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 And Another Thing

The long and the short of it

Apart from earning Ernie Els his fourth major championship, the South African’s endeavours at Royal Lytham & St Annes in July brought to the fore as never before the increasingly thorny issue of the use of long putters in the professional game. The winners of three of the past four majors (this being written prior to the conclusion of the USPGA Championship) have wielded one, with Keegan Bradley (2011 USPGA) and Webb Simpson (2012 US Open) preceding Els in this manner. “As long as it’s legal, I’ll keep cheating with the rest of them,” Els said some time ago. And, at present, legal it is.

The rules of golf are formulated by the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews (R&A) and the United States Golf Association (USGA). On the morning after the Open had ended, Peter Dawson, chief executive of the R&A, said: “The decision [re what to do about long putters] has not been taken, but we are going to say something in a few months rather than years.”

Many ‘traditionalists’ despair that nothing was done decades ago. The club was first popularised on the PGA Tour in the 1960s by Phil Rodgers, who only lost the 1963 Open at Lytham after a playoff. In 1989, the R&A and USGA declared that long putters conformed to the rules on equipment.

It has not been acknowledged but there is a suspicion the authorities were uncomfortable with this stance at the time but with them, especially the USGA, being involved in a complicated lawsuit with Karsten Solheim about the construction of grooves in his Ping Eye 2 irons, it didn’t seem wise to get embroiled in legal battles with club manufacturers on a different front.

On into the 1990s, and the long putter came to be regarded as something that might help the odd regular tour golfer (such as Bernhard Langer) but mostly would be seen on the senior tours. They could be ignored more easily. Latterly, though, the emphasis has switched to the extent that they are currently used by around 20% of golfers on the main tours.

The point of controversy is that the stroke as executed with a long putter is not a ‘proper’ golf stroke at all; that the club is effectively a crutch – perhaps mental as well as physical – for those players who have the yips; it’s a device to get around a player’s shortcomings. And maybe now the argument has moved on beyond that. “We’re seeing people who can putt perfectly well in the conventional way thinking that an anchored stroke gives them an advantage,” said Dawson. “Anchoring is what we’re looking at and it’s all about putting around a fixed pivot point. Whether that point is in your belly, under your chin or on your chest, I don’t distinguish.”

Many pro golfers feel the way Els does without having succumbed to temptation and put a long one in their bag but Vijay Singh, for example, has often swapped between the two types over the past few seasons. Now it seems that something will be done quite soon, although no change would be implemented before January 2016.

In general, there is nothing new in this topic. In 1904, an American golfer named Walter Travis became the first non-British winner of the Amateur Championship, which he did while carrying a centre-shafted putter. The R&A subsequently banned the use of such clubs, in what was widely seen as a fit of pique, thereby ushering in an era of some bad feeling between the game’s two governing bodies. When the R&A eventually reversed its ruling, that proved good news for Ben Hogan, who used such a putter. He thus came over to Carnoustie in 1953 and won the Open on his one and only appearance in it.

Less anyone might be inclined to suggest Els was an unworthy winner, Dawson was eager to point out that even the saintly Bobby Jones used concave-faced clubs in accumulating some of his 13 major championships, before they were outlawed, and no one regards any of his triumphs as being tainted as a result. Similarly, in 1977, shortly after Tom Watson had won both the Masters and Open Championship that year, it was discovered that the grooves on his irons had, all along, been illegal. Nobody is downgrading his tally of majors as a consequence.

It will be interesting to discover what the R&A and USGA decide to do. In the interim, I guess the authorities could leave the rules well alone and encourage all those holding professional golf events (the R&A and USGA included) to introduce in-tournament regulations that would prohibit the use of long putters in them while allowing the rest of us to get on with trying to avoid the onset of the yips in peace.

September 2012

Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine


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