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Golf's Moral Maze

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Iain Carter | 12:13 UK time, Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Golf prides itself on being able to take the moral high ground more frequently than many other sports. The code of honour among players, the abhorrence of cheating and adherence to the rules endearingly sets it apart.

But the fledgling 2010 season is notable for issues bubbling up that challenge the game in its desire to remain on the correct path in its own moral maze.

Take for example the subject of the new rules on grooves in irons, and in particular wedges. Two players were able to play in Hawaii last week breaching the new regulations without breaking the rules.

John Daly and Dean Wilson were using Ping Eye 2 wedges that have the outlawed "boxed" grooves and despite the introduction of new rules banning their use there was nothing to prevent those players from legally playing with the clubs.

They exploited a loophole that stretches back to the great battle between the rules makers, the USGA, and the club manufacturer Ping. The eventual court settlement ruled that all Ping clubs made prior to 1990 would remain legal in perpetuity.

So the wedges dug out of Daly and Wilson's garages are immune from the new rules that have been brought in to make it more difficult for players to control shots with spin from thick rough.

John Daly's caddy shows off some of the 20-year-old wedges while the player practises on the driving range

No doubt other players are having a rummage to see whether they have any Ping wedges lying about and it's been suggested others are making Ebay raids as we speak.

Of course, this is a case of players sticking to the rules, which is what is expected of golfers. But American Tour pro Bob Estes is not impressed. "It's maybe a little bit against the spirit of the game once they passed that rule," he said.

"I didn't think they should hide behind an old rule. They should play by the same rules the other 99 per cent of us are."

By chance Estes was paired with Wilson in the final round of the Sony Open in Honolulu, but neither player broached the subject. Wilson told the Honolulu Advertiser: "Bob has not come up to me and said anything about it.

"I'd tell him what I told you. It's not a groove issue for me. It's a comfort issue. I'm not trying to gain an advantage with the grooves. The sole of the club is what I like, not the grooves."

Is there a right or wrong here? Is a rule a rule when it doesn't have to be or should its spirit take precedence?

As ever, PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem wouldn't be drawn but seems pretty unconcerned about the loophole's existence. "We don't see any competitive advantage, any material advantage to a player by going back and getting a club that was made pre-1990," he said.

Clearly there's an even greater emphasis required for players to keep the newly conforming "V" shaped grooves as sharp as legally possible. Retief Goosen has found a way by using wedges with interchangeable faces.

Just two weeks into the new season he has deemed one face on a wedge to be worn out and has slid it out and replaced it with a brand new one.

Of course for us amateurs this isn't an issue for a while. There is currently a separation between the paid and unpaid sections of the game to prevent us having to bin relatively new purchases.

But this is another of the golden pillars of golf that is supposed to set it apart. The big boys are meant to play the same game with the same equipment as the rest of us.

But separation exists as the groove issue highlights and it goes further with one leading ball manufacturer producing a pro only ball that offers more spin or trajectory depending upon which one you choose.

Nothing new in the pro's getting first crack at using new technology, it happens all the time and usually the intention is for the product to then make its way into the pro shops from which we get our gear.

But these balls are different. There is no intention to go public with them and yet the manufacturer insists their development and introduction to the pro-game is nothing to do with the new groove rules.

Two players used the "spin" variety of the ball in Honolulu and six used the "trajectory" version.

Finally for now, here's another question. Is it right for professionals not deemed worthy of a place in the pre-tournament pro-am to be hit with keeping sponsors happy obligations? This is a new development on the PGA Tour this year as they seek to increase the value of sponsorship deals.

There's a danger of the same category of players, those with celebrity but not the current standing to warrant a pro-am spot, being asked to carry out this work week-in, week-out.

While there's plenty of early season enthusiasm at the moment, bet your bottom buck moans and groans will abound in the locker-room before long.

Justin Rose, always one of the best at fulfilling such obligations, said: "I think this is a much needed thing right now. What I don't 100 per cent agree with is that if you fall into that category where you are just missing the pro-am, you are going to get hit each week.

"But if that is the case, then I am still happy to do it," he added, clearly seeing something of a moral obligation."


  • Comment number 1.

    Iain, re: pro-am obligations...

    I'm not quite sure that I follow. Are you saying that every tournament on the PGA Tour is going to have a pro-am attached? If so, how will this be decided in terms of who plays the pro-am and who doesn't? What kind of 'sponsors' obligations' do you mean - any examples?

  • Comment number 2.

    I'm talking about the usual pre-tournament pro-am ahead of rank and file events, not the pro-am format of the Hope or Dunhill. As for sponsor obligations they're usually glad-handing occasions to let those who back tournaments meet some of the players. I don't have a problem with either and nor do most players, but some might get weary of repeatedly being asked to carry out such duties - especially if they don't get a practice round out of it.

  • Comment number 3.

    Good article.

    The wedge issue is quite amusing, everyone knew that this ruling was going to come in and, I assume, everyone in the game must have known about the Ping ruling - news to me as I vaguely remember the fuss at the time (had a set of Ping Eye 2 rip off's as a kid, from about 1994, and thought that they might be illegal) but not the end result - yet I hadn't heard of anyone connecting the dots. Whether or not it is against the spirit of the game is arguable but I can't see it setting a trend; just imagine the reactions of the club makers if everyone went back 20 years in technology!!! The use of these wedges will be a stop gap at best for those involved and they'll probably lose out longer term from not taking the time to get to grips with the 'new' grooves.

    I don't see any issue with what Retief is doing - if any amateur was that way inclined and had the money they could change wedges at any rate they chose to. As the majority of amateurs probably clean the grooves on their wedges a maximum of twice a season anyway any complaints about the advantage the pro's have would be pretty empty.

    The new golf balls? If the makers deem that there is a demand they will be on the market to buy in due time ..... and what better marketing ploy is there to ramp up demand amongst the cash rich club level players, who will buy any driver or putter that might just improve their game, than to have a ball that is 'only for the pros' suddenly becoming available? "Wow this ball must be good, it's practically illegal for us etc, etc" GOLFERS, as a group, ARE GULLIBLE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Finally, yes the pro's should be expected to do their bit for sponsors. Nowadays one season on tour at the threshold to keep your card, or just outside, is probably enough to retire on, so why shouldn't they be expected to play the game? Plenty of player's turn their back on the tournaments and sponsors which helped them out in the early days of their careers, or when there was a need, so why shouldn't the sponsors make some demands of the player's who are playing?

  • Comment number 4.


    Just to stress absolutely no issue with what Retief is doing - just thought it was an interesting sign of the new times.

  • Comment number 5.


    ah, no worries. I just read it a bit wrong, took it as being another example of the pro's playing a different game from the rest of us and this being 'morally questionable'. I think that as soon as the rules were announced a lot of golfers came out and said that they'd be changing wedges every 4 weeks rather than every 4 months, the Retief solution - sounds like a Robert Ludlum novel or something - is just as extension of this.

    It must be a lot more enjoyable for you having some 'real' golf to write about now!!! Roll on the spring and the season in earnest.

  • Comment number 6.

    As far as the "pro-only" ball goes, it seems to me that that's going to play into the hands of those in the game that have suggested a "tournament ball" that would be used by all competitors in a match.

    Strikes me that this would be a better way of preserving our courses - limit the distance the ball goes when hit by the pros. Amateurs (apart from the very skilled) would hardly notice the difference.

  • Comment number 7.

    Yaaawn! This whole equipment restriction issue is beginning to become so tedious. Why can't the bigwigs at the PGA and other golf associations just move with the times and technology? As an avid golf fan and journalist, I'm not bothered one bit if today's players have drivers that let's them hit it 700 yards, or a material that allows the ball to spin from one end of a green to another. The only people who seem to have a problem with it are the conservative, white codgers in charge of the game who are hell-bent on exerting their authority...

  • Comment number 8.

    That's great if you have courses that can accomodate 700 yard drives but most can't.
    But, in this case, good for Daly and Wilson. The Tours must have known there was this loophole; good to see Daly in the news for the right reasons for a change. In reprinting the article though, Iain misses one interesting point (implied but not stated) that these clubs cannot be replaced by Ping, production having long since ceased.
    Most pros will emulate Goosen, Allenby having said, for instance, he will switch his wedges every four wks instead of every four months.

  • Comment number 9.

    That being the case I reckon you'd love Caddyshack II, someone must.

  • Comment number 10.

    Obviously I was exaggerating with the 700-yard drives, but the point I'm getting at was whether all these equipment advances really bother the average golf fan? Would be interested to hear your thoughts...

  • Comment number 11.

    I love seeing players having to come up with creative ways of playing shots or of getting out of trouble, when they can hit the ball out of deep rough to a lightning fast green and have the ball stop almost dead then that is limited or removed altogether.

    Being able to hit a huge drive is, or at least was, a great skill in itself. It is great seeing the genuine big hitters cutting loose at a short to mid length par 4 with their driver, taking on a real risk for a great potential reward. Watching them do this with a fairway wood, whilst an average length pro is doing it with an easy swing of the driver (think Loch Lomond) really limits the excitment for me. When the extra-ordinary becomes plain old ordinary sport loses something and by the fact that 77 people had an average driving distance of over 290 yards on the PGA Tour last year this is clearly what is happening.

    Players of much more limited ability are being made to look very special by the increases in technology and that isn't what sport is all about.

  • Comment number 12.

    chilli-mkII: Fair point, very well made, sir.

    "Players of much more limited ability are being made to look very special by the increases in technology and that isn't what sport is all about."

    Not sure I agree about these 'limited ability players being made to look very special' though. That's what I like about these technology advances; the fact that they give what you may call the 'lower crop of pros' a chance to contend with the big boys.

    Each to their own, I guess...

  • Comment number 13.

    JR1987 'The Journalist'

    Why do you mention the colour of the skin of these 'white codgers who run the game'. Are you implying a racist element or are you just not a serious journalist? Is the groove issue really a white supremisist vendetta. Maybe they are just 'Old codgers' that look after the game on all our behalfs?

  • Comment number 14.

    Got to agree with chilli on the driver issue. Obviously pros are going to be able to hit the ball further than us amateurs but the courses were designed with risk/reward in mind. If they can just fly straight over the problem and not have to worry about the risk then it spoils the spectacle.

    It is great to see a pro really wind up a drive knowing that they need to get everything on it but we don't seem to see this so much as there is no need.

    I have always liked the idea that there is some strategy to a course and while bigger hitter will always have some advantage I feel it has gone too far and the courses are becoming obsolete.

    I wonder whether amateurs are driving it much further as well so maybe we don't just reign in the pros. I easily clear most of the rubbish on my 100 year old course but they penalise the shorter hitters who hit it about 200-220yds which I guess was a good amateur drive. Obviously not a problem for me but it feels a bit against the spirit.

  • Comment number 15.


    Nothing racist meant by my comment. Sorry if it came across that way... I can see how it may have. No, I wouldn't consider the groove issue a 'white supremisist vendetta'. However, I'm not going to take this thread off-topic and open up a can of worms about the make-up of the golf industry, which is the point I was trying to get at.

    Oh, and btw, no, I am nt a srious jrnalst.

  • Comment number 16.

    I'll come clean right at the beginning: I'm not an avid golfer. I watch The Open, the Ryder Cup, Augusta etc. and I enjoy it, but definately not an avid fan. Tried to play a few rounds but I was awful and for the sake of all the impatient people behind me I decided not to try again.

    The issue for me here is not necessarily one about golf per se, but more about sport in general. My feeling is that when people watch sport, they watch it for the drama of human competition. These days, so many sports seem to be bogged down in discussion of the equipment used by people and to be honest I think these sports suffer. Obviously, equipment plays a part in all major sports to a greater or lesser extent but the ultimate question that a sport asks us is 'who is the best'. When that question can be diluted with so much discussion about 'so and so being the best, but whatsisname just had the better equipment' then it undermines the sport. F1 woudl appear to be a great example. Button wins the WC, yet most observers don't think he'd the best. What's the point then? Golf isn't near that stage yet (I think - correct me if I'm wrong) but it may not be far off. It would only take one signiicant breakthrough in technology that is only available to a select few pros because of their sponsership deals.

    I'm curious as to whether golf fans would rather all pros were either told to use the same clubs or at least given some very narrow perameters in terms of the spec of their clubs? Then there would be a truely level playing field and the best man on the day would win more frequently.

    Is this an old fashioned view? I can imagine many people suggesting that the sport would not survive and flourish without the sponsership of the manufacturers who depend on these innovations for profit. Suppose I'd argue that if enough people love a sport it will always survive regardless.

    As I said, I'm not a massive golf fan. Would be interested to know what the proper fans think.

  • Comment number 17.

    4. At 3:58pm on 20 Jan 2010, Iain Carter wrote:

    The question about the Pro-Ams is the same as the isse with Tiger's privacy. Players sacrifice some things in return for millions of dollars, a wonderful lifestyle and the priveledge of being paid to play golf, a game most of us pay through the nose for.

    With regard clubs, i guess there are parralels with the swimsuits that have just been banned. We want to see amazing golf, but in relation to the player and not the club. Having said that, i've seen Tiger hit a flop of a plugged ball on a downslope, so ability is still a factor.

  • Comment number 18.

    DH - problem is many markets. Golf is global. In USA baseball uses wooden bats, to ensure purest display of skill (steroids). In tennis there have been many technology wars. I don't think there are that any sports, especially in England, where you can gain an advantage by using certain equiptment.

  • Comment number 19.

    I think they should let them use whatever, as the manufacturers spend lots of money on research and development. I would limit the ball to stop courses being defence-less from the mordern equipment.

    That said the game is becoming more technical with biomechanics become a huge growth area as people realise the science available out there to them.

    On the moral maze it is sadly inevitable that people will use any loophole they find. What I wonder is what ever happened to winning with style, panache and class? Mickleson is about the only one that has all 3. Padraig has bags of class and style but I wouldn't put him down for panache. As a fan there is much more of a connection with someone that engages with the public, be it a pro-am, on the course in the tournament or around the course.

  • Comment number 20.

    Mickleson is about the only one that has all 3.

    class? how do you figure "MR Mickleson" to have class?

  • Comment number 21.

    Think i remember the "illegal" groove issue and the groove/ping court case. I still use my old TP9 blades that i saved up for as a teenager in the eighties and use them today when i can get chance to play (damn hard to use when not a frequent golfer..!)
    Back then it was lead tape on the back of the irons for blades and "custom" made clubs were just starting out as the in-thing in pro shops etc. Never went for it myself. Must be rocket science now.
    So are there many of these old Ping wedges still around with the box grooves? Didn't think Daly or any other pro would need anymore help stopping/spinning a ball quicker than they can already as they all have exceptional talent.

  • Comment number 22.

    A lot of people are saying regulate the balls as an answer to limiting players' technological advantage. Golf Observer had an interesting interview with Titleist CEO Wally Uihlein that touched on this subject.

    "Trust me when I tell you that it will favor one player over another. When you deal with the range of launch conditions I mentioned earlier and the spin rates, someone is going to be disadvantaged. It will lead to a bias and not just in distance. The short game will be affected too.
    Take Geoff Ogilvy. In the short game, he is a “slider.” And someone like Mark Calcavecchia is a “trapper.” Once you decide on what ball you are going to use, the differences between those two types of players are going to be magnified. Wherever you land, one is going to be favored over the other. Take that to the bank."

    In other words, any heavily regulated ball would favour certain players, and open up a huge stream of litigation from pros who felt hard done by.

    For what it's worth, I think it's laughable that Daly and Wilson feel they are gaining an advantage from using pre-1990 wedges, they are just delaying the inevitable. I would like to see tournament courses growing longer rough (and more of it) to really penalise wayward drives.

  • Comment number 23.

    I'm surprised you didn't mention how tiger woods sucks. did he apologise for not shaking your hand?
    anyway, rules are rules and golf should act like all profitable businesses.
    lay down the law.
    ban those belly-putters too.

  • Comment number 24.

    Interesting point form Titleist CEO that I hadn't seen before. I'll have to go with you then pompeyfanupnorth and go more more rough. Preferably graded so that there is a penalty for being 20 yards off line as opposed to 1.

  • Comment number 25.

    Good article Iain. Very interesting. Of course the problem with 20 year old Ping wedges is that the grooves will be worn down and probably offer less benefit than new v-grooves. Pro's may be able to hunt down unused items on e-bay but the supply is limited, so this is only a short term fix.
    And well done for not bringing the subject round to Tiger! In fact it wasn't until comment 17 that he got a mention! (I am aware of the irony that I am of course talking about him as well)
    Very astute observations from Chilli as well.

  • Comment number 26.

    I'd be interested to hear from anyone who has used clubs with the new grooves if they could notice any difference

  • Comment number 27.

    Are the golfers who are using the Ping wedges endorsement contracts with Ping? If a golfer is using one brand and is getting paid to do so, is he in breach of contract by not using that company's wedges?
    As for me, I wish I was good enough to tell the difference with either clubs or ball.

  • Comment number 28.


    I think it is a good blog except for this part:

    "Is it right for professionals not deemed worthy of a place in the pre-tournament pro-am to be hit with keeping sponsors happy obligations?"

    I have read and re-read this and I don't know what you mean. I'm sorry but it is not very well written.

    I notice that the first poster also got confused, although I must admit I have not gone on to read the rest of the comments.

    Perhaps you could explain (slightly more clearly if poss) what exactly you mean there?

    By the way I'm not dumb, well not totally, but if you read it I think maybe you will see it is not very clear.


  • Comment number 29.

    #22 from pompeyfanupnorth

    Don't be taken in by the ball manufactures. Titleist et al can easily make a range of "pro-only" balls with varying spin rates, softenss/ hardness, launch angle, etc., but that are limited by the distance they can travel. If the R&A and USPGA seriously want to do something to stop the ever lengthening of courses, or loss of classic courses from the pro circuit then they need to tackle the manufacturers on this issue.

  • Comment number 30.

    Recently a friend told me not to use PRO V1's because they will spin too much for me. As a high handicapper i have good and bad shots with a variety of balls from Dunlop/Srixon/Calloway/Titliest/Top Flite etc it makes little difference to the inconsistent player, and I know many golfers who pay far too much for the balls they lose constantly. Now, where the pro's are concerned it is a different matter, and I agree that a lot of golf on the telly is getting dull as they use technology to overcome the hazards of the course. Without some of the technology though, guys like me would find the game even harder. Plusses and minuses i guess.

  • Comment number 31.

    I'm not sure I agree with the "moral high ground" issue in this story. We are all told that one of the reasons we should know the rules is so that we can take advantage of them. For example, you could argue that if you are in casual water in the rough, it is not morally correct to take a free drop on the fairway. However, everyone would when the rules allow it. Every time a pro calls over a rules official in a tournament, he/she is trying to get the best possible advantage within the rules. I say let people play with the old Ping wedges while the rules allow. If the governing bodies don't like it, they will soon change the rules.

  • Comment number 32.

    The very few that are using the loopholes including Mickelson should stop it at least in the spirit of the game.

  • Comment number 33.

    I suppose that tells Scott McCarron etc to shut up. The PGA Tour really needs to get its act together. Players meeting and media event in LA on Tuesday (Feb 2nd) should be interesting. Get's Tiger out of the headlines I suppose.

  • Comment number 34.

    The fact that Phil Mickelson is considering taking legal action against another players really says all we need to know about Phil Mickelson and why so many of us are constantly happy that he finishes second to Tiger on so many occasions. Buck up Phil!

  • Comment number 35.

    Don't think Phil ever said he was "considering taking legal action against (an)other players", though he and many others are so totally frustrated by Finchem's folly.
    You may be "constantly happy" when Phil "finishes second to Tiger", but the boot's been on the other foot recently and is likely to stay that way until Tiger can summon the fortitude to tee it up again. Hopefully sooner than later but don't expect Phil to take a back seat to Tiger. Or anyone else.
    Meanwhile, and as stated elsewhere, when two of the more well-liked players on Tour are at loggerheads on a rules issue, you know something's awry. Keep an eye on that meeting Tuesday.

  • Comment number 36.

    Interesting article from, Aug 2008. Has Mickleson changed his tune?
    Mickelson favored the change because he said it would bring skill back to shots out of the rough.
    ``I have no problem with that because I feel like it's a challenging thing for a player to judge shots out of the first cut of rough or out of the rough,'' Mickelson said. ``Is the ball going to spin? How is it going to come out?''
    Sounds like he tried the new grooves and lost some of his magic around the greens.

  • Comment number 37.

    I have watched a lot of golf in the last 4 weeks on both US and European Tour and I can't see how the rule changes have made any difference. The winning scores of this years tournaments seem to mirror last years.

    Also on the wedge debate just ban these ping wedges its not difficult. I don't think ping are going to care its not like they are producing these clubs anymore. And of about 5 players seem to be using them if they don't like it tough they don't have to play.

  • Comment number 38.

    The Retief thing is just a promotion of the new technology. People like Retief can demand new wedges every 2 to 3 weeks, why bother with changing faces. Of course there is the argument that every wedge plays different (shaft and loft) which means they will never be 100% on their distances, I am not so sure the difference is that big, if you for example have 52 wedges from the same batch, one for every week. Promotion in my opinion.

  • Comment number 39.

    Surely PING and the USPGA can get together to have the judgement set aside. Presumably it is of no commercial value to PING at this juncture, so for the good of the game...

    US law allows this, under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, relief from a judgement can be sought where (5) the judgment has been satisfied, released, or discharged, or a prior judgment upon which it is based has been reversed or otherwise vacated, or it is no longer equitable that the judgment should have prospective application; or (6) any other reason justifying relief from the operation of the judgment.

    Or maybe the whole furore is a deliberate attempt to deflect media interest from Tiger....

  • Comment number 40.


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