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Change to Rules of Golf Is Unequal on Its Face

This article is reprinted with permission from a New York Times article April 4, 2009

This week’s Masters, the first of golf’s four major tournaments, will be the last one played with equipment that is supposedly making the game too easy. The United States Golf Association announced in August that after years of deliberation, it was changing its rules regarding the grooves on the face of golf clubs.

Grooves help golfers spin the ball and control the shot to the green. Elite golfers like Tiger Woods can do this far better than the average player, especially from the long grass that surrounds fairways and greens. The change in specifications cuts their permitted volume of grooves in half. (The current maximum, established in 1984, is only 17 fine human hairs wide and 10 hairs deep.)

The U.S.G.A. is concerned that with the current grooves, elite golfers can control the ball nearly as well from the rough as they do from the fairway.

It wants to make the rough more of a hazard for the top players; smaller and shallower grooves on the club’s face cause a more erratic ball flight out of longer grass, with little or no spin.

There is a perception that the game is becoming too easy for elite golfers - about 0.1 percent of the golfing population - who can drive the ball with abandon because they do not fear the consequences of landing in the rough.

This problem - if it is a problem - involves the very best golfers, but the other 99.9 percent of the golfing population will be affected by the change as well.

Dick Rugge, the U.S.G.A.’s senior technical director, said that most golfers “won’t notice any difference” because “they don’t hit greens out of the rough very often anyway.” But there is a difference between not very often and never, and all golfers relish those moments when they hit shots that are every bit as good as those of the PGA Tour stars.

Those shots will be even rarer, and most golfers will notice the difference.

They will also eventually notice the effect on their wallets because the clubs they own run afoul of the new rule. All golfers in elite competition will be required to use clubs with the new groove configuration beginning Jan. 1, 2010; all clubs manufactured after that date must have the new grooves. Casual golfers, though, can keep using their old clubs until 2024.

This means that for the first time, golf will have different rules for different levels of players. Golf is different in that the finest professionals and middling amateurs can compete side by side, as they do in tournaments like the AT&T National Pro-Am. For many golfers, part of the game’s appeal is knowing that they are playing the same game on the same courses as the world’s best.

But from 2010 to 2024, the average golfer may use clubs that professionals may not. A little piece of the identification factor will be gone.

In the 1920s, there was much concern that the golf ball was traveling too far and that it was making great courses obsolete. To rein in the distance gains, the U.S.G.A. in 1931 reduced the permitted weight of the ball to 1.55 ounces from 1.62.

The chairman of the Implements and Ball Committee (now the Equipment Standards Committee) wrote at the time, “Our aim has been to provide a better and pleasanter ball for the greatest number playing the game and to restore the proper balance between ability and course conditions.”

A year later, the U.S.G.A. reversed this change; its president announced that “after carefully canvassing the situation in all parts of the United States and among all classes of players, we concluded that the sound thing to do was to increase the weight of the golf ball, and we have done so.”

Today, the U.S.G.A. does no such canvassing, and certainly no thought is given to making the game “pleasanter.” The performance of the elite golfer has dictated almost all recent equipment rules changes: restrictions on the length of a driver, the height of a tee and the degree of forgiveness that can be built into a club, as well as this new change in grooves.

The U.S.G.A. has not shared its evidence that a problem exists, nor has it demonstrated that this solution addresses the problem while doing the least damage to the golfing population as a whole. Never has a change of such consequence been made with such a lack of transparency or without appropriate input from those affected.

A category within the Rules of Golf called a condition of competition can be adopted for specific events without affecting everyday play. The logical solution to a problem caused by a few hundred elite golfers is to grow the rough a little longer at their events, or to make the impending equipment change through a condition that would be adopted by the PGA tours and the governing bodies for major championships.

This would allow some time, and provide evidence of whether the change solves an actual problem, and should be extended to all golfers as a rule, be abandoned or remain a condition for the pros alone.

Golf participation is declining, and we have yet to hear of people quitting the game because they found it too easy. We do not need equipment rules aimed specifically at making it harder for Tiger Woods or anyone else.

Frank Thomas is a former technical director of the United States Golf Association.

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