Wedge wars upstage Watson v Woods
These are fractious times in the world of golf. Not only has one of the game's elder statesmen openly criticised Tiger Woods for misdemeanours on and off the course, the world's leading active player is railing against the game's rule makers.
Tom Watson's comments in Dubai on Tiger Woods are telling, but it is Phil Mickelson's attack on the USGA (United States Golf Association) for its new rules on grooves that provides the more significant talking point for the game.
The emphasis of the row has moved from the question of the morality of exploiting a loophole and is now all about how the rule change for the pro game is being implemented.
It has implications that stretch far and wide because the right of manufacturers to produce the most effective clubs is being called into question, and so is the role of player power.
Phil Mickelson has attacked the USGA for its new rules on grooves
How the lawyers are starting rub their hands in anticipation of totting up lucrative hours of litigation.
It has become clear that Mickelson did not put a Ping Eye 2 wedge into his bag in San Diego last week to steal a playing advantage. He wasn't seeking to make the most of what is judged to be a 20% improvement in spin rates generated by the 20-year-old U-groove clubs.
He was making a point on behalf of the manufacturers, who so richly reward the leading players for using their kit. Mickelson knew that, as the highest profile player in action at the moment, he could bring the issue to the fore by using the controversial club (even though it was made by a rival firm to the one that backs him).
For those not familiar, the background, in simple terms, is this: Modern irons have had U- or box-shaped grooves that are more efficient in imparting spin on shots from the rough. In the olden days, these grooves were V-shaped and didn't have the same impact.
The USGA and the Royal and Ancient decided to forbid professionals from using these U-grooves from the start of this year in order to put a premium on accuracy and to reward more skilled players. New specifications returning club faces to a more V-shaped configuration were put in place.
But on the American PGA Tour, there is an agreement with the manufacturer Ping that stretches back to the last great grooves war of the 1980s. This resulted in the Ping Eye 2 clubs and their box grooves being deemed legal in perpetuity. They are effectively exempt from the new rules on the PGA Tour.
Mickelson, though, shares the anger of many manufacturers at the USGA who have said that any new design that finds a way to generate extra spin will fall foul even if it conforms to the new groove specifications.
"We are trying to make it crystal clear that the rule was intended to return the grooves' effectiveness on shots from the rough to that of traditional V grooves," says Dick Rugge, the senior technical director of the USGA.
The key word here is "effectiveness". If a club-making company finds a way to incorporate V grooves and still achieve U-groove results, that club is liable to be deemed illegal.
So to limit control of the golf ball through spin, the USGA recognise there may be a need to limit the manufacturers' desire to innovate.
"I think it is a ridiculous rule change and even worse timing," Mickelson said. "It's costing manufacturers millions of dollars. It continues to cost them money as we now have to hire people to scan, document and store data of every groove on every single club.
Karlsson's victory in Qatar sealed a heart-warming comeback for one of the Tour's most seasoned performers
"I'm very upset with the way the rule came about, the way one man essentially can approve or not approve a golf club based on his own personal decision regardless of what the rule says. This has got to change. It's killing the sport."
Mickelson claims the new rules actually help him. He says that he has played with newly-conforming clubs in the run-up to the rule change anyway, but feels that is not the point.
His stance is hard to fathom. Surely anything that rewards the most skilled practitioners is to the benefit of the sport. The corporate implications are of secondary importance.
He doesn't see it that way. "Just because it was good for me doesn't mean it was good or right," he said.
For the authorities, these are worrying times. PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem believes it to be a "narrow issue". Well, it feels like it is widening to boxed groove proportions and beyond.
First, he has to seek a solution to the Ping Eye 2 issue. The status quo, which allows some players to gain an advantage through the existing loophole, is unpalatable.
An independent committee may be asked to sit and adjudicate, which isn't the tastiest prospect either. Or Ping might be persuaded to voluntarily close the loophole. How likely is that in the current fractious climate? The lawyers are going to be busy.
This blog was thrilled by the prospect of the new rules making it more likely that the best players would thrive - and the early evidence is encouraging.
The biggest tournaments so far this year have been on the European Tour and have produced excellent winners.
Charl Schwartzel's South African double further emphasises his outstanding promise, Martin Kaymer, who won in Abu Dhabi, is a major winner in waiting (Augusta?) and Robert Karlsson's victory in Qatar sealed a heart-warming comeback for one of the Tour's most seasoned performers.
How nice to be talking about golf again - all be it in the penultimate paragraph. The big worry in the current climate is that legal argument may take precedence too frequently in 2010.