The Case For Groove Regulation

In the past couple of seasons on the PGA Tour, average driving distance trending has been flat to a very minor increase or decrease. Of course, there are a lot of factors that determine driving distance — weather conditions, course conditions, and situational play — but the average of a 40-plus-event season tends to eliminate those factors as influential.

With that in mind, there has been some suggestion — particularly from bloggers Bomb and Gouge over at Golf Digest — that the USGA may not necessarily have to enact its proposed groove changes that we are still yet to have a final decision on from the governing bodies. Michael Johnson ("Boom") hypothesizes that if the boon of driving distance increase has been capped by regulation to date by the USGA, that there is no need to bring grooves into the equation. In essence, he is saying that the power of technology has been effectively capped and that it is not necessary to create additional rules to clutter the game and bifurcate it further.

Now, we have not heard anything from the USGA on the subject recently in terms of a final decision. We do not even know if the USGA is eventually going to implement the regulations that they proposed and have kept in the forefront of the golf world for almost three years. Rather than speculate on what the USGA will do in the end, it seems more interesting to turn to the PGA Tour and consider whether or not trends have a trickle down impact on the game.

In particular, I began to wonder why driving distances on the PGA Tour were flat. Is it because technology has been effectively regulated to the point that players could not get another drop of distance? Or is it that players are responding to tighter fairways and more difficult setups by approaching courses more conservatively?

In several recent tournaments, I have anecdotally seen a number of players use metalwoods and hybrid irons off of the tee more and more often. Tiger Woods is especially notorious for not using a driver off of the tee. But it can be difficult to prove whether or not those anecdotes are actually true across the board on the PGA Tour.

The best statistic I could think of to use is the average approach distance for players to par 4's and 5's on the PGA Tour. I contacted the good folks at the PGA Tour for some information that might help inform the discussion. They provided me with information about the average approach distance for every non-drivable par 4 and every par 5 on the Tour from 2006 through so far in 2008. I then went and looked at the data on a macro level to try and decipher any trends.

First, let's set the stage for hole distances. There has been a lot of talk — I am among the talkers — of the impact of lengthening holes as a result of the distance boom. While that certainly is true over the longer term, in the past three years, the PGA Tour has not over compensated for the increase in distance seen in the last 15. The average par 4 and par 5 length over the last three seasons has been within less than 2 yards of each other. The average PGA Tour par 4 — not-drivable — plays to a length of about 447 yards. For par 5s, that average is 562 yards. The point of displaying this data is that, on the average, the PGA Tour has not increased the length of run of the mill par 4s and 5s. While there has been a slight increase in the number of drivable par 4s, they are not included in this data set. Therefore, how players react to holes should not be impacted by their distance.

Then, just to prove the point that distance increases have been neutralized over the past three seasons, let's take a look at the average driving distance on the par 4s. Over the past two seasons, the average distance off of the tee of these holes was about 290 yards. This season, so far, there has been a dip to 286 — but it is early still. I leave out par 5s because the data may not accurately reflect driving distances given that some players will opt to lay up off of the tee on some strategy holes. That is also something to consider when thinking about average approach length.

Now, here's the real finding that surprised me. There has been almost zero change over the past three seasons in the average approach shot distance from this category of par 4s and to all par 5s on the PGA Tour. For par 4s, there was a 0.6 yard difference between the last two full seasons. For par 5s, less than 0.1-yard difference. Basically, guys do not appear to be adjusting their games by hitting shorter clubs off of the tee. There is almost no chance given that the averages are so close together year over year.

So, what are the conclusions? Well, for one, we know that these guys are going to continue to play their game no matter what the PGA Tour throws their way in course setups. The distance game is here, and no amount of fairway pinching seems to be stopping them. Also, the data seems to validate the crowd out there that is calling for a halt to regulation given that driving distances have stopped increasing.

I beg to differ, though. Geoff Shackelford did a piece for Golf World that followed around Mark Russell, a PGA Tour staffer devoted to course setups. Russell is an advocate for the grooves proposal because he feels it will lead to more interesting setups and more options to play. He is quoted in the piece saying, "If you have rough where all a player can do is chop it out, he is going to pitch it out, have a short iron in, and the worst he's going to make is bogey. But quite often he'll make par. If you give him a situation where he can get 6-iron on the ball and it comes out red hot, then you bring all sorts of other scores into it. That's more interesting and better for spectating."

While driving distances do appear to have leveled off, golf setups have not been throttled back in relationship to that fact. Setups still feature deep, thick, penal rough that eliminates options. Players still appear to be responding to such setups with a power game that takes chances against landing in the deep stuff, or perfectly playable light rough, or the fairway. Basically, they play the power game because the consequences are predictable.

If a grooves proposal would allow setups to have shorter rough and create a wider variety of lies, then perhaps it would achieve the kinds of changes that I have been advocating by rolling back the golf ball. It could return shotmaking to play out of the rough and a level of unknown to shots not coming out of the short stuff. That is really the point of the rough — not to force an automatic chip out, but to force the player into difficult, analytical decision making. The tidal effect could result in less pins that are tucked into unreachable places, more diverse scoring, and allow for more styles to succeed on Tour.

The case I am making is for regulation — both of the golf ball and of grooves. No matter what happens with grooves, the power game has not really been addressed. It should be. In the interim, though, power does not appear to be getting bigger of a problem. The biggest problem is a lack of imagination in course setup and variety in play because of deep rough, small fairways, and crazy pins. If grooves regulation can solve that problem, then that will improve the sport and address a significant issue. And, as a USGA member, I am ardently in favor of things done for the good of the game.

Leave a Comment

Featured Site