Groove Rule Changes In Effect; USGA Needs To Bifurcate The Rules

Anyone remember the groove rules change from 2010? The rule banned the “U” or “Square” groove in clubs (other than putter and driver), forcing manufacturers to revert to the previously approved “V” groove.

As of January 1, 2014, the “V” goove rule is in effect for all USGA amateur competitions and qualifiers.

This year’s implementation is the third stage of a fourteen year process:

  • January 2010: All new products submitted to the USGA were required to conform to the rule. All PGA Tour and US Open events also adopted the change.

  • January 2011: Manufacturers were required to cease manufacturing and shipment of pre-2010 grooves. Retailers could continue to sell existing stock, though.

  • January 2014: All USGA and R&A championships require the new grooves.

  • January 2020: The USGA will review the grooves rule to determine if it has been effective.

  • January 2024: Assuming that the 2020 review was positive, golfers will need to have the new grooves to post scores for handicap purposes.

    The rationale behind the rules change was that the edges of the “box” grooves were sharper than the “V” grooves, making it too easy to spin the ball on shots out of the rough. For high caliber players, that meant that the rough was not as penal as it should be.

    An analysis by Golf Digest in 2013 found that the effect of the rules change on the PGA TOUR was a mixed bag. Fairways hit, scrambling and rough proximity (distance to hole on shots out of the rough) were essentially unchanged. On the other hand, the importance of driving accuracy has increased significantly in relation to the money list. The more accurate drivers now win more. The number of flyers from the rough has increased since the rules change.

    None of this, however, has any relevance to the average golfer. I want to see USGA statistics on how the grooves rule change has affected the recreational golfers who make up 99 percent of the golfers on the planet. Where are the extensive scientific studies and statistics showing the effect of the grooves rule on the public course weekender?  Have the rules changes made the game more or less accessible? In a sport that reportedly struggles to retain players, this question should be of paramount importance.

    It irks me that the USGA and R&A, which claim to speak for ALL golfers, seemingly ignore all but the elite players. Groove rule changes, belly putter bans , and the upcoming ball rollback—all are done without consideration for the people who ultimately pay the bills. Making the game more difficult means fewer players. Fewer players hurts the two million people in the US (and untold millions elsewhere) who make their living from the game of golf: course owners and workers, retailers, manufacturers, golf media. Fewer players ultimately means less interest in the elite competitions that the USGA focuses on at the expense of the rest of us.

    There are 61 million golfers in the world. Nine thousand eight hundred sent in entry forms for the 2013 US Open. Assume a similar number, with lots of overlap for the Open Championship. Toss in some two thousand other professional tour players all levels (with lots of overlap for the US Open and Open Championship). Generously add in another twenty thousand playing other USGA Championships. Add ten thousand collegiate players (but again, a lot of overlap with the above mentioned championships). Add in another ten thousand for good luck. By this reckoning, some 50,000 players participate in “high level” championships.

    Fifty thousand represents just 0.08% of golfers. Under the most generous calculations, the USGA and R&A are making rules based on what is best for less than one tenth of one percent of the world’s golfers. That’s pretty presumptuous.

    The problem will only get worse when the USGA starts rolling back the ball.

    The solution is for the USGA to produce a set of “Conditions of Competition” for the events featuring the top 0.1% of golfers and another for the other 99.99%. The USGA and R&A can produce a set of specifications for “Competitive” and another for a “Noncompetitive Conforming.” No harm will be done because the 99% of us who will play the “Noncompetitive Conforming” equipment know we will never play in a top level competition.  Those who aspire to that, however, can play “Competition” level equipment.

    Amateur baseball players, including those in the NCAA, use aluminum bats. This has not wrecked the game of baseball, nor diminished interest in playing or attending games. Amateur basketball players routinely play half court games. The NCAA has different rules from the NBA. The NBA has not suffered as a result. High school, college and professional football rules and equipment vary. Flag football has not killed the NFL. I’ll argue that allowing people to compete at their own level has actually increased interest.

    It is time for the USGA and R&A to start considering the 60,950,000 who play for fun. They should remember that they are the governors of golf only through the consent of the governed.

    “Whensoever therefore the Legislative shall transgress this fundamental Rule of Society, and either by Ambition, Fear, Folly or Corruption, endeavor to grasp themselves, or put into the hands of any other an Absolute Power over the Lives, Liberties, and Estates of the People; By this breach of Trust they forfeit the Power the People had put into their hands, for quite contrary ends, and it devolves to the People, who have a Right to resume their original Liberty.”—John Locke

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