Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 4, 2010

Groovy, man.

While Ben Crane was winning the PGA tournament in San Diego last weekend, the play on the course was overshadowed by controversy over the grooves on players irons.  The new golf season has seen the introduction of a new rule requiring all irons to have V-shaped grooves, which make it harder to put spin on the ball, especially when hitting from the rough.  But in putting the new rule in place, the USGA, the R&A, and the PGA Tour had to accommodate a legal settlement with Karsten Manufacturing, makers of the Ping brand of golf equipment, from way back in 1993.  Ping at the time was the premiere manufacturer of square-grooved clubs, and Karsten Solheim, founder of the company, fought tenaciously with golf’s rule-making authorities to keep his company’s products in both professional and amateur’s bags.  After several years of litigation and untold attorney’s fees spent on both sides, an agreement was reached by which Ping agreed to modify their clubs to the more common U-shaped groove in exchange for the square grooved Ping Eye2 clubs being deemed legal in perpetuity.  Thus the ban on U-grooved clubs and requirement that only V-grooves be used had an exception as wide as the first fairway at Augusta National; namely that Ping Eye2 clubs made before 1990 could still be used. 

Scott McCarron, a 44 year old journeyman whose most recent PGA victory (his third overall) came on April Fool’s Day of 2001, started the fire when he accused Phil Mickelson of cheating because Mickelson had announced his intention to put one of the 20 year old Ping wedges in his bag for the tournament.  Mickelson responded with repeated use of the word “slander.”  The Tour put out a statement emphasizing that the Ping Eye2 clubs were legal under the settlement agreement, and to suggest otherwise was “at best inappropriate.”  McCarron then clarified his remarks, sort of.  He hadn’t said that Mickelson was a cheater, just that carrying the square-grooved Ping wedge was cheating.  

Hmmm, carrying the wedge is cheating, one who cheats would normally be identified as a cheater, Phil was carrying the wedge.  Okay Scottie, I’m sure there’s a distinction there somewhere that I’m just missing.  Or perhaps not, since McCarron has now publicly apologized to Mickelson. 

Now the PGA Tour is trying to figure out what to do about a rule that players clearly don’t like.  At least for this week’s tournament at Riviera Country Club in L.A. the status quo remains in place.  Mickelson has said he won’t carry the Ping wedge this week, while reserving the right to put it back in his bag in the future.  Meanwhile two things stand out to me. 

First, Scott McCarron seems to have a bad case of wedge envy.  Phil Mickelson wasn’t the only golfer with an Eye2 wedge in his bag (the Tour has said there were at least five), nor was San Diego the first stop in the new season where the non-conforming but legal anyway clubs were in play.  But this was Phil’s first appearance of 2010, and somehow calling Dean Wilson a cheater just doesn’t have the same zing to it.  Which is kind of sad.  Surely McCarron must know that he owes a significant part of a very nice lifestyle (McCarron’s won $11.5 million in his career while winning, as I noted earlier, exactly three times), to Phil and Tiger and the handful of other elite players who people will come out to the course or turn on their television to see.  That doesn’t mean that elite players shouldn’t be subject to criticism.  But McCarron was at the Sony Open in Hawaii where John Daly, Dean Wilson, and others carried Ping Eye2 wedges, and he offered up not a peep of complaint. 

Second, because in the end this has to be all about me, why am I feeling like I’ve been hosed for years?  Ping has introduced at least nine new iron models since the Eye2.  Each of those models has of course been touted as a dramatic improvement on its predecessor, with promises of more distance or greater control or enhanced feel or, most of the time, all of the above.  And if one was inclined to be skeptical of Ping’s marketing claims, well then perhaps one would have found the competing claims of Callaway and Titleist and TaylorMade and innumerable other club manufacturers more compelling as they released a similar number of latest and greatest, this is going to change your game overnight, sets of clubs.  But now we are being told by the best golfers in the world that being able to make the ball stop on a dime or back up ten feet after it lands on the green is of greater importance than all of the other supposed improvements in club-making technology over the past two decades.  Man I wish I’d known that before I spent all that money on who knows how many new sets of irons over the past twenty years. 

Of course the real problem in San Diego may have been the fact that Phil’s putter didn’t have any grooves at all.  Maybe if he putts with his wedge this week, he won’t go backwards on Sunday.

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