Today we’re posting an episode from The Engines of Our Ingenuity. The University of Houston’s College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them. Click here to listen to this episode.
On January first, 2010, the world of golf was forever changed. No, it had nothing to do with Tiger Woods, and the change wasn’t earth-shattering. But it’s a fascinating story about the controversy that can be stirred up with very small changes in technology.
In golf’s olden days — twenty or thirty years ago — driving the ball onto the short fairway grass was important to a player’s score. Both distance and accuracy were needed to win.
But that’s changed. Golfers can now drive the ball so far that it’s led to a new playing strategy, known in the golf world as “bomb and gouge,” or as golf professional Bubba Watson once put it, “swing hard and go find it.” If the ball’s close enough to the hole after the drive, then, even if it’s in long grass, a player can still gouge it out with success. And statistics support this new strategy.
So golf’s governing bodies set about to fix things — by placing new restrictions on, of all things, golf club grooves. When a golf ball is struck, the grooves impart backspin. That helps the ball stop rather than roll forward when it lands on the putting surface — something very important for top golfers. The sharper a club’s grooves, the more spin it imparts to the ball.
And here’s the kicker: sharp grooves really make a big difference in long grass. So they disproportionately help those bomb and gouge golfers. Take away the sharp grooves and you take away their ability to accurately gouge the ball out of the rough.
The sharp groove fuss is commonly known in the golf world as the U versus V controversy, since the tops of U shaped grooves are typically considered to have sharper, ninety degree edges than their V shaped counterparts. And, historically, sharper edges arrived with new technology that caused manufacturers to change from V to U shaped grooves. But the fundamental issue isn’t so much the shape of the groove, but how sharp the groove’s edges can be.
And how sharp is that? New rules state that the edge must be at least as round as a circle with a radius of one one-hundredth of an inch. You can draw a circle like that at home, but don’t use your compass. The radius of the lead in a good mechanical drawing pencil is almost exactly the stipulated size. So try to make a very clean dot, putting your very sharp pencil in one spot and carefully rotating it.
Golf is a game of power and finesse, where a one inch putt counts the same the same as a three-hundred yard drive. It can rightly be called a game of inches. But with the new ruling on grooves, it’s now a game of hundredths of inches.