By RANDY YOUNGMAN
Are you a cheater, too?
Apparently, the United States Golf Association and the Royal & Ancient Golf Club, golf’s governing bodies, have decided that anchoring a putter to the body during a stroke is tantamount to cheating.
That is, golfers using the broomstick-style long putter or the belly-length putter have an unfair advantage over their competitors.
Nobody from the USGA or R&A is saying that specifically, but why else would the governing bodies have jointly proposed a rules change, beginning in 2016, that would prohibit a golf stroke that has been in use nearly 80 years?
Yes, it’s been that long (pardon the pun).
During the 1936 Belmont Open in Boston, professional Paul Runyan stuck the end of his putter in his waist, widened his stance and slid his hands down the shaft of his putter for stability in strong winds. A few years later, he procured a longer putter and kept it in his bag.
In 1965, the first belly-putter patent was acquired by Richard T. Parmley. Phil Rodgers was the first tour pro to use one on the PGA Tour in the late 1960s.
Johnny Miller was the first to use the long putter regularly in the 1980s, and in 1989 Orville Moody won the U.S. Senior Open with a long putter anchored to his chest.
In 2000, Paul Azinger switched to a belly putter and won the Sony Open in Hawaii by seven strokes – a year in which his putting average improved from 111th in 1999 to fourth on tour. The belly putter increased in popularity after that, but let the record show Azinger did not win another tour event.
Tongues started wagging in 2011 when three consecutive PGA Tour events were won by players using unconventional putters: Adam Scott (long putter) in the World Golf Championship at Firestone, Keegan Bradley (belly putter) in the PGA Championship at Atlanta Athletic Club, and Webb Simpson (belly putter) in the Wyndham Championship in Greensboro, N.C. I’m surprised that development didn’t cause the the globe didn’t spin off it axis.
And when Simpson won the 2012 U.S. Open at The Olympic Club and Ernie Els (belly putter) won the 2012 British Open at Royal Lytham & St. Annes – that made it three out of five majors won by “cheaters” — golf’s governing bodies apparently felt compelled to act.
It’s not cheating, of course, and the USGA president Mike Davis keeps insisting the rules change is about protecting the fundamentals of the game and defining a stroke and blah, blah, blah.
All of this is anecdotal evidence that makes you wonder why the rule is being changed now, after 30 years of prevalence around the world, when pros such as Carl Pettersson of Sweden and Tim Clark of South Africa have used long putters their entire careers.
The USGA cites a spike in unconventional putter use on the pro tours – from 4 percent in the early 2000s, to 6 percent in 2006, to 11 percent in 2011, to 15 percent in 2012 – and a recent trend in which instructors have begun teaching the anchored stroke at an early age.
I don’t know why this is so alarming, even though Guan Tianlang – a 14-year-old from China – recently used a belly putter to win the Asian Pacific Amateur and earn a spot in the Masters. I think that’s cool, actually, but golf’s governing bodies don’t share my sentiments.
It’s clear the anchoring-putter rule change is going to go into effect, for better or worse, so now the best we can hope for is bifurcation of the rules – that is, establishing two sets of rules: one for professionals and amateurs at the highest competitive levels and another set for recreational players who play the game for fun.
Why should amateurs who struggle to break 80, 90 or 100 be forced to give up a long putter or belly putter that helps them play better and/or enjoy the game more? Why should a senior golfer with a bad back have to give up a club that enables him to keep playing?
The USGA and R&A believe everyone should play under the same set of rules, but why is that necessary? Recreational golfers already have the opportunity to play from different sets of tees, to match their ability and increase enjoyment, so why shouldn’t they be able to use putters that have been legal for years? Isn’t the USGA trying to grow the game – not chase players away?
Pat Mateer of Mission Viejo, a former tour pro who regained his amateur status and who uses the long putter, can’t understand the USGA’s thinking.
“In my opinion, I think it’s the worst rules change that they have ever made,” said Mateer, 57, a member at El Niguel Counry Club in Laguna Niguel and the Spyglass Hill Founders Club on the Monterey peninsula. “We’re in a situation where golf (as an industry) is struggling. What positive can this do for the game?”
Mateer points out the rule change is being driven by the pro tours, which represents less than1 percent of the world’s estimated 50 million golfers.
“If there are 15 percent now using the long and belly putters, there are two things that can happen after the rule goes into effect,” Mateer said. “They can continue to play and enjoy it less or they can quit. Both are bad options.”
Mateer , who has written a letter to the USGA to voice his opinion, is in favor of bifurcation of the rules, as I am. “I don’t care what the pros do; I enjoy watching them,” he said. “They can do what they want, but let everybody else choose (which putter to use). . . .
“The object of golf is to hit the ball and get it in the hole. We’re not cheating (by using the long putter), we’re not using steroids, we’re not using drugs; we’re just using imagination and creativity to find another way to get the ball in the hole. And the long putter is not a panacea. It still requires hand-eye coordination and skill and a lot of practice.”
Mateer grew up in Whittier and played golf at the University of Utah before turning pro in 1977 and competing on international tours in New Zealand, Australia, Asia and Europe. After regaining his amateur status in 1987, he continued to play in prestigious tournaments such as the U.S. Amateur, British Amateur and U.S Mid-Amateur.
He vividly remembers his last round with a traditional putter before he began using the long putter in 1993.
“Last time I used a short putter, I 4-putted the 18th in the club championship at Spyglass and double-hit it from 4 feet. That was it. I was done. I couldn’t putt at all. I was terrible,” he recalled. “I was just about ready to quit when I tried the long putter, because I didn’t enjoy it anymore.
“But I found a way to keep playing and still enjoy the game. And for the last 19 years, that’s the way I have putted. For me, it makes golf so much more fun. I’ve supported the game and played more than 2,000 rounds, and now they’re telling me I can’t use it anymore?”
One of those rounds was a 59 at the 1999 TaylorMade Invitational at Palmilla Golf Club in Cabo San Lucas.
“This rule change is absolutely flabbergasting to me,” Mateer said.
He is not alone, unfortunately. Here’s hoping the USGA comes to its senses and allows two sets of rules. But I’m not holding my breath.
Randy Youngman has been writing about golf in California, at the professional and amateur levels, for more than 20 years. He is also an admitted golfaholic.