‘Wedgegate’ exposes holes in USGA’s rule

The USGA tests clubs for conforming grooves before the 2009 Children's Miracle Network Classic.

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Sarah Brown

Dear USGA,

What a fine mess you’ve got us into.

On paper, this new groove rule might make sense. In real life, though, it is driving players and rules officials to the brink of golf insanity.

The latest incident involved 18-year-old rookie pro Sarah Brown, wrongly removed from the course and disqualified from a Duramed Futures Tour event because two rules officials blew the call. They insisted that Brown’s 54-degree Ping Tour-W wedge was nonconforming (old grooves) when, in fact, it turned out to be conforming (new grooves).

This story is more about rules officials than it is about grooves. If the two officials had been thinking clearly, they would have allowed Brown to finish her round before making a decision on the wedge.

The two officials have not yet consented to interviews or explained their reasoning, but I believe I know what they will say: They felt constrained to abide by the list of wedges on the USGA Web site, a list that indicates whether different wedge models are conforming or nonconforming.

They misinterpreted the list. Ping Tour-W wedges can be conforming or nonconforming, depending on when and for whom they were manufactured.

All Ping Tour-W wedges sold at retail have larger grooves and are nonconforming. However, Ping made a number of these wedges specifically for touring pros, milling the new smaller grooves into the faces. 

In Brown’s case, an “XG’’ designation was stamped on the hosel (“X’’ for 2010, “G’’ for grooves). XG is Ping’s mark for grooves that conform to the 2010 condition of competition that applies to professional (but not amateur) competition.

If we are to blame anyone, it should be the USGA first and foremost. The governing body did not adequately prepare the world of golf for the changeover from old grooves to new grooves.

What the USGA needed was, for lack of a better name, a School of Grooves. It should have been open to one and all. Golf associations, organizations and players should have been invited to attend.

Frankly, the situation has become terribly confusing. Many rules officials are not prepared to deal with the ramifications of the changeover in grooves. Most pros are blindly taking the word of someone else (usually a manufacturer or tour rep) that their wedges are permissible for competition. Most amateurs don’t understand whether their wedges are conforming or not.

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Ping Tour-W wedge

For almost all amateurs, the old grooves can be used in everyday play and in competition until 2024. It is only the so-called “elite” amateur tournaments that will require the new grooves at an earlier date, beginning in 2014.

At least pros have wide access to voluntary testing of their grooves. Amateurs do not.

This mess is further complicated by the fact that players can complain to rules officials – for any reason, even a hunch – if they think a fellow competitor is using nonconforming grooves.

Being a rules official suddenly is like being a stationary target. If rules officials are not expertly informed about wedges and properly prepared to deal with these situations, the possibility of additional incorrect rulings is very real.

Let’s advance “Wedgegate’’ into the future and propose this question: If the rules governing grooves seem somewhat inscrutable, what would happen if high-lofted wedges (more than 60 degrees) were banned?

The fallout over high-lofted-wedge legislation could be totally unmanagable. Measuring the loft of wedges likely would be a nightmare.

Unfortunately, the Rules of Golf have become something like a runaway horse. There appears to be no stopping this beast. We are witnessing the speed of Secretariat here.

If we had to have smaller grooves, then why didn’t we simply choose a firm date down the road, switching the entire world of golf at the same time?

The case can be made that the USGA acted much too hastily on wedges. Its research was brilliant, but it failed to fully anticipate the problems associated with the real-life application of new rules.

Now we are paying the price.

Well, Sarah Brown is paying the price.

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