Who would have believed a controversy over tiny grooves used in the clubs of PGA professionals would divert golf fans' attention away from Tiger Woods?
But that's what PGA Tour player Scott McCarron did when he basically accused Phil Mickelson of cheating (without actually saying it) during last week's Farmers Insurance Open in San Diego.
Mickelson, who generally uses Callaway clubs, used a Ping Eye 2 square-grooved club last week, his first tournament of the year. Those clubs are not illegal, but more on that later. McCarron said to the San Francisco Chronicle, "I'm appalled Phil has put (the controversial wedge) into play. … As one of our premier players, (Mickelson) should be one of the guys who steps up and says this is wrong.''
McCarron has since apologized for calling out Mickelson, and Mickelson on Wednesday accepted the apology and said he will take the Ping Eye 2 wedge out of play at this week's Northern Trust Open in Los Angeles. But Mickelson still called the new groove rule "ridiculous'' and hinted that he would put the wedge back in play if a loophole wasn't fixed.
This all started when the United States Golf Association and PGA Tour agreed to ban square-grooved clubs beginning this season.
So what the heck is a square-grooved club? What do grooves do, anyway? Why is it being called cheating? Does it make a difference to the amateur golfer? We try our best to explain.
Here's how this whole thing got started: In the early 1980s the USGA ruled that square grooves conformed to their regulations. So, in 1984 the Ping Eye 2 irons and wedges were introduced to the market. In 1985, the company slightly rounded the grooves, and the USGA believed they did not conform to the rules.
The argument was over how the grooves were measured. They were farther apart (by .005 inches) and slightly deeper. While Ping and the USGA were arguing, the PGA stepped in and banned square grooves beginning with the 1990 season. Ping, which was the only company making square grooves at this time, went to court against both the USGA and the PGA Tour. They settled quickly with the USGA. The USGA made a point-by-point procedure for measuring grooves and agreed to grandfather in the square-grooved clubs made between 1986 and March 31, 1990.
The PGA Tour fought on until 1993, then finally decided to agree with Ping's deal with the USGA. Modified square grooves have been legal on the tour until this year.
The USGA initiated new rules banning square grooves altogether, and the PGA agreed. They also accepted the 1990 and '93 rulings about grandfathering in the Ping Eye 2s. So as the rule stands now, if a player can find the irons or wedges from that 1986-90 era, they can play them.
"I know a lot of guys are buying them off eBay,'' John Daly told the Associated Press.
Why is it 'cheating'?
In a 2006 technical report on square grooves, the USGA stated that the square grooves resulted in higher spin rates and steeper ball landing angles. They believed it gave players better control out of the rough, and as difficulty for those shots decreased, it put less importance on driving accuracy.
McCarron's contention is that Mickelson never used the Ping Eye 2s before this year, so why is he bringing them out now? Mickelson, who is one of the best short-game players in the world, correctly points out that the clubs are not illegal. He said he used the Ping Eyes at Arizona State and had them in his garage. He is not the only tour player using them right now. Daly, Hunter Mahan and Dean Wilson also have them in their bags.
Some other tour players seem to think using the clubs is a gray area.
"The rules are rules, and if it's allowed by the rules of golf, sure, you can use it,'' Tampa's Ryuji Imada said. "But I don't agree with it. I don't know how else to say it. If everybody else is having to play the V grooves, I think everyone should have to play the conforming grooves."
"Cheating is not the right word to use," Robert Allenby said, "but it's definitely an advantage.''
Finding the clubs
Ping has not made the square-grooved irons and wedges since the ruling, so players either have the clubs in their garages or have to find them in golf shops or on sites such as eBay. And boy, are people trying to find them.
According to Steve Pitts, who owns Steve's World of Golf in Hudson, demand for the Ping Eye 2s has been impossible to keep up with. He said by Tuesday he received 78 e-mails from people asking about the clubs. There have also been more than 20 customers coming into the store asking about them.
"I honestly can't believe how many customers want the irons,'' Pitts said. "It's just because the USGA approved them to be on the PGA Tour. As a golf store owner I'm going to try as hard as I can to meet their request.''
Pitts has Ping Eye 2s in his store, but only sells them as sets. They go for $229 for 2-iron through wedge. He doesn't sell individual Ping Eye 2 clubs.
Ben Smith, owner of T and D Golf in Tampa, does have two sets of the Ping Eye 2 irons, but he has pulled them from his shelf. He also has a rare Ping Eye 2 beryllium copper wedge that he was selling for $300, but that price just went up a few hundred dollars.
"I'm thinking of using them as a retirement plan,'' Smith said. "I never thought these clubs would have this kind of controversy.''
Larry Hibbler of Edwin Watts Golf Shop in Palm Harbor doesn't have any of the Ping Eye 2s in stock, and it is the same story at most golf shops around town. Pitts said the best place to find them is on eBay.
A quick check of the online auction site showed a wide variety of Ping Eye 2 Black Dots, Red Dots, Orange Dots and Copper square-grooved clubs. They ranged from $999 for a full set of new irons to $20 for a single iron. In most cases, the irons wouldn't be in good enough shape for a touring pro to put them in his bag, but they would be just what an amateur is looking for.
Why do grooves matter?
There are U-shaped grooves, which are called square grooves, and there are V-shaped grooves. Only the V-shaped grooves are legal on tour.
Grooves on clubs are important because they produce spin on the ball, which can make it go higher and land softer on the green. They are particularly important on clubs with 25 degrees of loft or more because of the spin they provide. Grooves also channel away grass and moisture. The deeper and more U-shaped the grooves, the more grass and moisture get dispersed and the more spin a golfer gets from the rough.
Grooves matter to pros because they can consistently produce the right angle and club head speed to spin the ball. But amateurs can also benefit because if they hit the ball correctly, square grooves can spin more than V grooves.
"It's a big advantage to a good player, but it's still an advantage to a weaker player,'' St. Petersburg Country Club head professional and teaching pro Terry Decker said. "If you've got a little bit more edge on the groove, you can catch it and spin it a lot more. You may not be able to spin it as much as a pro, but you'll get fewer of those flyers from the rough that don't have any spin.''