As the sun was setting over the National Course's formidable falcon clubhouse yesterday, those hoping to judge how golf's new groove regulations affect the sport's top players were departing into the dark in more ways than one. On January 1, new rules decided upon by golf's governing bodies were implemented in an attempt to increase both the distance a ball takes to stop and decrease the amount of backspin a player can generate when forced to play from the rough.
The Royal & Ancient and the United States Golf Association had deemed that modern technology - namely square-shaped grooves in lofted clubs - was decreasing the disadvantages of finding the long stuff. It wasn't punishing enough: it was becoming too easy. The opening round yesterday was the first time many of the European Tour's top golfers had played competitively with the new groove-regulated v-shaped irons and much was made of the modifications.
Rory McIlroy admitted beforehand that he would perhaps have to adapt his game slightly, although was adamant he won't be turning negative in the tee-box. The Northern Irishman is one of the Tour's top five hitters in terms of driving distance, but is at times hindered by his accuracy off the tee, where he ranks tied 66th. With the new regulations a wayward drive that finds rough should result in a more difficult second shot.
Yet, yesterday, such issues were irrelevant to the young McIlroy as he "pleasantly surprised" himself carding eight birdies on his way to a season-opening six-under par 66; his only blemish a double-bogey at the 11th after struggling to get out of short shrubbery - after a wayward tee-shot. Ian Poulter, who had, in contrast to Lee Westwood's forecast of a new course record high, predicted lower scores and shot seven-under to share the lead. He said afterwards that the groove-alterations had made little difference to him. Although he also revealed he has always used v-shaped grooves on his irons.
"I don't think the scoring would have been overly different if we were using square grooves," said the Englishman. "I think a lot of players are good enough to have the right imagination to pick a spot just a little bit shorter than where they were landing. If they can visualise where their landing spot needs to be, then they will find it fits in pretty quickly." Westwood, the world No 4 and reigning European Tour champion, could be judged to have struggled in the capital after carding three bogeys to finish on three-under 69, although his caddy Billy Foster would vehemently deny it.
Foster claimed afterwards that Westwood's first performance of the season was better than that of his superb 23-under finish at the Dubai World Championship in November. In terms of grooves though, Westwood said earlier this week that he expected them to have more impact depending on the type of grass, and indicated the best place for assessment will be the majors. "There will be times where you'll see a difference," he said. "At the majors, when they get the greens firm, it'll make a big difference."
Westwood travelled to Barbados over the winter, where he played the Green Monkey course at Sandy Lane and revealed that the Bermuda grass there resulted in him hitting "three of four massive flyers using the new grooves". Abu Dhabi's National Course is similar to Bermuda. But this year the rough has been over-seeded with rye to make it thicker. Will it make any difference as the weekend plays out? Those in the dark are still waiting enlightenment.