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USGA finally makes the call against square grooves

Karsten Solheim
AP
Ping founder Karsten Solheim (now deceased) battled with the USGA over the square-groove issue.

We've been watching PGA Tour players spin sand wedge shots from out of the rough like Duncan Yo-Yos for the better part of two decades now, so it's good to know that the United States Golf Association has finally discovered that U-shaped grooves -- commonly known as square grooves -- are a big advantage.

Now I can't wait to find out how the USGA reacts to the big news about the Lindbergh baby. (Sorry, I couldn't resist exaggerating.)

On Tuesday, the USGA proposed altering the manufacturing of square grooves after Jan. 1, 2010, because its research showed a distinct performance advantage with urethane-covered balls (the top-of-the-line balls used by Tour players and good amateurs). Any PGA Tour player could have told that to the USGA, and it's been obvious for a long time. It was so obvious that the PGA Tour banned square grooves at the start of the 1990s and then went to court for a contentious legal battle with Karsten Solheim, Ping's founder. The case lasted three years before it was finally settled out of court and square grooves were grandfathered in as an alternative to traditional V-shaped grooves.

Thus, Tuesday's announcement essentially closed the barn door behind the horse. But, I suppose, better late than never.

I asked Dick Rugge, the USGA's senior technical director, what took so long to ban the square grooves.

"That's a great question," Rugge said. "We want to do things very thoroughly before we propose anything. We took our time and were very thorough in our research. We looked at the data from the Tour that showed it is a problem. Accuracy off the tee is no longer important. We're doing a lot of work on balls and other things. You know, the things that need to be done, it's always, why didn't we do it sooner? I could've had a V-8."

Golf has become a highly technological sport and the manufacturers have poured tons of money into developing new technologies while the USGA has limited resources (and money) to keep up with the trends. Plus, the USGA wants to 200 percent certain before it makes a change.

Still, there's a certain amount of irony here. Square grooves were approved for play by the USGA in the early 1980s -- just, ahem, as the USGA also approved the use of metal woods, which has changed the game more than any other single innovation (and was the stepping stone to the immense driving distances we're seeing today that has forced classic courses to be lengthened), and long-shafted putters.

If the USGA had a mulligan, knowing what we know now, I don't think there's any question it would go back and nip the advent of metal woods in the bud. Opening the door to metal woods, which have helped amateurs worldwide, was like opening Pandora's box. There were immediate benefits, followed by years of repercussions.

There is no going back on metal woods, though. That horse is not only out of the barn, it's out of the country and the barn burned down behind it.

It'll be interesting to see what effect these grooves change have on Tour players. Square grooves will be banned from elite-level competition -- like the U.S. Open -- as of Jan. 1, 2009. So Tour players will have two years to adjust.

How will the changes affect your game? There's a good chance they won't. The USGA's research says that square grooves have no effect on surlyn golf balls, which is what two-thirds of us amateur hacks play. The research also says that just 13 percent of average golfers hit the green from 100 to 200 yards out, while Tour players hit the green nearly half the time. Square grooves don't help if you can't hit the green, unless you're concerned about your ball checking up quicker when it lands in the bunker.

So the phasing out of square grooves will affect Tour players considerably more than the average player. A timetable for phasing out the clubs hasn't been set yet but the USGA said it would be at least 10 years before they would be banned for normal use.

Here's you bottom line: Getting rid of square grooves isn't huge news and probably won't be a gigantic change. It's a small step ... but at least it's a step.

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