Sunday, March 18, 1990 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Court To Decide Golf-Club Groove Controversy


Draw the letter ``v'' on a sheet of paper and next to it the letter ``u.'' Next, pluck a strand of hair from your head, stretch it between your thumbs and forefingers, close one eye and look down along the edge.

Over such differences in shape and width are two of golf's titans squandering millions of dollars in a court battle from which neither appears ready to back down.

On one side stands Karsten Solheim, whose company manufactures the Ping Eye-2 club, the most popular iron in the royal and ancient history of the game.

On the other is the PGA Tour, left by default as the guardian of golf purity in this latest renewal of the technology vs. tradition debate.

At issue is whether the grooves, or scoring lines, on the face of a golf club can make a golfer better. The answer depends on who you talk to.

Up until the 1980s, all iron manufacturers were content to make the grooves in their clubs V-shaped and there was peace throughout golfing land. In 1981, the game's rule-making body, the U.S. Golf Association, noticed that a change in the manufacturing process of irons - pioneered, in large part, by Solheim - tended to produce grooves more u-shaped than v-shaped. Two years later, the USGA approved the u-shaped, or square, groove as well.

All was quiet until June 1987, when the USGA determined that the grooves on the face of Ping Eye-2 irons were too close to each other to meet its specifications, the offending distance being the width of that fateful strand of hair.

Solheim argued that the shape of the groove gave golfers no advantage, and that the distance between grooves depended on how you took the measurement. But when the USGA proposed to ban those clubs from sanctioned competitions - the most notable of which is the U.S. Open - and the PGA Tour followed along, it touched off the ``Great Square Groove Controversy'' and set the legal fur to flying.

Solheim's lawsuit against the USGA has been settled out of court. But his complaint against the PGA Tour - which bans even those square-grooved clubs that meet the distance specifications - promises the matter won't be resolved without considerable investments of more time and money.

The unfortunate truth is that no matter who wins this round, you will not play better golf immediately. But it is worth keeping an eye on. Because it may someday yield lower scores for the millions of hackers who keep cash registers ringing, pursuing the pipe dream of trying to buy a better game.

``You buy a car today and when you go back in 10 years or so, you expect to find considerable improvements,'' Solheim, who at age 78 remains golf's most inveterate tinkerer, said over breakfast recently in Phoenix.

``We made square grooves because we found we could make them more uniform and improve the weight distribution in the head (of the club). Not to give anyone any unfair advantage.

``That's what is behind this whole thing,'' Solheim said. ``But while plenty of golfers have followed it, 99 percent of them have no real understanding what the real dispute is about.''

Undoubtedly, he is right.

Golfers have been looking for an edge since the first group of shiphands took up the game with crude balls and sticks to kill time on the walk into town while crossing Scottish pastures dotted by sheep.

But if truth be told, 99 percent of the people who play golf, as basketball coaches like to say of their poorest free-throw shooters, ``couldn't hit the ocean if they were standing on the beach.'' And most golfers couldn't play the game better no matter what shape or how close the grooves on the face of their irons happened to be.

But that may not hold true for the 1 percent at the top. After four months of testing, USGA technical director Frank Thomas determined that from a lie in light to medium rough - but not from the fairway - the Ping Eye-2 functioned much like a rain tire on a wet road. It trapped more of the grass and moisture, ensuring cleaner contact between club face and ball, and it produced a spin rate about 20 revolutions per second more than its competitors.

Insignificant as that seems, its implications were not. In the hands of a professional, it could mean that you could miss the fairway with your tee shot and still have a chance of stopping your approach on the green.

And more important, perhaps, it seemed to confirm what many of the tour's prominent elder statesmen were saying about the state of golf equipment - specifically, the ``souped-up'' golf ball and game-improvement clubs like Ping irons and metal woods - and younger players who were wielding it.

The debate carried echoes of those that followed the rubber-cored ball when it replaced the gutta-percha and when steel shafts replaced those made from hickory woods.

Tom Watson said high-tech advances had blurred the line between ``the talented and the not-so-talented.'' Jack Nicklaus said the improvements were making it ``harder for the cream to come to the top.'' Tom Kite concurred, ``If you played really primitive clubs, the best player would have an even better chance of winning.''

And Exhibit ``A'' was a youngster named Mark Calcavecchia, whose power and lack of success were once equaled only by wildness. Once he got the latter under control, however, Calcavecchia crashed the party at the top of golf's money-winning list and more than a few of the older guys muttered it was in some part because of the Ping clubs in his bag.

Solheim remains convinced that jealous competitors and not the players caught the ear of the USGA. Regardless of who turned him in, use of the clubs were ordered banned by the both the USGA and the PGA Tour. That, in turn, set the lawyers in motion.

Solheim's suit against the USGA, which initially sought $100 million in damages, was settled earlier this year. In essence, the USGA agreed that Ping Eye-2 irons already on the market will be declared legal and the company agreed to bring its specifications into line with those of the rulemaking body.

What remains is Solheim's lawsuit against the tour. He already has obtained a court injunction which allows players to continue using the irons in PGA Tour events while the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decides their fate.

Copyright (c) 1990 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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