PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. – Commissioner Tim Finchem stood before a players meeting Tuesday at Riviera Country Club, site of this week’s Northern Trust Open, and said the Tour might have some options in the grooves controversy but that none is a sure thing. It’s clear, Finchem told the players, that the hubbub that went public last week in San Diego is far from over.
Finchem said that he has reached out to John Solheim, chief executive officer of Ping, the equipment manufacturer at the center of the dispute. Ping’s clubs from the late ’80s, grandfathered via a settlement from the company’s lawsuit against the PGA Tour and USGA, are in vogue again. Phil Mickelson put an old big-grooved Ping wedge into play last week, prompting Scott McCarron to decry the act – if not the actor – as “cheating.’’ After being roundly criticized by his peers, McCarron apologized to the players at large and to Mickelson in person Tuesday.
It’s the first time that Finchem and Solheim have discussed the issue since the implementation of the new groove rule on Jan. 1.
Solheim issued this statement late Tuesday after speaking with Finchem:
“PGA Tour Commissioner Finchem and I had a brief discussion this afternoon and he shared his belief that the 1993 settlement agreement allowed his organization to utilize the protocol to consider a special rule that would ban Ping Eye2 irons and wedges. While we strongly disagree with their interpretation of the agreement, we agreed further dialogue on the topic was healthy. We hope to speak again in the next week or so. I’ve also been in contact with the USGA and expect to meet with them as well.’’
The 1990 agreement with the USGA and a subsequent settlement in 1993 with the Tour are widely presumed to have been favorable to Ping.
Further, in the PGA Tour settlement, a copy of which was obtained by Golfweek, certain provisions seem to support Solheim’s contention that the Tour can’t unilaterally implement a local rule regarding the Ping Eye2 wedges.
The Tour has maintained that the settlement with Ping in 1993 did not prohibit a local rule from being implemented, effectively granting the Tour the ability to ban the old Ping Eye2 wedges.
Under the settlement, the Tour agreed not to adopt any separate rules which would prohibit the use of the larger-volume grooves on any club if such a Tour rule were to differ from a USGA rule.
The USGA rule that altered the larger, sharper-edged grooves effective Jan. 1 grandfathered in the original Ping Eye2. Any PGA Tour rule that prohibited the grandfathered Ping Eye2 grooves would seem to violate the particular provision of the PGA Tour settlement with Ping.
Second, the settlement does provide for a special-circumstances exception, in which the PGA Tour would determine a special rule is necessary for its competition. In those limited cases, an Independent Special Committee can review the request.
[UPDATE: Click here for a closer look at the committee members.]
The members of that committee cannot be active members of the PGA Tour, current or former members of the Tour Policy Board, employees or former employees of the Tour or employees or anyone having a material business relationship with any golf-equipment manufacturer.
The Tour Policy Board triggers the committee’s investigation into the issue. It’s not clear whether the committee has been seated or not. Once it were to be in place, the committee would have a reasonable time to investigate any request.
After an investigation, the committee must reasonably conclude:
1) The equipment significantly affects the nature of the game of golf on the PGA Tour level;
2) The current USGA rules are not adequate to satisfy the Tour Policy Board’s concerns;
3) Legitimate interests of PGA Tour players, manufacturers and other interested persons have been considered;
4) The recommendation of the committee is considered the most reasonable in addressing the problem; and
5) A majority of the committee is in favor of the recommendation.
It seems like a heavy burden of proof for the Tour to satisfy. The grooves rule is here to stay. The question: Are the old Ping Eye2s?