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The long road to anarchy?

The history of the long-shafted putter has come a long way since its rather innocent introduction on the US Senior Tour some 30 years ago. A number of professionals said it had saved their flagging careers. Instead of twitching and jerking like a puppet on a string over a four-footer, they felt a freedom not experienced since those far-away teenage years.

Nobody took a lot of notice until fairly recently when many tournaments and, indeed, major championships have been won by players using a longshafted putter – ahead of this year’s Masters, four of the last five majors, in fact. The putters vary in length. Adam Scott, the talented Australian, has possibly the longest one in existence.

Then there’s Keegan Bradley and Ernie Els, who uses one with a long shaft but perhaps as much as 12 inches shorter than Scott’s. Bernhard Langer, who’s had more putting problems than David Cameron has detractors, went through a whole repertoire of strokes, grips and lengths of putter until settling on the one he uses now, with great success.

There had been a lot of talk over the past few years about its legality but mostly this was hot air. Some professionals, who’ve been using a long putter with great dexterity, suggested they might sue the powers that be for loss of income if they could no longer use their magic wand, claiming the rule-makers were jeopardising their livelihood.

Nevertheless, last autumn the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews (R&A) and the United States Golf Association (USGA), the game’s lawmakers, did do something. They said they were going to introduce a new rule, effective from January 2016, which would ban the anchoring of a putter against any part of a player’s body. Thus would the belly-putter, indeed any long putter, cease to be in play.

They declared there would be a consultation period, until the end of February 2013, for interested parties to submit their views. One such view, aired in January, came from Mark King, chief executive of TaylorMade, who said: “The anchoring ban makes no sense to me at all. If I were running the PGA of America, I would write my own set of rules. I’d do it with the PGA Tour. The industry needs to come together without the USGA. Leave them out.”

What: anarchy in the game of golf? But who knows, that might happen. The PGA Tour and the PGA of America are both against the new rule – “You can’t point top one negative impact of anchoring,” said Tim Finchem, commissioner of the PGA Tour – while on March 4, the European Tour “confirmed its support for the R&A and USGA and their proposal”.

So we have a transatlantic split. Where will things go from here? Finchem was careful not to say that if the R&A and USGA went ahead anyway then the PGA Tour might makes it own rules in this area. “We have carefully and intentionally avoided getting into a discussion about that issue,” he said. So that’s not a ‘yes’ but it’s not a ‘no’ either.

I was brought up in the belief that the putter was always the shortest club in the bag, and I will remain of that view until the day I die. Putters longer than drivers make no sense to me but they do work for some. But as I go round the country visiting many golf clubs, I see very few club golfers with long putters. They find them far too difficult to use, and until they allow putters to be made the same way as snooker cues (so that they come in two halves and they fit easily in the golf bag), I don’t think they ever will catch on.

I have said for many years that the game of golf should not be changed for a few hundred people who play at the top level. They talk about golf courses becoming too short, but too short for whom? Answer: for a handful of people who hit the ball miles because the equipment has got so much better and perhaps because the players today have smaller waists, wider shoulders and hit the ball harder. Rather like the question of throttling back on the length a golf ball travels, perhaps at the end of the day it might be better to leave the whole thing alone.

But the R&A and USGA are the two final adjudicators of the game. I would have thought whatever they say should go. I know they lost some ground years ago with the controversial V-shaped grooves in iron clubs. Then they were threatened by the golf club manufacturers: “We will sue you for millions.” Some pros joined in, saying: “You are affecting our livelihoods.”

They gave up the battle. They didn’t fight. Why should they do so this time and does it really make a lot of difference? Overall, though, I believe the R&A and the USGA can, within reason, do what they like with the rules of the game. They are in charge, or at least they should be.

May 2013

Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine


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