USGA mandate could hit top amateurs in wallet

Scott Langley of Illinois, left, and Russell Henley of Georgia tied for low-amateur honors at the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.

The U.S. Golf Association announced Thursday that players must use the new conforming grooves in local qualifying for the 2011 U.S. Open, a mandate that could require thousands of amateur golfers to buy new clubs in coming months.

The USGA adopted a “condition of competition” on Jan. 1, 2010, that required players to use clubs with grooves with less volume and duller edges. The condition of competition was introduced to increase the importance of driving accuracy by reducing the amount of spin imparted on a shot from the rough.

The condition thus far extended only to professional competition, though, including sectional qualifying for the USGA’s three open championships: men’s women’s and seniors. The “new” grooves will not be required for national-level amateur tournaments until 2014. However, thousands of amateurs take part in U.S. Open local qualifying.

Amateurs with a handicap index of 1.4 or less and professionals are eligible to enter U.S. Open qualifying; more than 9,000 players entered the 2010 U.S. Open, with the vast majority participating in local qualifying. The “new” grooves were required in sectional, but not local, qualifying in 2010.

“It’ll just speed all of us up getting into the new grooves,” Long Beach State men’s coach Ryan Ressa said. All of his players use conforming grooves in their irons, Ressa said, but some still use the “old” grooves in their higher-lofted wedges.

Thomas J. O’Toole Jr., chairman of the USGA Championship Committee, said in a statement, “The implementation of this condition of competition at the local qualifying stage of the U.S. Open is significant.”

The USGA’s groove restrictions control the cross-sectional area of grooves on all clubs, with the exception of drivers and putters, and limit groove-edge sharpness on clubs with lofts equal to or greater than 25 degrees (generally a standard 5-iron and above).

Manufacturers were required by the USGA to cease producing clubs with the “old” clubs on Dec. 31, 2010.

Mike Davis, the USGA’s senior director of rules and competitions, said in a statement: “After a successful implementation of this condition in 2010, it is logical to implement it for all players competing in our three national Open championships in 2011. It is our understanding that there are ample conforming clubs in the marketplace such that adopting this condition for first-stage U.S. Open qualifying ensures a level playing field for all competitors.”

Many college players, especially at elite programs, have begun to switch to conforming grooves. Mike Small, the head coach at Illinois, No. 7 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings, said that four of his starting five players use irons with conforming grooves.

“I’ve been telling my players all along that if they want to switch, it doesn’t bother me at all,” said Small, winner of the past two PGA Professional National Championships. “When the rule first changed, I thought it’d be a dramatic difference. It wasn’t that big of an adjustment.”

Illinois’ Scott Langley, the NCAA champion and U.S. Open low amateur, prefers the “new” grooves because they spin less, Small said.

Some college players, such as Langley and U.S. Amateur champion Peter Uihlein of Oklahoma State, use the “new” grooves at all times; other players use the “old” grooves in amateur competition, then switch to a conforming set for pro events and qualifiers.

The announcement is not unexpected. Mike Davis said in a September 2009 statement that the “new” grooves would be required for all stages of U.S. Open qualifying in 2011. Davis said 2010 would be a “transitional” year for Open qualifiers. Davis’ statement gave manufacturers time to prepare for Thursday’s announcement.

“We have had C-C (conforming) wedges in shop for over a year and are well prepared to meet whatever new demand this may create,” said Joe Gomes, Acushnet’s director of communications, in an e-mail. Acushnet is the parent company of the Titleist and FootJoy brands.

The biggest impact of Thursday’s announcement may be on the pocketbooks of lower-level college and junior players and post-college amateurs, many of whom will have to buy new clubs if they choose to compete in local qualifying.

Only the elite college players receive free clubs from manufacturers. Other schools purchase equipment for players. But lower-level players must buy clubs. Most mid-amateur players also pay for their equipment.

“Those guys who play college golf, but don’t have access to all the equipment, they’re going to have to figure out a way to get new clubs,” UCLA men’s coach Derek Freeman said. “It’s probably going to force the hand of these guys a little quicker (to switch grooves).”

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