Polite golf clap for the USGA and R&A for doing something that so few governing bodies are willing to do these days – govern.
Golf’s rules makers opened themselves up to all sorts of complaints and the slim potential for litigation by finally tackling the issue of anchored clubs in a decisive way. In a joint news conferences filled with more use of the word “whilst” since the King James Bible, USGA chief Mike Davis and his R&A counterpart Peter Dawson proposed a ban on anchoring clubs against the body.
They stopped short of banning the long and belly putters that guys like Keegan Bradley, Webb Simpson and Ernie Els used to win majors in the past two years, but they’ve prevented using them as crutches to avoid the yips that are an essential element of the game.
In short, they defined the concept of a legal swing that is the core of golf.
“This is all about the future of the game,” Davis said. “It’s about us defining the game, defining a stroke, clarifying a very controversial and divisive situation. And ultimately, golf gets back to holding the club with two hands and swinging it freely.”
This ruling will anger a lot of people whose argument is that it’s simply too late to put the genie back in the bottle. That’s an ongoing issue in the game as the leaders have failed to deal in any meaningful way with the technology advances that threaten to make the game’s iconic venues obsolete.
At least this matter was easily correctable – better late than never. Both Davis and Dawson admitted that their associations dragged their collective feet for 30 years since anchoring clubs first became a new concept in the fertile minds of golfers seeking a fix for whatever ails them.
But it was the past two years that brought clarity and action for the sake of the game as we knew it. And it wasn’t Bradley’s or Simpson’s major triumphs that raised the ire and brought down the curtain on the anchoring era (effective Jan. 1, 2016, once it finally passes), though the timing certainly seems reactionary.
It’s the impact those victories had on the building trend that could eventually make the traditional stroke obsolete. Long and belly putters were moving from an object of last resort to a first resort.
Once reserved for desperate golfers with uncontrollable yips or debilitating back issues, the method was growing in popularity with young players and newcomers to the game. It went from a couple percent of PGA Tour golfers in the late ’90s to 6 percent in 2006, 11 percent in 2011 and 15 percent in 2012.
“Our conclusion is that anchored strokes threaten to supplant traditional strokes, which with all their frailties are integral to the long standing character of our sport,” Dawson said. “Our objective is to preserve the skill and challenge, which is such a key element of the game of golf. ... This proposed rule change is not directly performance related. This is about defining the game and defining what is a stroke in golf.”
Exactly. If golf has made strides to ban beta blockers or other drugs that might help control nerves, banning a technique that acts as a crutch was a logical progression.
Anchoring proponents like Adam Scott, whose conversion to the long putter resurrected his game two years ago, argue that there is no conclusive data to illustrate that anchored putting is an advantage. In fact, none of the top 20 players on tour in the putting stats use one.
Why would they? They’re already great in the art of putting with no motivation to change what works. If players like Scott or Els weren’t converting to them to alleviate flaws in their own games, would they not do it if it didn’t help?
“As long as it’s legal, I’ll keep cheating like the rest of them,” said Els, revealing his true feelings about the technique and what it did to put him back in the major winner’s circle.
“In terms of comparing players that are using anchored strokes with players who are using conventional strokes, there is no compelling data to say one is better than the other,” Dawson said. “It’s an individual thing for individual players.”
Augusta tour pro Charles Howell started using a belly putter last season and switched back to a conventional short putter in September.
“I’ve used both of them,” Howell said. “I don’t think there’s any magic fairy dust to a long or anchored putter. You still have to read the putt. You have to hit the putt the right speed. You have to have the nerves to pull that off. There’s so much more that goes into putting than anchoring the club and swinging. I still say if it were that big an advantage, everyone on the tour would be using one.”
Golf’s governing bodies were afraid that’s where it was eventually heading as more and more juniors were being taught to go straight to anchoring. And it was bleeding into the chipping game as well.
This is where some of the critics against the anchoring rule change – folks like short-game guru Dave Pelz who wrote an 11th-hour open letter pleading for the status quo – make their most absurd leap. They argue that eliminating putting aids will drive golfers away and damage efforts to grow the game.
The USGA’s and R&A’s failures to govern technology has made the game easier to play for more than a decade, yet still its growth remains stagnant at best. Missing 4-foot putts isn’t making anyone quit, but 5½-hour rounds and triple-digit greens fees will do it in a heartbeat.
Davis rightly pointed out that “cost of the game, the time the game takes to play, the accessibility of the game” are the primary factors in growth.
“Skill and challenge are such an important part of golf for so many golfers, that’s what brings them back to the game. That’s why they play the game,” he said. “Difficulty is way down the list, and anchoring would only be a very, very small part of that. So ultimately, we don’t think quitting the game or not playing the game is really an option when this comes to this anchored stroke.”
Golf’s leaders have acted in a responsible way to address a divisive issue.
It won’t please everyone, but it keeps with the long-standing traditions of the game.
Creativity will conjure up new ways for curing the yips, just as greats like Sam Snead and Tom Watson had to deal with it in the past. But it will all happen within the confines of a legitimate swing with no crutches.
Now if they could just rein in the golf ball and treat out of bounds like lateral hazards, golf’s leaders would indeed be working for the good of the game.