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The memories are still fresh. Perhaps more so for those who participated than for the rest of us relegated to being spectators. The US Open at Pebble Beach represented many different story lines. It was the national championship, which in part meant challenges were on full display. Perhaps part of its attraction is that it annually reduces the best of the best down to a version of weekend warriors. After all, not one player in the field finished breaking par, a feat that shouldn’t be completely overlooked.
Players described the difficulty of the course, which was viewed by some as criticism. It’s easy to randomly categorize these as the equivalent of sour grapes. However, no one believes at first they are the reason for a car crash, yet everyone slows down to watch it. The US Open can be considered the equivalent of a massive pile up where players are bounced all over the place. The 14th green certainly provided an excellent illustration of this, just don’t ask Zach Johnson, Ian Poulter or Paul Casey for their thoughts. Its been said there’s no crying in baseball and that can easily be applied to other sports, including golf.
This year’s US Open was the first time participants tackled the test using V shaped grooves. As any avid or passionate golfer understands, the USGA motto is to take the challenge as close to the limit as possible with going over the top. Not an easy thing to do, even if it is to say. To begin with the players were looking at much smaller greens (believed to be on average 3,300 square feet) than they regularly do (estimated to be 6,000 square feet on Tour or about twice the size of Pebble’s). For quite some time this was considered a liability for Pebble Beach since anywhere on the green would afford a reasonable birdie effort. Or if the green were missed in regulation a par putt wouldn’t be too far off. Well as Davis Love III, Phil Mickelson and the champ himself, Graeme McDowell can attest, if you miss it on the wrong side (above the hole more often than not) as they did on #10 on Sunday, it lead to a three-putt. Mickleson’s first attempt in the final round for birdie was from six feet on 10, keep in mind it missed the hole by an eighth of an inch to rest 15 feel away from its intended location.
With making the course firm and fast, the USGA effectively managed to eliminate the driver from the equation. Well almost as Dustin Johnson might have been better off without his on Sunday. Nevertheless, the groove rule instituted this year was in part believed to be a means to force players to forsake distance for accuracy. At Pebble Beach, one of the most glorious of locations perhaps anywhere in the world, players were given a steady diet of rock hard surfaces and less spin that a year prior to try and tackle it. “They really changed the game dramatically from a recovery stand point,” said Dave Pelz. The short game guru watched with particular interest and came away with a few observations. “The game has swung particularly to ball striking,” he said. “ I don’t want to knock Seve, especially with his health but he would have had no chance and he was a short game magician. Only 18% of the field hit the 17th green in regulation. If you landed it on, it bounced over. Players were standing on the tee with very little chance to hit the green and they were tying to decide where to miss it,” he continued.
While the best of the best have an uncanny knack for making the game appear easy, they found ways to escape or limit the price they paid for missing a green. Well, almost as the 14th can attest to. “There was a 9 and seven 8s on the 14th hole,” Pelz said. “Two of them were Ian Poulter and Paul Casey who were tied for the lead and neither of them had a penalty shot.” Fans love to see demigods appear human even if its only one week a year. The USGA through its US Open supplies it more times than not. Meanwhile, the V shape grooves used by the players went by largely unnoticed due in part to the spectacular setting and drama supplied by the willing participants.
While the real world enjoyed its vicarious experience, it may come as a shock to some that the pain and suffering on display could be coming to a golf course near you in the foreseeable future. While PGA Tour players are masters of the green in regulation stat, the rest of the world clearly isn’t. “The USGA in their data concluded that amateurs only hit 13% of greens in regulation. They concluded that the groove change wouldn’t matter to them (amateurs). Where they have it wrong is that all amateurs eventually find the green. It may be after they’re third or fourth shots, but it’s almost always by using their wedge,” Pelz said. He has some real world experience in the department as he is known in part for his short game golf schools. “The request I get more often than not from my students is how can I get more spin?” he said. “I make my living teaching the game and sooner or later amateur players hit the green by using their wedges.” As the big boys showed last week they can be reduced down to mere mortals when extreme conditions are presented to them. But as we all know, looks can be deceiving.
When they peg it up at St Andrews for the Open Championship, the green complexes will be significantly larger that what they appeared at Pebble Beach. And no one has control over Mother Nature, so if conditions somehow become less than firm (The Old Course is virtually on the North Sea and subject to whatever conditions it delivers) it could be a much different short game experience. “They will tear it up if the conditions are soft,” Pelz predicted.
While the worldwide tours represent the peak of the pyramid and influence golfers everywhere, change is coming. At the end of 2010, equipment manufacturers will no longer offer square shaped wedges, which means the masses will one day carry a V shaped groove in their wedges. According to Pelz, the surprise waiting for consumers won’t be a pleasant one. “There is less spin with the V shaped grooves by a factor of two. Or in other words, you will get half the spin off V groove wedges” he said. “And grooves wear down, whether its after one year or 10.”
Bobby Jones Golf, which Pelz has an affiliation with, is urging golfers to try its Pelz Wedge Collection by Jesse Ortiz. The Collection features square grooves using a high-tech German alloy Cronidur 30 face material, which is considered a remarkably wear-resistant metal alloy that maintains both face friction and groove integrity far longer than conventional wedges. Under the new USGA regulations, golfers that purchase the square groove clubs this year can use them until 2024, which by default makes wedge durability an important issue unless someone is prepared to stock up on their personal inventory before the end of the year or while supplies last. The company has devoted an online resource for golfers to learn more (read the science on square grooves versus V grooves) about this topic that hasn’t likely resonated with the masses, at least not yet.
“Why spend money on cheaper wedges that will wear out in one season?” asks Ortiz. “After next year, golfers will not be able to find square-groove wedges on the market, and their inexpensive wedge will be costing them strokes. Their pro shop will only be carrying low spin V-grooves. The Pelz Wedge Collection from Bobby Jones Golf will deliver years of high-spin performance. They are the best investment a golfer can make in their short game for years to come.”
The worldwide tours have adopted the condition of competition rule that for now appears to be a story about nothing even if the jury is still out in the minds of the USGA. Scoring levels in 2010 haven’t experienced inflation. Tour player strategies, by in large haven’t been influenced by the decision even in the harshest of conditions. Yet for the rank and file who fund the golf industry from tee times to equipment purchases the same results are highly unlikely. “There has been lip service devoted towards growing the game,” said Pelz, “all they (USGA) have done is make it harder for the average player around the world.”