PALM HARBOR, Fla. -- The hyperventilating has subsided, at least a little, and at least for now.
Now that we can all exhale, warm and secure in the knowledge that Tiger Woods is going to play golf in the future and not shave his head and move to a Trappist monastery, perhaps it's a good time to eyeball the other 2010 development that has affected every PGA Tour player.
You know, the one between the ropes -- the biggest rules change in the past 75 years of the professional sport.
It's not nearly as sexy or salacious as the Tiger affair, and it doesn't make for juicy dinner-table gossip. Nobody is sext-messaging about it and potty-mouthed cartoon characters like Eric Cartman aren't lampooning it.
|David Fay of the USGA says it will probably be October before conclusions can be drawn. (Getty Images)|
As a means of measuring the rule's early impact, CBSSports.com received ShotLink data from the first 10 PGA Tour events of the season to see if the grooves rollback -- the biggest offseason topic that didn't relate to Woods -- has had a demonstrable impact. The answer might even send technically savvy fans back to the tabloids for more Tiger news.
Granted, comparing data from different seasons can never truly represent an apples-to-apples, before-and-after glimpse. Weather varies at events from season to season, and the Bob Hope Classic added a new course this year. There's even a slightly different cast of players than in 2009.
But enough of the caveats and qualifiers. As they say on Law & Order, let's proceed with the discovery portion of the investigation.
When the grooves rule was green-lighted and set to begin Jan. 1, the U.S. Golf Association boldly predicted that it not only would change the way the ball spins, flies and behaves on the green when it lands, it would prompt players to place a renewed premium on driving accuracy. Part of the rule's specified intent was to bring shotmaking and course management back into a game where raw strength had become a disproportional part of the equation.
So far, in a term the tour commissioner likes to trot out to impress people with his vocabulary, the results on both front have hardly been "impactful."
Let's begin with the intended philosophical realignment, which can't be quantified with a PGA Tour computer. Some players have switched to slightly softer balls to help offset the spin they lost with the grooves revisions. But the bomb-and-gouge mindset off the tee still seems deeply ingrained.
In an admittedly non-scientific, casual poll of a dozen players or so, none said they had altered the way they have played off the tee -- for the moment, anyway. Several pointed out that the philosophy could change as the tour plays drier courses in the spring and summer.
"I've just been playing my game, and obviously trying to hit more fairways, but I haven't really changed too much," said the winner in Phoenix, Hunter Mahan, offering a sentiment echoed by several other top players.
The actual numerical data is equally unchanged -- unless you consider a tour-wide improvement in nearly every statistical category to be good news for the rule and the USGA. Talk about unintended consequences.
In the events staged through the Honda Classic, players are actually knocking the ball closer to the hole out of the rough than they were last year, when they were armed with far toothier grooves in their irons. In 2010, they are getting up and down around the greens more frequently. Even the scoring average has dropped compared to 2009 averages.
USGA executive director David Fay said the organization likely won't scrutinize the data for a few more months. A 10-tournament section might represent 22 percent of the tour season, and for political polling might constitute a healthy sample size in an election, but in golf, there are too many variables to draw concrete conclusions at this point.
"We sort of promised ourselves that we would wait, perhaps until October or so," Fay said.
That will save them some gray hair, to be sure. A scattershot sampling of laser-generated Shotlink data so far indicates that compared to the first 10 events of 2009:
• Tour players are hitting more fairways (up .7 percent) and more greens (up 1.8 percent) than before. • The tour tracks proximity to the hole in 25-yard increments. In every measured yardage category inside 225 yards, both from the rough and fairway, players are knocking the ball closer to the hole by an overall average of nearly a foot.
• More specifically, and this is perhaps the most surprising bit of early news to be gleaned, players in the rough are enjoying more shotmaking success now than with the emery-board clubfaces of 2009. From 175 to 200 yards, players are knocking approach shots a full three feet closer from the rough. In all, players have knocked the ball an average of 14 inches closer to the hole out of the rough than last year.
• Players are making more birdies and the tour-wide scoring average in all four rounds has dropped vs. 2009 levels.
None of this is to suggest players aren't having some difficulties.
"The new V-groove rule, I played that set of R7s for five years, the same set, I had not changed," said Kenny Perry, 49. "I just loved them. I knew the distances they were going. I just knew my characteristics with the clubs. I knew what my misses were going to do with them and what they were going to do on high grass. "I've been catching fliers this year, been kind of rocketing a few over greens and into the back bunker, something I don't do. With the [old banned] square grooves, I could hardly move it out of the rough. So I always came up short of the green. You can always pitch from short [of the green]."
Now he's hitting scorching missiles into the hay behind. But in the tour's crucial scrambling stat, used to measure success in saving par around the green, players are converting at a better overall percentage than in 2009, too. The overall salvage ratio has increased by .5 percent.
Again, the sample size offers but a taste of the fare to date, and there was a huge contributing factor in the improved numbers, especially on the West Coast Swing -- rain.
"I can't think of a single tournament where we didn't have rain," PGA Tour rules official Jon Brendle said.
Pure and simple, that created softer fairways and greens, which would partly explain why driving accuracy and greens found in regulation increased vs. 2009 levels. Balls often don't roll into the rough when the fairways and greens are sopping wet, and approaches and pitch shots tend to stop in their tracks.
"Being on the West Coast, it's been pretty soft, so I don't think guys have paid attention to it," Mahan said of any philosophical overhaul off the tee. "Maybe in the summer, you may see guys adjust their games, maybe try to hit more fairways, because you definitely cannot spin out of rough."
That's a quantifiable fact. The new grooves don't allow it. But players and equipment companies are quite expert at adjusting and working around such constraints. This month, a major manufacturer trotted out a new metal shaft build specifically for wedges, designed to increase spin. It has an hourglass-style series of step-down indentations just below the grip. Mahan was already giving it a try at Doral.
As the courses get firm and fast heading into summer, the numbers are expected to gradually begin turning around, especially in pitch shots hit around the green. And even if they don't, the USGA can already claim a victory of sorts on one key front.
The flier lie -- wherein grass gets between the clubface and ball, spin imparted by the club is reduced and the ball takes off into outer space -- has been reintroduced to the professional game thanks to the abolition of the old square grooves.
Without prompting, Fay mentioned veteran Robert Allenby, who has hit two final-round fliers over the backs of greens, costing him at crucial times at the Sony Open and Torrey Pines. Allenby bluntly said fliers cost him two wins, in fact.
So, interpret the early data for what it's worth and make conclusions carefully, but Allenby can attest that failing to drive the ball in the fairway these days comes with heightened risk.
"If we can put that seed of doubt in their mind," Fay said, "if we can put that pebble in their shoe about the flier lie, then that's something."