you know what's going to happen and you can play for it. You don't have to worry about the occasional shot where you catch the grooves and the ball comes out low and stops dead."

Around the greens the pros are still learning to deal with what Cink calls "the trickle." At the season-opening SBS Championship, Perez went on and on about what he thought was a perfectly played chip that rolled 20 feet past the flag. At the following week's Sony Open, he harrumphed to the AP, "I can't chip. I've tried them all — a bump, a flop. I haven't figured it out yet."

This is music to the ears of some crotchety old-timers. "I've been waiting for this change for a long time," says 22-year Tour veteran Bob Estes. "Now some of these guys who don't have the short game they should have are learning that maybe they aren't quite as good as they thought they were."

Adds Mark Brooks, 48, "The old grooves let you be a little sloppy. The contact didn't have to be clean, but the grooves would still grab the ball. Guys got used to playing that low clunker, what I call the controlled chunk. That shot needed to go away. And it has."

In its place a wider variety of shots have emerged from the Tour's talented wedge players. "The old grooves threw the ball off the face so fast, you basically had to play a low, hard shot with a lot of spin that stopped immediately," says Henry. "The new grooves have brought back the high, soft shot, the bump-and-run, and everything in between. It's like we're rediscovering our creativity."

So has the groove change made golf harder or easier for the Tour's savants? Depends which player you ask. It is certainly different. A quarter century of technological innovations conspired to produce a brawnier, less precise style of play. Now a different skill set is being prized. "Before, the game was kind of mindless — hit it as far as you can off the tee and throw the ball at the flag and let it stop dead," says Begay. "Thanks to this little rule change, golf has become more of a thinking man's game: recognizing lies, having the knowledge of what shot to play and when to play it. Now you need more shots because of all the subtle differences. Basically, if you want to shoot good scores, you need more imagination. And more skill."

Isn't that the way it's supposed to be?

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