THE Royal and Ancient golf club of St Andrews, golf's international governing body, is preparing a proposal, likely to be announced within a few weeks, which will change the specifications for grooves on irons and impact on the type of clubs used by many of the 60 million golfers around the world.
Concerns that the combination of U-grooves and thin covered balls have enabled elite players to spin approach shots from the rough - thereby minimising the importance of driving accuracy in the modern game - are behind a process which will eventually deem many irons and wedges as non-conforming for every golfer.
"Any situation which can be interpreted as a de-skilling of the game is of concern to us," warned David Rickman, the R&A's director of rules and equipment standards.
However, fears of an imminent 'Armageddon' situation in which millions of handicap golfers would suddenly find themselves forced to replace costly equipment, are certain to be allayed by a lead-in period for applying the new regulations at club level of anything from five to ten years. Professionals and elite amateurs, on the other hand, will be among the first to be affected by changes to the rules regarding the shape of grooves on irons and wedges.
Following a two-year study undertaken in conjunction with the United States Golf Association, the governing body for the game in America, the R&A issued two reports to manufacturers detailing their studies. The most recent in January concluded that "modern groove and face treatment specifications represent a significant performance improvement in terms of spin generation over more traditional V-shaped grooves."
Having undertaken the research on grooves and shared their findings with the clubmakers, the next step for the governing bodies is to put forward a proposal for change. New recommended specifications on grooves are set to be issued for consultation within weeks. The process is designed to be non-confrontational and minimise any risk of litigation.
Rickman told The Scotsman yesterday: "We are in the throes of various meetings and wouldn't want to pre-empt their outcome. But all the signs are that we're very close to going out with 'notice and comment'. That's the way new proposals are aired to the golf industry as well as other interested parties. It's a process which is likely to last anything from three to six months. This is a complex issue, as the two reports demonstrate."
The imminent progression from a technical document to a rules proposal confirms how seriously the R&A regard the issue. Peter Dawson, the chief executive, spoke last month of growing concerns about the lack of a correlation between driving accuracy and success in the modern game. Many long hitters concentrate on power off the tee at the expense of accuracy because the penalty for missing the fairway is often trivial.
"The biggest issue in front of us at the moment is the way the ball spins when hit from the rough," said Dawson. "We now see balls spinning more from two inches or three inches of rough than they do when hit from the fairway. That cannot go on. One of the reasons players hit the ball so hard is that they can spin their approach shots from the rough. It doesn't matter to them where the drive finishes, within reason.
"So we need to restore the premium on driving accuracy and the differential in spin between fairway and rough. We're not talking about people struggling to get the ball out of the rough - only that they should be struggling to control it from the longer grass. And to do that we have to come up with grooves which will create just that scenario."
Rickman believes the benefit from U-grooves was mostly experienced by top players, and indicated that any changes to equipment would have little or no bearing on the performance of most club players.
"At elite level there's growing concern about the lack of a correlation between driving accuracy and success, which appears to make driving accuracy less important," he added. "Any situation which can be interpreted as a de-skilling of the game is of concern to us. So we're trying to find a way in which we can, at least, partially redress that balance.
"The player who hits the ball onto the fairway should enjoy a benefit even over the golfer who hits it into the light rough. Right now, that's where we've been able to demonstrate that a player can generate as much spin from one inch or two-inch rough as they can from the fairway."
U-grooves, which produce a high spin rate, have been around for some time, and their impact was previously thought to be negligible.
However, Arnold Palmer, winner of eight majors and an R&A member, has long regarded their sanctioning as a mistake and is thought to be among the influential voices who have lobbied for new guidelines which will limit spin.
One rule for all
IF U-grooves only benefit a tiny minority of elite golfers, then why not ban the clubs for the pros and leading amateurs and let everyone else carry on as before? In another words, have one set of rules for scratch golfers in competitions and another set for handicap players.
This proposal is known as the bifurcation of the game. It's a concept resolutely opposed by the Royal and Ancient, which believes in one game and one set of rules.
"While there may have been different speeds for different parts of the game, ultimately it all comes together. The R&A has existed for more than 250 years and, during that time, we've played under one set of rules for everyone," said David Rickman of the R&A.