SAN DIEGO — The first PGA Tour meeting on a proposed rule for long putters made only one thing clear to commissioner Tim Finchem. There’s still a long way to go to decide what the tour will do, and it figures to be messy.
“It’s a very different kind of issue, and it stirs a lot of strong feelings,” Finchem said Wednesday. “So consequently, it’s a difficult situation. Personally, I view the professional game as being the strongest it’s ever been. So I don’t like to see distractions, but it’s not a perfect world.”
Finchem also said there might be a place for bifurcation – two sets of rules for the game – in certain areas of golf, but he did not think the long putter issue was one of them.
The U.S. Golf Association and Royal & Ancient Golf Club announced Nov. 28 a proposed rule that would outlaw players from anchoring the club against their bodies. That’s the stroke used for belly putters and broom-handle putters. Three of the past five major champions have used belly putters.
Another month remains in a 90-day comment period before the governing bodies decide to adopt the rule. Then, it would not be enforced until 2016.
The PGA Tour, however, can set its own rules.
Still to be determined is the tour’s official position on the proposed rule, which will require meetings with its Players Advisory Council and policy board. Finchem said the tour’s objective has always been to follow the USGA on rules, and he did not suggest the tour was about to treat this new one differently.
Another decision would be whether to enforce the rule earlier than 2016.
The concern is whether the public would look differently at players who anchor the club during the three-year transition period. Keegan Bradley, the first major champion with a belly putter, told of a fan calling him a cheater at the World Challenge at the end of last year.
“If you’re presenting the sport, my view would be to move it quicker if it’s going to happen because it continues to be a distraction if you don’t,” Finchem said. “You have players on television, in front of galleries, playing with a method that has been outlawed, even though the enforcement date is later. That’s in and of itself the makings of a distraction.
“On the other hand, if you’re a player who has grown up using that method – your livelihood depends on it – you probably are inclined to not want it to go into effect for a period of time. Here again, the issue is damned if you do, damned if you don’t, to some extent. So it needs to be thought through carefully.”
Finchem invited USGA executive director Mike Davis to the mandatory player meeting Tuesday night to explain the new rule and how the USGA and R&A arrived at its decision. Davis did not want to talk about how it went.
“This is the PGA Tour’s meeting,” Davis said. “They asked us here as their guests. We just feel it would be very inappropriate to say anything more than that.”
Players leaving the meeting did not want to comment on what was said, including Tim Clark, a prominent figure in the discussion. Clark is unable to turn his wrists normally, and thus has used a broom-handle putter his entire career. He is not playing at Torrey Pines this week, instead traveling from Scottsdale, Ariz., to state his case.
Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson were among those who did not attend.
“We believe in the notion that one body of rules is important, and that’s always our intent,” Finchem said.
Finchem conceded that the notion of bifurcation was bound to become a topic. He said most sports have differences in the amateur and professional levels.
“Personally, I think in some situations bifurcation is OK,” he said. “I’m not so sure bifurcation is important in this particular case, but we’re not at a point yet where I am opining on what we think we should do.”
The USGA said its research showed the number of players using an anchored stroke has increased in recent years to about 15 percent. A large majority of pros use a conventional putter with a free-swinging stroke, and Woods has been among those outspoken in favor of a ban.
Finchem recognized both sides of the debate.
“The people who want to see anchoring go away firmly believe that they have the best interest of the game at heart,” he said. “The people who don’t think it’s necessary, I think, are equally robust in their enthusiasm for what’s best for the game. I hope as this process unfolds, we can keep that in perspective and have a conversation about it and discussion about it and debate about it that is positive. And thus far, I think that’s what has happened.”