Grooves controversy much ado about nothing?

January, 31, 2010

The biggest news last week at La Jolla unfortunately didn't have anything to do with what happened Sunday -- it came Thursday, when Scott McCarron brought the grooves rule front and center to the general sporting public. The golfing public and PGA Tour professionals alike are now grappling with the question of whether taking advantage of a bizarre loophole is right or not. But how much of a difference has the rule actually made?

Trivia question

When Phil Mickelson won last year's Northern Trust Open, he became the third player to win all four current California Tour events. Who are the other two players to have won the Farmers Insurance Open, Bob Hope Classic, AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am and Northern Trust Open in their careers? (Answer below.)

The short answer is that it hasn't made a difference yet. Take a look at the difference the grooves rule has made at the three PGA Tour spots so far this year that have been full-field events. On approach shots of 75-100 yards, the average proximity to the hole was only greater on one of the three courses. Take the results from the three courses together, and it comes to an average of 9.3 inches closer to the cup on approach shots on which the clubs in question are most likely to be used.

Average proximity to hole on approach shots (75-100 yards)

Course 2009 2010
Torrey Pines South 21'7" 24'1"
Waialae CC 19'1" 15'11"
Plantation Course at Kapalua 18'9" 17'1"
*Average difference: 9.3 inches

This is obviously just a quick snapshot, and more evidence will be needed to fully substantiate the rule from either side, but it gives you an idea of the negligible amount of impact the rule has had on the course so far.

It's no secret that California's own Phil Mickelson has had great success at Riviera, especially in recent years. This week Phil will try to become the first player ever to three-peat at the event. But contrary to his current billing as the King of L.A., there was a time when Mickelson didn't succeed in this event. From 1993 to 2001, he played at Riviera seven times and never finished in the top 10. Mickelson played just seven of 21 rounds below par during that span. He didn't play in the event again until '07. Compare the two eras:

Phil Mickelson -- Professional career at Northern Trust

1993-01 2007-09
Starts 7 3
Wins 0 2
Worst finish CUT 2nd
Rds. under par pct. 33.3 (7 of 21) 83.3 (10 of 12)
To par +14 -43

Since 2006, Mickelson has been the defending champion at an event 11 times, and he has started in nine of those events. Only twice did he defend his title successfully -- at the '06 Bell South Classic and last year at the Northern Trust. His Riviera success aside, Phil hasn't fared well since 2006 when he is the defending champion at an event. In only one of those nine starts did he even finish in the top 10.

Phil Mickelson as a defending champion since 2006

Starts 9
Wins 2
Top-10 finishes 3
Missed cuts 1

Quick, name the third-ranked golfer in the world. It's Steve Stricker (by a hair over Lee Westwood), and he makes his continental-U.S. PGA Tour debut this week at Riviera. Stricker enjoyed the most success of his career in 2009, winning three times, recording six top-three finishes and landing in the top 10 in 11 of 22 starts.

Stricker has played in at least 20 events in every year but one since 1994 (he had 17 starts in 2006). Only one other time, in 1998, did he finish in the top 10 at least 10 times -- and he didn't win a tournament that year. After winning the 2001 Accenture Match Play (his first start of that year), Stricker went 113 PGA Tour events without finishing in the top three. Since the 2006 Shell Houston Open, where Stricker finished third, he has finished in the top three 14 times in just 83 starts.

Stricker was the runner-up at this event last year, losing to Mickelson by 1 shot. He played well the year before, finishing tied for 11th. Stricker enters the event having fired nine straight competitive rounds of par or better at Riviera, a far cry from his first four starts at the event. In those starts, he never finished better than 42nd, turned in only three rounds under par and played to a collective total of 23 over.

Steve Stricker -- Career at Northern Trust Open

First four starts 2008, 2009
Best finish T-42nd 2nd
Rds. under par 3 6
Scoring avg. 72.92 68.75
To par +23 -18

It could be argued that the field for the PGA Tour event in each of the past two weeks was weaker than that of its European Tour counterpart. The European Tour is currently in its "desert swing," which consists of the Abu Dhabi Championship, the Qatar Masters and this week's Dubai Desert Classic.

While the highest-ranked player in the field at the Bob Hope Classic was Mike Weir at 37th, Abu Dhabi attracted seven of the world's top 20 golfers. Last week, the Qatar Masters had nine of the Official World Golf Ranking's top 20, while the Farmers Insurance Open had just three. The winners were higher-profile, too: Ben Crane and Bill Haas were the stateside winners; in the desert, it was Martin Kaymer (currently ranked sixth in the world) and Robert Karlsson, who was Europe's No. 1 player in 2008 before an eye injury derailed his '09 campaign.

The trend starts to change this week, though, as more top-20 players are in the field at the Northern Trust (seven) than in Dubai (six). Padraig Harrington and Jim Furyk both make their 2010 tour debuts this week in Los Angeles, while Steve Stricker and Stewart Cink return for the first time since playing in Hawaii at the beginning of January.

John Daly made headlines this past Friday when he apparently let his emotions get the best of him, telling a Golf Channel producer he was quitting the game. Although every golfer can empathize with the impulse to quit, most of us who want to throw our clubs in the pond on No. 17 don't have sponsors' exemptions lined up at events around the globe.

Trivia answer

Question: When Phil Mickelson won last year's Northern Trust Open, he became the third player to win all four current California Tour events. Who are the other two players to have won the Farmers Insurance Open, Bob Hope Classic, AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am and Northern Trust Open in their careers?

Answer: Billy Casper and Johnny Miller

Although Daly remains relevant because he draws a crowd, it has been a long time since he was relevant on a PGA Tour leaderboard. In the past five seasons, Daly has competed in 70 tour events and has either missed the cut or withdrawn from the tournament 46 times -- or 65.7 percent of the time. In that span, he has never finished in the top 10, and only three times has he finished in the top 25.

His most recent top-10 finish was the WGC-American Express Championship in 2005, when he lost in a playoff to Tiger Woods. Since that day, Tiger has won 25 tournaments.

Big John may have quit that many times.

Justin Ray has been a studio researcher for ESPN since June 2008, and is the lead researcher for "The Scott Van Pelt Show." He is a 2007 graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, where he studied convergence media. Send comments and suggestions to



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