It’s a decision that will affect less than 4 percent of the multitudes who populate fairways and greens, but the animosity from a vocal minority drowned out the polite applause last month when the United States Golf Association formally announced it would ban anchored putting.
On Jan. 1, 2016, it no longer will be legal to anchor the club in making a stroke, putting what’s known as Rule 14-1b into play. Some of the game’s marquee players and major championship winners — Adam Scott, Keegan Bradley, Webb Simpson and Ernie Els — might have to make a drastic change in advance of that day.
The rule also will affect every recreational and competitive golfer in the Metropolitan Section who picked up a long putter in recent years and began anchoring in hopes of curing the dreaded yips or increasing enjoyment of a frustrating game.
“Rule 14-1b protects one of the most important challenges in the game of golf — the free swing of the entire club,” USGA President Glen Nager told The Journal News.
Anchoring creates a point of contact against the body that is often a stabilizer.
“Rule 14-1b eliminates the potential advantages that anchoring creates, such as making the stroke simpler and more repeatable, restricting the movement and the rotation of the hands, the arms and the club face, creating a fixed pivot point, and creating extra support and stability that may diminish the effects of nerves and pressure,” Nager said.
But concern is growing over what might be coming next, and the game could take a serious hit if the USGA changes standards for golf balls and oversized drivers.
“I think it was ill-conceived,” said longtime Old Oaks Country Club head pro Bobby Heins, a former touring pro who began using a long putter when back issues nearly ended his playing career. “The USGA got left behind on a number of issues like the golf ball, and they’re picking on guys who can’t punch back. It’s just my opinion, but they aren’t going after the equipment manufacturers here.”
The reaction in the game’s pro quarters was instantaneous. While the European Tour and the Ladies Professional Golf Association were on board with the USGA and The Royal & Ancient, the game’s worldwide governing bodies, the PGA Tour and the Professional Golfers’ Association of America were unhappy, expressing a fear that 14-1b will damage the brand while limiting the game’s growth.
Each dissenting organization offered a measured statement that promised internal debate.
“We’re very supportive of the USGA,” PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said. “We hold it in high regard. We were asked our opinion, and we feel strongly that going down that road would be a mistake.”
Right now, the PGA of America, which represents the 27,000 club professionals working to reignite a passion for the game that’s declined in recent years, is occupying the front line in this skirmish. The livelihood of many club pros depends on the number of rounds played each year.
“We have representation on the Rules of Golf Committee, and we have tremendous respect for the USGA in regard to their critical role in writing and interpreting the Rules of Golf,” PGA of America president Ted Bishop said. “As our mission is to grow the game … we are asking them to seriously consider the impact this proposed ban may have on people’s enjoyment of the game.”
Though they are concerned about losing audience, most local professionals struggle to name more than a few members who currently anchor.
“It’s going to affect less than 5 percent of the market, so that isn’t the issue,” said Heath Wassem, head pro at Fenway Golf Club in White Plains. “The problem is that it affects the guy who really wasn’t having fun anymore. It’s been a nice crutch for that guy.”
No statistical evidence proves anchoring provides a distinct advantage.
“For me, it’s been very helpful,”said Heins, the pro at Old Oaks in Purchase. “But it’s not a superior way to putt, never has been and never will be. I have members that won’t use a long putter because they think they might look funny. The golfers who are really affected by this are the guys hoping to make a living and the guys looking for a way to enjoy the game.”
So is anybody pitching a fit in the grill room?
“Nobody seems to be alarmed,” said Winged Foot head pro Mike Gilmore, who tried a long putter and quickly abandoned it when he found the element that most improved his putting statistics was practice.
An informal survey of local golf retailers did not uncover anecdotal evidence of angry golfers looking to trade in long putters. The rule is not expected to harm equipment sales. New putters that use counterbalancing, adding weight to the grip end of the putter, instead of anchoring to stabilize the stroke already have hit the market.
Enforcement of the ban is not expected to be a problem.
“The red flag is the equipment itself,” said Brian Mahoney, director of rules and competitions for the Metropolitan Golf Association. “When somebody comes out with a long putter, people are going to be looking for anchoring points. And if there’s a question, everybody needs to be open and honest, like when your opponent tees up in front of the markers. It’s common courtesy to remind them of the rule.”
Intentionally anchoring the club will result in a two-stroke penalty or loss of the hole in match play.
The reason this public tug of war is generating so many headlines is that it someday might result in a divorce of sorts. The PGA Tour and PGA of America might decide to get in the rule-making business to protect their interests.
“When we write and interpret the Rules of Golf, we do it for millions of golfers worldwide — 50 (million), 60 million golfers, whatever that number happens to be,” USGA executive director Mike Davis said. “As you well know, the PGA Tour is a very small group, a few hundred players, but they have a big impact on the game. As we like to say, when white belts appeared on the PGA Tour, guess what? They appeared in recreational golf.”
A split would be a headache for everyone involved.
“I’m not sure what the PGA Tour, what we will do, but most probably we will follow suit,” Els told reporters before the U.S. Open this month at Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pa. “And unfortunately for guys that have been using it for a very long time, I think it’s very unfair. For the future of the game, looking down the road 50 to 100 years, they probably needed to do this step at some point, I guess. They probably should have done it 30, 40 years ago, but we’re at this point now and guys are winning a lot of big tournaments, kids are starting to use it, and so that’s what it is. We are what we are. And we’ll start putting with a short putter again in 2016.”
No lawsuits have been filed, so optimism is growing that this eventually will go the way of the square groove controversy. It was a big deal when the USGA outlawed the high-spin inducing grooves that were negating the effect of the rough, especially near the green. It was a big, bold headline only four years ago, but golfers moved on quickly.
“In my opinion, one of the best things about this game is the fact that we have one set of rules for all,” Mahoney said. “Other sports might have a need to come up with separate rules for different levels of play. This change is very narrow, so we don’t need to go there.”