New grooves: Little effect on PGA Tour

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

The upheaval predicted because of new grooves on the 2010 PGA Tour simply didn’t happen. It was the first year in which smaller, less aggressive grooves were required, but most Tour players adapted quickly and skillfully.

In fact, wedge statistics from the Tour were remarkably similar from 2009 to 2010. Let’s look at wedge shots from 50 to 125 yards.

From the fairway, the average distance from the hole was 18 feet, 10 inches in 2009 and 18 feet, 8 inches in 2010. From the rough, the average distance was 27 feet in 2009 and 27 feet, 1 inch in 2010.

The best golfers in the world figured it out. It was much ado about nothing.

Even from closer distances, Tour players were not handicapped by a lack of spin.

From 10 to 20 yards, for example, Mike Weir led the Tour in proximity. His shots averaged 4 feet, 10 inches from the hole. That’s an improvement over Chris Riley’s leading average of 5 feet, 3 inches in 2009.

The 10th-place average in the category was 5-11 in 2009 and 5-10 in ’10. The ability of touring pros to adjust to the less-aggressive grooves neither amazed nor astonished U.S. Golf Association senior technical director Dick Rugge.

“They’re incredible athletes,” Rugge said. “I’m never surprised at what they accomplish as a group. They come from a different planet – at least a different planet than I come from.”

Tour veteran Stewart Cink said there was definitely an adjustment and added importance to hitting fairways.

“The stats probably don’t say much of a difference, but I know in my mind if I’m laying up on a par 5, I’d much rather be in the fairway than the rough,” Cink said. “To hit a shot out of the rough close to the pin with a wedge is a lot more of a challenge than it used to be because I just can’t control it.”

Rugge’s conclusions after one year of new grooves?

“It’s too risky to hang your hat on, but we are optimistic,” said Rugge, pointing to largely inconclusive statistics that indicate the correlation between driving accuracy and winning on the Tour may be going up.

“We’ll know much more after another year or two.”

Maybe so, but it helped that superstars Tiger Woods and Vijay Singh, two notoriously crooked drivers, did not win in 2010 and thus helped the USGA edge toward its goal.

“It didn’t go in leaps and bounds,” Rugge said, “but it moved in the direction we expected.”

Another achievement for the USGA: “We kept hearing that flyers were making a comeback,” Rugge said. When we looked at statistics, we found a greater frequency of shots landing well past the hole from the rough than we did from the fairway.”

Rugge was referring to shots longer than 125 yards, where flyers can cause a ball to carry significantly farther than normal. Flyers occur when a small amount of grass gets between the clubface and the ball, resulting in a low-spinning shot.

All along, the USGA said its objective was to develop grooves that inhibited spin from the rough but not from the fairway.

“When you are in light rough or wet fairway, you have to decide if the ball is going to spin or (you’re going to) get a ball that’s going to slip off the club and go straight up,” Cink said.

Brad Faxon said the biggest difference has been with two clubs: the gap wedge and the lob wedge.

“The biggest change has been with trajectory,” Faxon said. “The old grooves allowed you to keep the ball down out of the fairway, and from the rough, depending on the lie, you could spin the ball more. But I think players know how to compensate for it.

“I think the USGA is going to be upset because they thought this was going to be a massive change in scoring, and it’s been negligible.”

For amateurs, using the new grooves remains optional – at least for now. The old grooves can be used in most amateur competition until 2024. A handful of national amateur events will switch in 2014, but all other amateur tournaments will allow competitors to use the old grooves for another 10 years.

However, the supply of old grooves is about to dry up. Manufacturers face a Dec. 31 prohibition date for making or distributing any more wedges or irons with old grooves.

Retailers are allowed to sell them as long as supplies last, and many retail outlets have stocked up near the end of 2010.

The spin-to-win chapter of golf history, earmarked by vigorous grooves, is about to close.

– Adam Schupak contributed

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