Mickelson, PING & Golf's Polemical New Grooves Rule

"Golf is a game about suffering and despair, interspersed with glimmers of hope,'' opined Frank Hannigan, a contributing editor of Golf Magazine and former president of the United States Golf Association. ''It can be alleviated by going into a store and buying something."

So begins an article by Jeffrey Lener that appeared in The New York Times on June 25, 1989. The piece has a retro feel to it. Nothing too tangible, but a certain restraint that would hardly be acceptable in the snark-filled waters of today's golf media. Mr. Lener writes about the era's advances in golf equipment technology, and how they were causing questions to be raised regarding the rules of golf. Today's "Groove Controversy" was actually initiated way back then and was touched upon in the article.

As a passionate-but-purely-recreational golfer, I realize my own game will never be affected by the grooves on my irons. Like many happy golf aficionados my skill set doesn't involve generating backspin, and probably never will.

But when I watch the PGA pros play, the counter-intuitive rollback that often happens when a ball hits the green, never fails to impressed me. ~ I vaguely knew it came from the juxtaposition of a soft ball and the sharp grooves on a lofted wedge. But in the deft hands of skilled golfers it just seemed magical.

Last fall I began hearing ominous rumblings about the "New Groove Rule" to take effect at the beginning of 2010. As I understood it, the rule would ban wedges with the "square" grooves that are used to impart that extraordinary spin. I wondered how the players who relied on this technique... to such awesome results... would adapt. I suspected there would be complaints, gripes, protests and the like, that would be normal. I imagined the USGA would be accused of nitpicking by some and probably praised by others, but ultimately A Rule Is A Rule would apply and life would go on without the square grooves.

Like the most however, I was unaware there was a legal "loophole" in the "New Groove Rule" that would create substantial controversy. The loophole is the result of a lawsuit. A lawsuit bought by iconic golf club manufacturer PING, the family owned business founded over 50 years ago by Karsten Solheim a Norwegian immigrant who took up golf at 42, fell in love with it and began designing his own innovative equipment in his garage. The success of his perimeter weighted putters led to the creation of Karsten Manufacturing... which eventually became known as PING in 1967. A couple of years later came irons and PING ultimately became one of America's largest manufacturers of golf clubs. Meanwhile, Mr. Solheim's passion for golf turned him into a benefactor for the sport. He funded University golf couses, sponsored LPGA tournaments and was the driving force behind the creation of the Solheim Cup. In 2001, a year after his death, Karsten Solheim was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame.

Over the years however, the very innovation that made PING's non-traditional clubs so successful, caused them to bump up against the USGA, golf's governing body for rules and equipment, a number of times. For example, in the sixties all but one of PING's putter models were outlawed due to a bend in the shaft under the grip.

In 1989 after a series of tests indicated that in certain conditions, square grooves produced more spin than clubs with conventional V-shaped grooves, thus giving players using them a possible advantage, the USGA and the PGA Tour both issued bans against the U-shaped grooves. PING, whose Eye 2 irons were the best-selling iron in the golf marketplace at the time responded with massive lawsuits against both the USGA and the PGA Tour.

At the time, it was feared by many in golf that that a jury verdict against the USGA would severely undermine the association's authority as a rule-making organization, and early in 1990 an out-of-court settlement was reached. In it the USGA agreed to drop its ban on the use of PING Eye 2-irons. In exchange, Karsten Manufacturing agreed to stop producing the PING Eye 2-iron with the wide square groove pattern and begin producing a club with conforming grooves.

Had that been the extent of it, we probably wouldn't be having this discussion, but there was more... and what's causing so much controversy today is an additional condition in the settlement stipulating that any PING Eye 2-irons produced before March 31... despite their non-conforming grooves... would forever be deemed legal under the Rules of Golf. ~ To further muddy the waters, part of the agreement also stated that the USGA had to concede that "the dispute has been strictly of a technical nature, and there was no competitive advantage to a user of the clubs." This made the PGA Tours's legal battle, with PING... a seperate case... yet more difficult.

Flash forward 20 years: The ban on U shaped grooves is finally enacted for the PGA Tour. And... as soon as it's in effect, some players reach for the old Eye 2's. The ones that are non-conforming... but legal... due to a dubious decision in a settlement made 20 years ago.

One of the pros choosing to use the controversial clubs is world number two Phil Mickelson. Other players protest. Some say he's bending the rules... others actually accuse him of cheating. With the Tiger Woods scandal losing steam, the newly tabloidesque golf media is making the most of a fresh dose of sensationalism with headlines like: "Has Phil Mickelson replaced Tiger Woods as PGA Tours top cheater?".

Regardless of what Phil Mickelson's motivations are, I'm glad he's using the "questionable" club because if one of the top players is involved, there's at least some likely hood the the matter of "the loophole" will be addressed by those who can fix it: the PGA Tour, the USGA... and what about PING? The Karsten family has a unique and profound connection to golf. The sport is part of their family history and on a practical level its growth is key to the growth of their family business. I would think they would... and should... step up to the plate and see that this controversy is resolved, because - and this is what bothers me most - for the casual golf fan, and for those just discovering the sport, this is one more reason to think of the game as difficult, complicated, ridiculous, boring and non-inclusive. None of which are characteristics that'll help grow the game.

For an interesting look at the history of this controversy check out the following news stories from the past:

A Legal Uproar Over Dimples and Grooves
Accord Is Reached On U-Groove Irons
PGA Tour Counters Image From Lawsuit

Photos of Phil Mickelson:Donald Miralle, Getty Images - Photos of PING Irons:c/o