BY RANDY YOUNGMAN
The anchor is being dropped.
As had long been rumored, the United States Golf Association and The R&A, golf’s governing bodies, have jointly proposed a rules change that would ban anchoring a club while making a stroke.
Shrewdly, the governing bodies are not proposing to ban belly-length and long putters – only the strokes used by the putters in which golfers anchor the end of the club to a part of their body (e.g., stomach, chest, chin) so as to create a pendulum motion.
By not prohibiting the use of such putters, the governing bodies likely are trying to protect themselves against lawsuits by club manufacturers. It remains to be seen whether professionals who have been anchoring their putters will seek litigation to block or overturn the rule change, which if enacted will not go into effect until Jan. 1, 2016.
Mike Davis, the USGA’s executive director, and Peter Dawson, the R&A’s chief executive, held a joint teleconference Nov. 28 to announce the proposed rule change.
This is how the new rule, 14-1b, would read: “Anchoring the Club: In making a stroke, the player must not anchor the club, either ‘directly’ or by use of an ‘anchor point.’
“Note 1: The club is anchored ‘directly’ when the player intentionally holds the club or a gripping hand in contact with any part of the body, except that the player may hold the club or a gripping hand against a hand or forearm.
“Note 2: An ‘anchor point’ exists when the player intentionally holds a forearm in contact with any part of his body to establish a gripping hand as a stable point around which the other hand many swing the club.”
The rule is expected to be enacted in the spring of 2013, after the governing bodies allow 90 days for comment and discussion from industry insiders to express their concerns.
Interestingly, long putters (sometimes called broomsticks) and belly putters have been used prominently for more than 30 years – by pros such as Rocco Mediate, Paul Azinger, Bruce Lietzke, Scott McCarron, Tim Clark and Bernhard Langer – but they go all the way back to the 1930s.
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. He said it helped him with short putts by minimizing the adverse effect of nervous tension but hurt his distance control on longer putts. A few years later, he got a longer putter and stuck with it.
Because they have been in use for so long, and by a minority of pros, many people wonder why the governing bodies decided to pursue the change now. There is widespread belief that the change is being made because three of the past five major winners – Keegan Bradley (2011 PGA), Webb Simpson (2012 U.S. Open) and Ernie Els (2012 British Open) – used unconventional putters.
Others believe it is because amateurs and younger players are starting to use it now, such as 14-year-old Guan Tianlang, who won the Asian-Pacific Amateur in November to qualify for the Masters.
Davis of the USGA did not mention the recent major winners during the teleconference, but he cited a “tremendous spike in usage” and “growing advocacy” among pros and instructors, as well the traditions of the game, in explaining the proposed rule change.
“One of the most fundamental things about the game of golf is we believe the player should hold the club away from his body and swing it freely,” Davis said. “We think this is integral to the traditions of the game.
“Golf is a game of skill and challenge and we think that is an important part of it. The player’s challenge is to control the movement of the entire club in striking the ball, and anchoring the club alters the nature of that challenge. Our conclusion is that the Rules of Golf should be amended to preserve the traditional character of the golf swing by eliminating the growing practice of anchoring the club.”
Davis later told the Golf Channel, “We’re not doing this because we said (anchoring the putter) is a great advantage. It may be advantageous for some, but this is fundamentally about what we think is the right thing for the game.
“Rules changes are about the future of the game, and we really do fundamentally think that defining a stroke is the right thing for the future.”
He did not explain why the governing bodies waited so long to push for a rule change.
Reaction to the proposed change varied among players competing in the Tiger Woods World Challenge at Sherwood Country Club in Thousand Oaks, a tournament benefiting Woods’ Orange County-based foundation.
Woods, ranked No. 3 in the world, has always been in favor of outlawing longer putters. He was consulted by USGA officials before the announcement, but there’s no way to know how much weight his opinion carried.
“I just believe that the art of putting is swinging the club and controlling nerves and having it as a fixed point, as I was saying all year, is something that’s not in the traditions of the game,” Woods said during his pre-tournament news conference at Sherwood. “We swing all other 13 clubs. I think the putter should be the same. It should be a swinging motion throughout the entire bag.
“I don’t know if there’s any statistical data on it, but I’m sure there is somewhere, about whether or not anchoring the putter does help on a certain range of putts, especially the guys who have gotten the twitches (or yips) a little bit.
“But one of the things I was concerned about going forward is the kids who get started in the game and starting to putt with an anchoring system. There have been some guys who had success out here (on the PGA Tour using longer putters), and obviously everyone always copies what we do out there. And that’s something that I think for the greater good of the game needs to be adjusted.”
Simpson, who won the U.S. Open at The Olympic Club in San Francisco this past summer, disputes that his belly putter gives him advantage or takes the nerves out his putting stroke.
“I think putting has always been the best part of my game,” he said at Sherwood, noting that he tried the belly putter in 2004 “as kind of a joke” and stuck with it because it felt comfortable to him.
And as for calming the nerves?
“People have said to me (that) having a belly putter takes the hands out of it,” Simpson said. “Well, I was shaking in my boots (before) the last putt at the U.S. Open. So short putter, belly putter, I was nervous as can be.”
Simpson said he believes the change was proposed because he, Bradley and Els won majors, and he wants to see the data that shows using unconventional putters is an advantage, if there is any.
He points out that nobody using a long putter on the PGA Tour in 2011 was among the top 20 putters statistically and that Carl Pettersson, at No. 21, was the highest-ranked putter in 2012.
For the record, Matt Kuchar, who uses a belly putter that is legally anchored to his forearm, was 25th in putting and Bradley was 27th.
Adam Scott, at No. 5, is the highest-ranked player in the world rankings who uses a long putter. Simpson is ranked No. 9, Bradley No. 15 and Els No. 20.
“To change something that drastic, you need to have facts. Show me the facts,” Simpson said, adding that he already is practicing half the time with a conventional putter to get ready for the rule change, which he expected eventually.
Bradley, who became the first pro to win a major with a belly putter, said he doesn’t understand why the change is being made after so many years in use.
“Obviously, I’m not happy with the ruling, but I respect the USGA, especially Mike Davis,” Bradley said at Sherwood. “I’ll adjust appropriately. I grew up using a short putter, so I’m going to embrace the challenge.”
He says he was misquoted when a story mentioned that he might consider legal action.
“I never said that,” he said. “I never said ‘sue’ or used the words ‘legal action.’ … I’m not going to create a problem. I’m going to obey the rules and respect the USGA.”
Bradley insisted that longer putters do not provide an unfair advantage.
“When people say that, it upsets me a little. I don’t think that’s right,” he said. “If we had an unfair advantage, you’d see a lot more (pros) using it.”
The controversy is likely to rage on for years, because the rule won’t go into effect until 2016. But the anchor is on the verge of being dropped.