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About the USGA Groove Rule Change

Photo courtesy golfdigest.com
Photo courtesy golfdigest.com

It seems that the USGA, golf’s governing body in the United States since 1894, has decided that players on the PGA Tour are able to generate too much backspin from shots out of the rough. They have decided to change the rule to limit the effect of grooves to produce backspin. Of course, it’s not quite that simple. You see, the rule applies only to certain players, certain clubs, and there is much misinformation out there about what is really going on with this rule, so I thought it would be good to set the record straight.

Before 1984, all golf clubs had what we now refer to as V grooves. As it implies, the grooves on the face of the club were shaped like a V, with an angle of less than 90 degrees. In mid 1984, Ping introduced the second version of the Eye2 irons featuring U grooves following a very public battle with the USGA to allow them. The next year, they designed the square groove. I bet you thought a square groove was the same as a U groove didn’t you? The design was the same, but the difference was that they modified the grooves to create a slight radius at the top of the groove. This change reduced the amount of surface area between the groove, but didn’t change the distance between the inside edges of the grooves.

Fast forward to 2009, and the USGA is finally pulling the trigger on a rule change related to square grooves, or U grooves, or box grooves. One of the biggest misconceptions about this rule change is that the USGA is banning square grooves. This is not the case at all. In fact, it doesn’t govern what shape the grooves can be any more than the current rule that has been in effect since 1984. Club companies can continue to make U or square grooved clubs. The new rule, as it it currently written, calls for a club’s grooves to be straight and parallel, have a symmetrical cross section and must have sides which do not converge. Also, the spacing and width of the grooves must be consistent across the face.

The new rule actually changes the way club faces and grooves must be manufactured in three ways: One – because square grooves can channel away more grass and moisture, they now must be placed further apart on the face than previously. Two – The milling process many manufacturers use now creates a very precise and sharp edge. In an effort to dull those edges, a new measurement has been added to the rule which calls for a minimum radius of .010” on the groove. This effectively rounds off the corner of the groove edge, in theory producing less bite on the ball. Three – It allows for a condition of competition, which means that the implementation and subsequent enforcement of the rule is up to the tournament committee. It also states that the rule will only be applied to tournaments or competitions involving expert players. In other words, the rule will only go into effect on the PGA Tour, USGA, and other high level competitions. Those are the facts about the rule. We know the PGA Tour has stated that they will adopt the rule starting January 1, 2010, followed by other top level events, such as the USGA championships, in 2014. What does this mean to the average every day golfer and weekend hack? Not much. All rounds played for handicap purposes must use conforming grooves starting in 2024. Obviously by aiming this rule squarely at the PGA Tour, they are saying that they want to re-emphasize the importance of hitting the ball in the fairway again. In recent years with the changes in grooves and golf balls and the increased distance players are hitting it, it was more desirable to hit a wedge out of the rough than an 8 iron from the fairway. The USGA simply wants players at the highest levels to return to having to judge the lies in the rough to avoid flyers, or be a bit more creative around the greens with chip shots. By taking spin off the ball we don’t have to grow the rough to 6 inches or speed up the greens to 14 on the stimpmeter. So what will the impact on our scores be? After all, most average golfers shoot scores between 90 and 100. Will the groove change really make it tougher on us? Personally, I don’t think so. For one, the average golfing public doesn’t have to switch clubs until 2024. That gives everybody a good 15 years to get a few short game lessons along the way. Secondly, most golfers don’t generate much spin on their shots anyway. I contacted renowned short game expert Dave Pelz for his scientific expertise on the subject and here’s a summary of what he told me. Three factors contribute to generating spin on a golf ball: The quality of the swing, the groove structure and the ball itself.

Photo courtesy Golf.com
Photo courtesy Golf.com

In terms of swing quality, to produce spin on a golf ball you need solid contact and a fast moving club. Most PGA Tour players swing much more aggressively on short pitch shots and chips than amateurs. As a result, they hit the ball with more spin. Tiger and Phil have often befuddled crowds with the low flying pitch that bounces twice and stops on a dime.

When the groove structure is concerned, from the rough a U groove produces on average about twice as much spin as a V groove. From the fairway, U grooves produce about ten percent more than that. This is the main reason why the USGA made this ruling. PGA Tour players have much greater control with U grooves.

The third factor that contributes to spin is the construction of the golf ball. Balls with a hard surlyn cover like most inexpensive distance varieties don’t spin nearly as much as balls made with a urethane cover, like the Titleist Pro V1 and other high performance golf balls.

Given all that info, the average golfer who uses a surlyn covered ball, doesn’t produce a high amount of clubhead speed and doesn’t hit the ball solid most of the time will see little or no effect on his results by switching to the new grooves. For the players on the PGA Tour, the sudden change may be difficult to adapt to. Ping and Titleist have opposed the change, siting player complaints and increased cost to manufacture the new grooves, but the rule change will go into effect as scheduled. I predict that the PGA Tour will go easy on the players in the first few months of the 2010 season by cutting down the rough. We’ll see if that holds true. With the equipment resources available to modern tour players and the ball companies already testing softer golf balls, it’s hard to feel any sympathy towards the players on this issue.

Here’s a great video made by the folks over at Cleveland Golf explaining the rule change:

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33 thoughts on “About the USGA Groove Rule Change

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  • Hi, good article. Lookig for some additional insight: It is my understanding that US Amateur Events, State Am’s, USGA Am, etc., Will have the discretion of enforcing the 2010 Rules per each event, Do you have any furhter information on this subject? Also, does the USGA and/or PGA plan on posting a list of non-conforming irons & wedges?

  • The PGA TOUR, European Tour, LPGA Tour, PGA of America and the International Federation of PGA Tours have all indicated their support for the new groove rule. That means all these groups have told the USGA and The R&A that they intend to adopt the condition of competition, applying the rules for their competitions, starting on January 1, 2010. That basically means all clubs used in tournaments conducted by those organizations as of Jan 1, 2010 must have the new conforming grooves. Condition of competition means it is at their discretion, but I don’t see them lifting the rule any time soon. The USGA Amateur events will adopt the rule in 2014. I’m not sure if there will be a list of conforming clubs, since most clubs manufactured before the Jan 1 date will continue to conform until 2024 for events not using the condition of competition. In other words, stock up on those spin milled, zip groove wedges!

  • Robert Lee

    This seems little concocted in my humble opinion. I am a middle handicap,,,,, 14 from the “mensch” tees. Is not this about advancing technology for all players or not. Or has the PGA become a vast beaurocracy like NASCAR,,,,rigging the rules with “yellow flagging” to get the drivers bunched up for more excitement and crashes. We, the great unwashed, watch these guys (and Gals) to see excellence. And who is going to pay for the engineering that will be needed ? The PGA is a lot like the goverment designing cars,,,,is that what we really want ?

  • John Duval

    Thanks for the comment, you make a good point:
    “And who is going to pay for the engineering that will be needed ?”

    This is the point that many club companies made when the rule change was announced. The tour players get paid to play clubs, the consumer is the one who pays for all the research, development and advertising. Just like with these new XFT wedges, we’ll see the price go up. First you’ll have to buy the wedge, then the faces if you want to change them. Cha Ching!

  • I thought you might be interested in this. Tom Wishon’s existing “micro groove” configuration passes the newest USGA groove regulations. Yes, I said his existing, spin-increasing wedges are legal.

    You can read about it here (http://www.wishongolf.com/etechreport/2009/august/index_std.html#art1). Wishon’s micro grooves were developed to increase spin, which they do quite well.

    The USGA really screwed this groove thing up. They came up with a “fix” to a problem that doesn’t work.

    I’m sure that Wishon won’t be the only one to come up with a design that meets the rules, but also increases spin (let’s not even talk about changes to the ball).

    Why didn’t the USGA simply grow the rough for its tour events? Would have been much, much simpler.

  • John Duval

    Thanks for the comment. I agree with you with respect to the way the USGA mishandled the spin issue. I thought a local rule on the PGA Tour would have been sufficient. The USGA is throwing the average golfer a bone by not outlawing the current grooves until 2024, but they haven’t known what to do about box grooves since Karsten Solheim introduced them in the 80s.

    I wonder how much Wishon’s micro-grooves are similar to Cleveland’s new Laser-Etched grooves?

    One welcome byproduct of the groove rule change will be the move back to softer golf balls, which I’ve always been in favor of…

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  • Just wanted to know if sniper wedges are llegal
    and also the nakashima wedges are to

  • I play in the World Am golf tournament in Myrtle Beach every year. This tourney is played under USGA rules. When do I have to change clubs to conform to the new groove change…2014 or 2024?

  • John Duval

    From what I understand, the USGA has stated that it intends all USGA events to be played under the new rule no later than 2014. here’s an excerpt from their website:

    “As originally announced, the USGA intends to adopt the condition for the championships and team events it conducts for amateur players no later than 2014. The USGA recommends that state and regional associations and clubs implement the condition in accordance with this general time frame. However, if the condition is implemented in 2014, or sooner, it is the recommendation of the USGA that this condition should be adopted only for competitions involving expert players.”


  • John Duval

    Amine, If you are not on the PGA Tour and just play for fun, they are legal until 2024.

  • I think we are starting to see the effects of the rule. Look at the two fliers that Allenby hit a Torrey Pines. If all the rule does is make it so that hitting out of the rough is less predictable, that should be enough to encourage straighter driving. After all if you’re uncertain that you’ll hit the green from the rough, that’s .5 stroke right there since you’ll need to get up down. And since on the PGA tour there is a premium on being on the right part of the green hitting approach shots from the fairway becomes very important.

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  • John Duval

    I reached out a while back to get a tester for a review actually! Email me and I’ll send you my contact info if you can spare one for us… Cheers!

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  • I’d rather the USGA (and R&A) had left the groove alone and just lengthened the rough for the Pros

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