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February 04, 2010

Daily Flogging: Phil Mickelson rests his case, but groove issue persists

Phil Mickelson will not use his controversial Ping Eye2 wedge this week at the Northern Trust Open. "My point has been made," he said.

Phil's motivation is exactly what I predicted it was -- a scripted move to effectively flip the bird to the United States Golf Association for banning square grooves in such a haphazard manner, and for not approving some Callaway wedges even though they were conforming. Phil's use of the old wedge was probably never going to be more than a one-week statement, and all the ill will and bad publicity guaranteed it was a one-off.

Randy Youngman wrote as much in the Orange County Register

Listening to him, and reading between his lines, it sounded as if Mickelson had planned to stir up the controversy to protest the USGA's decision to implement the 2010 rule changes related to grooves in irons. ...

"I think it was a ridiculous rule change and even worse timing," Mickelson said. "It's cost manufacturers millions of dollars. It was unnecessary. It was an attempt to show power. And the arbitrary judgment of one man (who) can take a conforming club and rule it non-conforming based on his emotion, this type of transparency has got to change. It's killing the sport. It's killing the manufacturers." And, Mickelson added, "I was prepared for the controversy and debate. I wasn't prepared to be singled out. I wasn't prepared to be accused of violating the rules."

The man Mickelson is talking about is Dick Rugge, the USGA's senior technical director who is responsible for determining what equipment is legal. Mickelson did threaten to put his Pings back in play if the loophole isn't closed.

Mickelson, always conscious of being a spin doctor (no pun intended), tried to make this episode (which gave golf another black eye just when it didn't need one) into a feel-good moment. He claimed he took the Ping out of his bag out of respect to the players who honored his wife, Amy, during Colonial last year with a pink-out day in support of her battle with breast cancer. Said Phil, "Out of respect for them, I do not want to have an advantage over anybody, whether it's perceived or actual."

Feel free to take that comment with a grain of salt, or more like two tons of it. Get serious. If he really meant what he said, Mickelson wouldn't have put the Ping wedge in play in the first place. He disrespected them last week, but this week he's respecting them?

Meanwhile, PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem finally joined the fray Wednesday, holding a press conference at Riviera to discuss the grooves issue and what the Tour intends to do about it. The short answer is nothing, at least not yet.

Finchem did outline the Tour's three options. (If you're already tired of this grooves deal, Jeff Rude in Golfweek provided the most succinct and understandable version of Finchem's comments.) Option one is to do nothing, which isn't acceptable because it raises the issue of fairness. Option two, which appears to be what the Tour is hoping for, is for Ping's John Solheim to waive the legal loophole his company won in the '90s for the good of the game. Option three is for a five-person committee to wade through a process to decide whether the loophole should be overruled for the good of the game. Solheim has already said he doesn't think the Tour can legally do that. Finchem said he thinks it can. Option three, therefore, is a handoff to the lawyers. Which means it's a lousy option.

Especially for the PGA Tour, whose track record in courts of law isn't very good. Finchem was the man, you may recall, who decided to take the Casey Martin cart case all the way to the Supreme Court.

Rex Hoggard of GolfChannel.com pointed out the Tour's history, and its efforts in this instance:

It's worth noting the Tour's record in the court room is below the Mendoza Line, at best. The truth is that if it wasn't for Doug Barron the circuit would still be on the legal schneid...

On Wednesday Finchem offered a rare mea culpa, saying the circuit wasn't prepared for the fallout the grandfathered implement caused. "The assumption was made last year that very few, if any, players would use that club because they're 20 years old," Finchem said.

Never mind, of course, that he had a letter from Ping CEO John Solheim on his desk nearly two years earlier warning about exactly that possibility. Nostradamus didn't have that kind of vision.

But then finger pointing is of little use now. All that matters is that a game that once held itself above all others has now been linked, however incorrectly, to cheating. More than 6.2 million times, according to a simple Google search Wednesday afternoon.

The grooves story will now shift away from which players are using the clubs to Solheim, the one man who can make this controversy vanish. Steve Elling made Solheim the focal point of his column on CBSSports.com:

Two decades after his late father, Karsten Solheim, fought tooth-and-nail with the golf superpowers so that his toothy Ping clubs weren't outlawed for play, his son John represents the quickest solution to the game's messiest rules loophole in years. ...

John Solheim, the CEO of Ping, can make it all go away. Finchem spoke with Solheim on Friday, and the latter said he would be willing to discuss a possible solution to the grooves rift, although Finchem isn't sure what sort of demands he might make or leverage he might exert. Solheim's got plenty of it. ...

There's much for Solheim to consider because the 1993 agreement between the company and the golf powers is a deeply personal affair. A quarter-century ago, Ping's player-friendly clubs were effectively marked for extinction by rulemakers and Karsten spent a small fortune on lawyers fighting for the company's economic survival. The Eye 2 agreement was a result of that legal wrangling.

Karsten Solheim, perhaps the greatest innovator in golf history... created the square groove -- not to mention the astoundingly successful Anser putter -- as part of his legacy. Small wonder, then, that on principle alone, his son isn't likely to dismiss the Eye 2 stipulation lightly.

So where does that leave us? Well, there is hope, perhaps, because the one thing in favor of a quick sweep under the rug is the fact that no one stands to really gain from allowing the Eye2s to remain legal, not counting a few club collectors. Part of the original settlement was that Ping could no longer manufacture clubs with those grooves. Since Ping isn't going to sell any more Eye 2s, maybe Solheim will put a quick end to this controversy.

There is more to the story, however. Mark Whicker nailed it with his lead in the Orange County Register:

The U.S. Golf Association knew pro golfers were entitled to use a certain U-grooved wedge even if it outlawed such a clubs. It did so anyway ...

There is no short version, but let's try to summarize it before recess.

The USGA announced a ban on U-grooves, or square grooves, because it wanted to discourage players from bashing drives into the rough and then spinning shots close to the hole. It was tired of Woods and Mickelson and Singh and others hitting five of 18 fairways and shooting 67.

But it ignored the fact that Karsten Manufacturing, which puts out Ping equipment, already had sued the USGA over this and, in the settlement, agreed to stop manufacturing the club as long as the USGA refused to ban it.

Thus the Ping Eye 2 wedge remained available to PGA Tour players even though it does not conform to current rules.

Whicker also dug up a good stat: The average drive on Tour (although it's early, and this stat could be affected by soggy West Coast conditions) is down this year from 287.9 yards to 281.2. It's far too soon to conclude that six-yard reduction is due to a new emphasis on hitting fairways or on players switching to a softer ball, but maybe the groove rule is starting to work by putting an emphasis on accuracy.

The real story is that we're haggling about grooves now because the USGA and the R&A are unwilling to address the golf ball, as many greats of the game (Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player) have suggested. The grooves rule is a backdoor way to encourage players to use softer golf balls and thus give up a few yards off the tee.

Finally, Diane Pucin becomes this year's first entrant in the Daily Flogging's Hall of Cliche Kickers, which is reserved for writers who use an all-purpose, well-worn, two-word phrase to end an article. Here's how she concluded her Los Angeles Times piece on the McCarron-Mickelson grooves dust-up:

McCarron said Tuesday he knows he was wrong in one respect. "I shouldn't have brought any player into this," he said. "But I've also heard from a lot of guys that everybody should be on the same playing field. This issue should have been resolved before Jan. 1."

But it hasn't. Stay tuned.

Rest assured that's not the last "stay tuned" you'll see in 2010.

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