Attorney Decof, 86, won grooves fight for Ping

Nobody likes to think of golf as a sport characterized by lawsuits, but legal action in the golf industry is sometimes unavoidable.

Attorney Leonard Decof, who died Dec. 31 at age 86, was at the center of one of the most important legal battles in golf history: Ping’s successful standoff with the U.S. Golf Association and PGA Tour over the company’s right to manufacture and sell square grooves, or box grooves, in Ping Eye2 irons and wedges.  

Decof, whose practice was located in Providence, R.I., joined Phoenix attorney Harry Cavanagh to guide Ping through favorable settlements with the USGA and PGA Tour.

Ping founder Karsten Solheim invented square grooves and began selling square-grooved Eye2 clubs in 1984.

After the USGA and PGA Tour attempted to ban clubs with these spin-enhancing grooves, Decof, one of America’s most successful trial lawyers, joined the Ping legal team. He negotiated a settlement with the USGA in 1990 and the PGA Tour in 1993.

These settlements guaranteed the right of amateurs and professionals to use these clubs in perpetuity, although in 2010 Ping CEO John Solheim, son of the company’s late founder, cooperated with the PGA Tour to henceforth prohibit the use of Eye2 wedges and irons with the old square grooves. However, amateurs who play under USGA jurisdiction can still use the clubs.

Decof’s easy-going personality belied a man who seemed to love a good fight. Everybody called him Lenny, but he was transformed into the stern and serious Mr. Decof when he stepped foot in a courtroom.

He successfully argued several cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, including a landmark case that established the right of medical-insurance policyholders to sue insurers for malpractice under antitrust laws.

For a golf powerbroker, Decof was surprisingly accessible and quotable. He always made himself available for comments on legal issues in golf.

John Solheim, despite the fact Ping has relied on its own legal team in recent years, called Decof “a friend for all these years and a good man.”

Three years ago, with Callaway and Titleist embroiled in a golf-ball patent dispute, Decof showed up at Tltleist’s annual national sales meeting, surprising no one.

“Oh, I might offer some advice,” he said. “Mainly, I’m just listening.”

This brought back memories of another Decof observation. When asked about his legal strategy in Ping’s tug-of-war with the PGA Tour, he said, “First of all, you have to listen to everything and understand everything. Then you can get aggressive.”

Back then, some 20 years ago, it sounded like a prudent strategy for playing golf.

Still does, in fact.

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