Changes won't knock pros out of the groove
Paul McGinley explains to Dermot Gilleece why he feels the new rules on club specification haven't gone far enough to make a genuine difference
It has become a 20-year thing. Having accepted new regulations for grooves in irons in 1990, the game's administrators now believe the best way forward is to go back to the past.
Effective in professional tournament golf since last Friday, the latest groove change is aimed at exercising some control over back-spinning the ball from rough and, indirectly, curbing the prodigious striking by the game's big hitters.
Amateurs in Royal and Ancient and USGA championships, will not be affected until 2014. The R and A also assure us that existing clubs, manufactured prior to this year and which meet the current regulations, will continue to be regarded as conforming under the Rules of Golf until at least 2024.
But according to Paul McGinley, all of this detailed planning falls a long way short of what is required.
His professional colleagues, meanwhile, seem to have mixed views. While one American player described the return of V-grooves as "a night-and-day difference", world No 3 Steve Stricker was a lot closer to the McGinley assessment when saying: "It's not a huge difference, but enough to make a difference."
Grooves in irons have exercised the minds of quality golfers from the time they discovered the advantage of imparting backspin. And without requiring you to don your anorak, control of the ball probably started in earnest on April 11, 1925, when steel-shafted clubs were first sanctioned by the US Golf Association.
Still, many players remained loyal to hickory which provided the shafts for Bobby Jones' Grand Slam clubs in 1930. Jones used steel for the first time in 1931, and he later claimed that "being able to hit with full power all the time" (steel shafts) gave players an advantage of one to two strokes per round.
Meanwhile, the quest for greater control had become a key element of the professional game by the time the Ryder Cup was resumed in Portland, Oregon in 1947. That was when Henry Cotton, the visiting captain, called for an inspection of the American clubs because of the amount of backspin their players were achieving.
As it happened, nothing untoward came to light. But US skipper Ben Hogan didn't forget the incident when he led the Americans at Ganton two years later. And an inspection of the British clubs revealed that his concerns were legitimate, to the extent that on the eve of battle several players had to file down their grooves, or in some cases, the deep indents they had drilled into the clubface to achieve backspin. One assumes that, even in September, the Ganton greens were a lot firmer than they would be these days.
This is McGinley's main gripe. He believes that the perceived problems in the modern game have to do more with agronomy than with equipment.
"As I see it, the big problem we have as professional golfers is that 90 per cent of the greens we play on are way too soft," he said yesterday. "Firmer golf courses would make for a far more challenging and interesting spectacle than will be achieved by this groove change." It is accepted that the key factors which influence a golf shot with an iron club are the shape and size of the grooves, the spacing between the grooves, the treatment of the club-face, as in sand-blasting, and the weight distribution.
Grooves were cut in a relatively narrow V-shape until 1984 when the Ping company created grooves that were wider and more U-shaped. Ultimately known as square grooves, they imparted more spin than conventional irons, particularly from the rough.
In a helpful insight, US writer Jaime Diaz has compared the effect to wet tyres on a car. "The bigger grooves in the tyre displace more water, allowing the rubber to make more contact with the asphalt and thus have better traction," he writes. "In the same way, grooves with more volume and less space between them take in more grass and moisture, leaving less debris between the steel surface and the ball, allowing more backspin and control."
Initially, this development led to threatened law-suits and a major rift between golf's various administrative bodies and we had a situation where the Ping L-wedge used by Pádraig Harrington in the Walker Cup in September 1995 was illegal in the Smurfit European Open less than three weeks later. But square grooves ultimately won out. Until now.
Certain players stayed with V-grooves, though it is interesting to recall that for the 2000 US Open at Pebble Beach, Colin Montgomerie switched to square grooves so as to get more backspin into notoriously tight targets. More recently, McGinley, a flat swinger of the club, claimed that he and Scott Verplank were the only players from either side of the Atlantic using V-grooves, though their wedges had square grooves. But the Dubliner changed all his irons to square grooves last May.
"If you had asked me about this three months ago, I would have been very excited about the change," he said. "Now, however, I'm very disappointed. It hasn't gone anywhere near as far as it should have. For instance, the irons I changed to last May are actually legal. I got them tested in Singapore last month."
His discovery is partially explained by the fact that the new parameters on grooves from, basically, the five iron up, allow for more volume than the original V-groove. But the authorities insist that it remains about 40 per cent less than square grooves.
Still, McGinley insisted: "I thought we'd be going back to the way things were in my amateur days, when you might have a lie in the semi-rough and you'd have to figure out how the ball was going to fly and whether you needed a six iron or a nine iron. Granted, there will be a change in chipping. And guys will probably use a softer ball for more spin, which will reduce drives by about 10 yards.
"But what we're going to be using are not real V-grooves. They're only a version of the real thing. People won't see any appreciable difference. As for players firing at the pin in the Ryder Cup in October: I think the change will be only marginal, though the ball will launch higher."
And how will the change affect his friend, Harrington, who is such a genius with square-grooved wedges? "I don't think anything in golf is going to catch Pádraig on the hop," McGinley replied. "He's ahead of the game in most things, especially the short game, though he will unquestionably have to adjust.
"Most of the issues we've had could have been solved by better agronomy. Trust me. You're not going to see a significant change, either in the winners on tour or the scoring on tour."
Either way, like the notion of sophisticated mousetraps creating more sophisticated mice, tournament professionals generally seem to be able to find a way around a problem. Especially if it's man-made.