By Mark Lamport-Stokes
PACIFIC PALISADES, California (Reuters) - PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem appeared to be pinning his hopes on club manufacturer Ping as the thorny issue of the controversial grooves rule continued to simmer on Wednesday.
Under United States Golf Association (USGA) rules implemented on January 1, square or U-grooves have been outlawed but a 20-year-old Ping-Eye 2 wedge is deemed legal because of a lawsuit won by its manufacturer over the USGA in 1990.
Five players on this year's Tour have been using the square-grooved wedge, the most notable being world number two Phil Mickelson who was accused of 'cheating' by fellow American Scott McCarron at last week's San Diego Open.
"We have a situation here where a club is available, and legal, that is capable of spinning the ball more than clubs in our current rules," Finchem told a news conference on the eve of this week's Northern Trust Open at Riviera Country Club.
"That's a problem. It's getting a lot of attention but it's still a narrow issue. I think it can be dealt with, and it should be dealt with as soon as possible."
Finchem outlined three possible options available to the PGA Tour -- maintaining the status quo, following a legal process to change the rule or banking on help from Ping.
"We could maintain the status quo ... but long-term it's not a credible option because it raises issues about fairness in the competition," the commissioner said.
The second option relied on a process described by Finchem as "cumbersome" whereby an independent committee would devise a variation of the USGA rule to sidestep the Ping loophole.
Asked how long that option would take to complete, he replied: "... in a reasonable time frame. But this is an independent committee and I can't speak for them."
Option three, the possibility of coming to an agreement with Ping chairman and chief executive John Solheim to allow the problematic club to be removed from the Tour, seemed to elicit the greatest optimism from Finchem.
"He recognizes this issue and, given certain circumstances, he might be open to at least evaluating a way to deal with this from a contractual standpoint," Finchem said.
"If he were to take that step, it would be a terrific gesture on his part to deal with an issue that is troublesome. I've had a conversation with him and my understanding is he'll be meeting with the USGA potentially in the next week.
"I can only hope that progress is made in that regard. It would be a great solution in a short period of time."
Earlier this week, Solheim said in a statement: "I'm willing to discuss a workable solution to this matter that would benefit the game and respect the role innovation has played over the long history of golf."
Until a resolution is found, players using the 20-year-old Ping wedge will continue to hold an advantage over their competitors when hitting balls out of the rough.
Finchem said the Ping wedge generated spin at roughly 60 percent of the rate produced by wedges under the old rules but about 10 percent more than those approved for play this year.
"In the minds of some players, it is a significant difference," he said. "Some players could not care less about this because they don't want to spin the ball very much anyway. It just depends on the style of their game."
(Editing by Ian Ransom)