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Wedge wars upstage Watson v Woods

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Iain Carter | 11:17 UK time, Thursday, 4 February 2010

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 MickelsonPhil 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.

Robert Karlsson wins in DohaKarlsson'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.


  • Comment number 1.

    The problem with legal routes is the time that will elapse whilst they sort it out, it does seem rather strange that it can be a persons perception on the advantage gained. This would always be open to debate and change, it would be far simpler to stick to a list of permissible clubs worldwide, as was used when certain drivers were banned from use.

    Totally agree with you Iain about Martin Kaymer, his game on a final round is spot on, it wont be a question of if, more a question of when.

  • Comment number 2.

    I can not believe somebody of Micklesons reputation would try and gain an unfair udvantage by using the loophole as an excuse to cheat over his rival competitors. I bet Callaway are happy that he is getting all this press regarding a rival manufacturers club!!!!!My heart bleeds for the manufacturers that the new groove rule is costing them millions, just think how many times a new driver/3 wood/putter or whatever it maybe is launched by these poor companies to us the general golfing public and wanting us to stump up top dollar for the privelege of using their brand

  • Comment number 3.

    When I go to watch a championship I want to see the skill of a professional to play the game not the skill of a club technician to provide tools allowing all and sundry to "get out of jail free". I don't remember howls of protest when drivers were limited. The R&A and the USGA should be allowed to do their job and the manufactures do theirs which is to produce the best clubs they can which conform to the rules. lets not get lawyers involved otherwise we will find golf does not conform to human rights because I can't play like Mickleson.

  • Comment number 4.

    I still don't get Watson's point about Woods having a lack of respect for the game in the way those before him did. what is having extra marital affair even if is with 50 women got to do with the game?
    Heard you on 5live saying he sometimes swears and throws his club around on the course, so what with it? the guy's clearly frustrated when things don't go his way. what has that got to do with respecting the game.
    Is it your opinion that the world's best player shouldn't react when he gets frustrated? sure he tries to keep it in check otherwise he wouldn't be able to summon the necessary concentration to win golf tournament and the evidence clearly shows he has been able to win tournament which shows in spite of his short falls he is able to summon the necessary concentration one needs to win tournaments.
    I would be very interested to know what Watson's opinion are of the like of Europe Ryder cup captain Colin Montgomery, Ian Poulter, John Daly and Nick Faldo who really had great respect for his colleagues and the game as a whole.
    And before we get to all the ridiculous excuses about what effect he has on children watching him play, i would like Watson to comment on his colleagues who openly smoke their cigars on the course i'm really sure children see it and get really inspired by that.
    I'm really tired of all these holier than thou attitude other people are taking which really smug of as jealousy which is inevitable when someone becomes successful.
    Really disappointed with Watson jumping on the bandwagon. I expected more class from and experienced golfer.

  • Comment number 5.

    Golf needs to be careful or it could end up on a Gran Prix like slippery slope. F1 got carried away with technical abilities of the car designers and in my opinion the sport suffered. Winners were determined solely on how good the car was with the talent of the driver coming a distant second.

    Unless golf sorts out this latest mess it will end up the same. It has been happening for a few years anyway with the less talented winning major tournaments. Much like Schumacher in F1 though golf had Woods, whose undoubted talent shone through. Without Woods golf is in enough difficulties.

    The sport is also in a somewhat unique position where the manufacturers make billions through innovative equipment.

    I don't think Mickelson was 'cheating' but in his own way trying to bring the issue to the fore.

  • Comment number 6.

    I find the whole thing a bit odd. Yes the new clubs impart less spin from the rough.. er so? As far as I'm concerned if you want to punish people who can't hit it straight then why not make the rough actual rough as opposed to the manicured very slightly longer stuff masquerading as rough. When you hit it in the rough nowadays and the ball sits down a bit everyone is shocked about how terrible it all is - I'm sorry I thought that was the idea!

    I'm dubious about this technology is taking over golf debate and making less skilled players win tournaments. Unlike F1, which seems to have weened it's way into this debate, the golfers aren't limited by technology - they have access to everything equally do they not? You can't say Woods has won loads of majors because he had better clubs than everyone else or indeed Lee Westwood won the race to Dubai last season because his Pings were better than Rory McIlroy's clubs (sorry I don't know what he uses). The most skilled players do still come to the fore, 'U' grooves or 'V' grooves. If you really wanna punish people who don't keep it in the fairway then make it much harder to get out the rough by making it proper, long, rough, then see who worries about spin rates from grooves. Probably save money and carbon footprints as well by the courses requiring less mowing!

  • Comment number 7.

    #4, olegunna: I think you'll find that it isn't this correspondent who is saying that Woods shouldn't react when frustrated, its Tom Watson. He's worth listening to don't you reckon?

    Woods has every right to be frustrated when he messes up on the park, but throwing your clubs around and swearing is disrespectful to the spectators, the course officials and, most importantly, the game.

    The point is that every sport has its own code. I play football, tennis and cricket and I behave differently depending on which sport I'm playing because I know that the behavioural expectations are diffferent. Not always easy, but its the right thing to do. Woods has consistently stepped over what most people consider is acceptable but people don;t say anything because of the money and the attention he brings to the sport. Watson was just saying his piece.

    That said, I di winder whether he would have made these comments if Tiger was still on the tour...

  • Comment number 8.

    I support Mickelson - it's a PROFESSIONAL GAME (sport?). I think manufacturers should be able to improve the technologies of the clubs. It is not like they are putting explosive caps in the club heads. It's all about aerodynamics and good science. The technology might even be useful beyond the realm of golf. If tennis adopted the same policy we would still be using wooden rackets.

  • Comment number 9.

    'It has been happening for a few years anyway with the less talented winning major tournaments' haha!

    Oh how I'd love to be as 'less talented' as those guys that have just shot 4 consecutive sub par rounds against the best in the world, on the most demanding golf courses in the world!!

    I think someone commenting here doesn't have a real grasp of the challenges of competitive golf!

    However, the grooves will make a big difference and the full effects will not be noticeable until you see some tournaments in inclement weather and/or in Europe! The US tour largely play on bone dry courses with semi rough, so 'flyers' are minimised by dry (shortish) grass. As soon as you add moisture, real rough and wind into the mix be prepared for some 'real' golf scores!

    It will put a premium on accuracy and make alot of pros look 'normal' from the rough. However, every tournament will have someone who scores lower than the others. Champions will still be remembered for shots and putts, not technology!

  • Comment number 10.

    #7 Deep-heat: my point is what Watson has to say about the likes of Daly, Poulter, Montgomery and their misdemeanour's on the course. i'm pretty sure they show so much respect for the game. How about Faldo, sure he had great respect for his colleagues is that why he's got so much friends.
    And by the way, if you watch cricket, tennis, football, golf you see players swear and throw their gear about, break rackets etc, that the price you pay for watching live sports.
    To suggest that, that amounts to disrespect for the game is ridiculous as it is not targeted at the spectators but someone showing his frustration which by the way is not voluntary unless you think he is actually doing it deliberately. In more ways it shows he cares.

  • Comment number 11.

    In my humble opinion, the rules of golf are made by the R&A. If that is not good enough for golfers here in America and they feel the need to consult with an attorney ( there's one in every bunker in my experience ) then they will have to break away and play "American Golf" This will enable the Masters to be renamed "The World Series" like their domestic baseball championship. Grow up and fall into line. BTW If Tiger's "sex addiction" occurred in the UK, would it be covered by the Disabilities at Work Discrimination Act??

  • Comment number 12.

    There is constantly a lot of talk on golf being the sport of gentlemen. A gentleman regards the spirit of a rule and does not try to find dodgy ways of taking advantage of the letter, only a lawyer would do that. This is so in golf as it is in real life -or should be. If one does not agree with a rule there is always the option of discussing the issue in public to see wether it makes sense to most players or not and can be changed .Not even the R&A rules are chiseled in stone.
    Possibly Mickelson is not quite the gentleman he poses as. Or maybe he does not want to put in the additional work required to make up for a slight drawback in high tech equipment. Maybe golf is just another business after all and what counts is the checque at the end. The ethics of Millions of $s in prize money is highly questionable in any case and could quite possibly turn gentlemen into predators.It has definately turned golf as a noble sport per se into another media circus with sponsor value the top of the agenda. Pity really for one of the last bastions of the spirit of sport.

  • Comment number 13.

    Mickelson is a disgrace.

    He's so mummified in the american corporate mindset that he has become blinded to the fact that the game of golf is far more important than the profits of the corporations who exist for no other reason but to service it. If these corporation are acting contrary to the best interests of the game, it is up to the game to actively find a way to drive them out of business.

    If Ping kick up a fuss, the PGA should set up an approved list of club manufacturers - with no Ping on it. Screw them.

  • Comment number 14.

    To buzzardstubble, the baseball final named "world series" was so named because "THE WORLD" newspaper out of New York sponsored it initially way back there.
    To golf, I am AMAZED nobody has mentioned standardizing the golf ball as an anecdote to the games so called ILLS. This will in fact ensure superstars will remain superstars. (Ask Roger Federer)
    Standardize the ball, use discretion & limits on the clubs,as laid down by the R & A, of which my DAd was a committee member for decades, and the cream will still rise to the top. And I will still want to watch them perform heroics EVERY CHANCE I GET. !!!!!!!!

  • Comment number 15.

    The case against Woods is quite simple, whatever he did in his private life is his own affair's, but his attitude to the game has been less than desirable, the throwing of the clubs, swearing and worst of all is his attitude to fans both young and old.It is only now that other proffesionals and fans have been able to comment before it was common knowledge but he was god and so no one critised.
    As for the others Faldo etc "billy no mates come to mind"

  • Comment number 16.

    I think it's fine to criticise Tiger for certain aspects of both his on course and off course behaviour. He's not God. All he is is the greatest ever golfer and one of the top ten greatest ever individuals in sport. Any sport. On the clubs, I'm with Phil. I think we should let technology do what it's supposed to do - improve things. So long as the same equipment is available to all players, I don't see the problem. Within reason, obviously, one wouldn't want to see nuclear fusion powered balls, this sort of thing. But grooves on wedges? No, don't see any need to interfere with that.

  • Comment number 17.

    For those saying they don't see a problem with U-groove clubs - R&A tests showed that with longer irons U-groove clubs actually generated more spin from the rough than the fairway.

    What's the point in watching golf if the guy 200 yards from the pin in rough is able to control the ball better than the player 180 away in the middle of the fairway?

    The loophole needs closing, and frankly Mickelson needs his mouth stapled shut. My heart bleeds for manufacturers such as Ping and Titleist making millions profit from golf.

    On the Woods issue - spitting, swearing and lcub throwing should not be tolerated, and as someone else pointed out really the cigar smoking should be limited, and certainly not publicised the way it is with Jimenez and Clarke.

    Off the course, I couldn't care what Woods does, but it does grate that he made so much money out of his holier-than-thou family-man image. If your going to live the John Daly lifestyle, at least be man enough to be upfront about it!

  • Comment number 18.

    I''m sure some PR flunky somewhere is considering suggesting Tiger turn up wherever he turns up with a 20+ year old ping wedge in the hope it may take some heat off of him lol.

    It's no surprise Mickelson stepped up here though. He's a corporate man whether it be KPMG, Bearing Point, Barclays have been greatly prominent before the Golf brands like Callaway so he'll be there to defend big business interests and I might not like it but I can't say I criticise him for it.

    See the matchplay at Arizona is suggested for a return for Tiger. Carter has put his reputation on the line to suggest he won't but on the flip would go some way to build bridges with Accenture (or at least he has a relationship in place and can talk with them over the additional media interest his appearance will cause), is a tournament he's won but, crucially, he can also crash out after one day for whatever reason where he'd have to stay two with stroke play. So winning outright or crashing out on day one won't cause too much worry on the golfing side. And if he doesn't come back soon then he will have to write off Majors this year he's considered to have a good chance of claiming. It's all very well Watson and Nicklaus saying their pieces and I'm sure Tiger wants to pursue the 'say nothing' approach that he's perfected and which left Fuzzy and Kelly swinging in the wind (and i'm sure he'd be dragged kicking and screaming into an Oprah style interview with Kelly on the Golf Channel) but Daly and Faldo might just be voices of reason here for him lol!!

  • Comment number 19.

    Why is anyone moaning about the rule change? They've known about it for long enough to practise with the new grooves, and they're supposed to be professionals. To say it is not fair sounds a bit childish to me. The old grooves made it so easy for them to hit out of the rough and spin the ball on the green - just more target golf from all over the course. They already have bunkers which are not hazards - where is the premium on accuracy if they can spin the ball out of the rough aswell? Is the game tee to green now only about power?

    As for the manufacturers, I am sure they will find a way to make money out of any rule change. Anyway, how the game is played is more important than their commercial interests. The governing bodies should tell them what the rules are, and that should be an end to it. Any manufacturer that challenges the governing bodies should not be supported or tolerated.

  • Comment number 20.

    What a good point Lovegolf0712 makes about target golf from anywhere on the course. The game of golf as conceived is being watered down to a bullseye competition, just to provide more oohs and aaghs for TV. Course design has pandered to this also, see the earlier comments about rough. When I learnt the game there was a narrow fringe then straight into 'rhubabrb' like grass. Final point, no matter how many majors he ends up with Woods will never be a greater golfer than Nicklaus, who won his majors playing percentage golf, not just pulling out a magic wand from the bag. For the same reason, you cannot compare a present day fighter pilot who engages a radar blip with a 'fire & forget missile', to the guy who shot down 25 in 1940 in a Spitfire!

  • Comment number 21.

    "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."

    It has become clear? Sorry. Says whom? Stop trying to spin the agenda the way you'd like it to be.

    "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)."

    Nonsense. He may well have been irritated re. the rule change but he (and Daly etc) did this because they knew they could. They know what the Rule was meant to achieve and they went against it anyway for an advantage. Shame on them. PM is backtracking now solely due to the row using the convenient excuse that this is what he wanted to achieve. I don't think so.

    Assuming he was trying to "make a point", this is about as dumb a way to do it as I can think of.

    It's long past the point where the R&A/USGA should be able to make the Rules and the manufacturers should have to put up and shut up.

  • Comment number 22.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 23.

    The R&A and USGA must always have the last word on what you can use. The day manufacturers can invent what they want will see the skill of the game eroded further and the rich have the advantage at club level through affording all the gadgets and new clubs. The Pro's drive the ball with boring ease these days thanks to modern drivers, can you imagine if there was no limits on them at all !! I understand some players frustrations but the governing bodies restrict certain developements to defend the purity of the game. Lose that and you lose the challenge, which is the point of playing.

  • Comment number 24.

    Everybody seems to be concentrating on the grooves on the clubs how they have changed and how they they need to take a step backwards.

    But just as fundemental and possibly more of a step forward over the last few years is the progression of the golf ball, this would have been a better starting point to have gone back to, to find a solution to making the game of golf a little bit more exciting to watch.

    There is going to be a limit to how long you can make a golf course or extend an old course but what they need to do is get back to when a ball in light rough would cause the player to have to think about what it will cost if he misses the green instead of just having to guess at what distance it is then slug at it.............

    People talk about Tiger having repect for golf but what about everybodies respect for Tiger it is a two way street..............

  • Comment number 25.

    I'm not sure that the new grooves do have a huge effect on spin. I got a new set with the grooves about 2 weeks ago and I actually think I generate more spin with them.

    They certainly pull up faster than my old irons but maybe thats because they are new.



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