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 And Another Thing

Puttering the game on the line

In his column in this issue, Peter Alliss considers the increasingly complicated matter of the long putter. And now I’m doing the same. Last autumn, the Royal & Ancient Golf Club (R&A) and the United States Golf Association (USGA), golf’s lawmakers, announced that, with effect from 2016, they intended to make it illegal for a golfer to anchor a putter against any part of his body in order to make a stroke. In the opinion of many people, they had taken their time to get to this position – say about 25 years too long. The governing bodies were fully aware that critics would ask why alter something that had been going on for aeons, their essential response being that it’s better to do the right thing even if it’s been a long time coming. They declared a consultation period that expired on February 28. When the smoke had cleared, golf had a potential problem. The PGA Tour said it was against the ban.

Commissioner Tim Finchem advanced several reasons, some of them of questionable veracity (for example, per Jaime Diaz in Golf World magazine in America, Finchem’s claim that 20% of amateurs anchor the putter “is patently ridiculous compared to Golf Datatech research that puts the number at less than 5%”).

Finchem also said: “[This new rule comes] two times after it was specifically reviewed and approved by the USGA, and after thousands have gravitated to this method.” The PGA of America lined up alongside him, seeing the suggested change as being possibly inimical to efforts to grow participation in the game.

That is fundamental, too, to the issue as seen by the R&A and USGA; the fact that grassroots golfers as well as tour players might go to a long putter as their first choice when they start out playing the game either for fun or as a career, rather than using it as a physical and/or mental crutch in the latter part of their playing days. On March 4, the European Tour effectively backed that standpoint, saying: “Our members support the unique role played by the governing bodies in formulating the Rules of Golf…[we] support the proposed rule even though [we] are aware, and have taken into account, the fact that some members and especially our senior [tour] members use the anchored method.”

After playing in the 2003 Masters Tournament, the late Seve Ballesteros told me he thought long- and belly-putters should be banned. “I was thinking of using one this week,” he said, his long game but not his putting stroke by then in tatters, “but the greens at Augusta are too undulating. But within seven years everyone will be using one or the other.” Clearly his timing was off with that, but his opinion then lies behind the concerns of the authorities now.

Ernie Els, who used a belly putter to win the Open at Lytham last July, in the process dramatically overhauling Adam Scott and his even-longer putter, famously once said of his own conversion to the long one: “So long as they’re legal, I’ll keep cheating with the rest of them.” Els was the fourth consecutive major champion to use a long putter. Rory McIlroy, who halted that streak at the USPGA Championship last August, said: “If they think it’s good for the game to ban anchoring, we should respect that…if pressure of the PGA Tour makes them change their minds, that’s fine with me. What matters is that there is no divide.”

To bifurcate or not to bifurcate, that is a question. Broadly, all golfers, amateur and professional, play by the same rules. Exceptions have been introduced. On the pro tours, the ‘one-ball rule’ means the golfer has to play with a ball of the same specifications throughout his round, a regulation not in force in a monthly medal, but that is to restrict what a tour pro can do, not give him extra licence beyond what a club golfer would be permitted. Finchem went out of his way to stress that the PGA Tour had not given any consideration as to what would occur were the R&A and USGA to press on regardless of the feelings of his membership, which is hard to believe given that he’s such a consummate politician. He also said: “The whole question of bifurcation is always out there to be discussed…I think that in some situations bifurcation is OK.”

So what happens? If Finchem leads the PGA Tour off on a path of its ownsome, along with the PGA of America, does that mean long putters will be permitted on the PGA Tour and in the USPGA Championship but not on the European Tour or at the Open or US Open? Which road will Augusta National take? What about World Golf Championship events? And will they be OK at Ryder Cups in America but not when it’s held in Europe?

January 2016 is still some while away, but there may be plenty of things to figure out before then.

May 2013

Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine


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