USGA and R&A Anchoring Ban: The Long and the Short of It

From “Huff’s Stuff” Arizona Golf Blog by Bill Huffman at the Arizona Golf Authority

Well, it’s official even if it’s not going to be over with for at least another two and a half years. And when all is said and done, I’m not sure the U.S. Golf Association and Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews might have changed a darned thing.

I’m talking about the ban on anchored putting, Rule 14-1b, that was announced jointly by the game’s ruling bodies Tuesday and will take effect in 2016. We all knew it was coming after a drawn-out, 90-day comment period. In fact, the decision took so long to reach, yet was so predictable, I almost wanted to scream: “What are you waiting for?”

In a joint statement by the USGA and R&A, one that came at 5:00 a.m. in Arizona (hey, only the East Coast and Europe counts, correct?), the USGA and R&A cited the definition of the stroke as “freely swinging the entire club” to explain their rationale for instituting the ban. That four of the last six majors had been won by players using a long putter, including most recently by Adam Scott at the Masters, might have had more to do with their decision.

Naturally, Scott immediately told the Australian version of Golf Digest that he’ll keep “doing what I’ve been doing.”

“Now we’re making rules for the betterment of the game based on zero evidence? Incredible!” Scott told the magazine. “If I have to separate the putter a millimeter from my chest, then I’ll do that.”

This week I was talking to Kirk Triplett, one of the smarter guys who play the game professionally, about the long putter. The long-time Scottsdale resident, who got his degree in mechanical engineering, has experimented with both the long and the short of it, and gone back to short. And like a lot of his peers who play on the Champions Tour, guys like Tom Lehman for one, Triplett said that after almost 25 years of the long putter hanging around, it was way too late to make the change.

“It’s just silly the way this is all working out,” Triplett said. “The USGA and R&A should be making rules that make the game easier for the average player, not more difficult. And the PGA Tour, which is more skill-based, should be making rules like (14-1b).

“So the irony is the USGA is making (anchoring) illegal for the average guy while the Tour might very well make it legal for the pros. And it could happen, because (the Tour) has talked about making its own set of rules for years now, and from what (Commissioner) Tim Finchem has already said about anchoring, I think the Tour is on the other side of this fence (from the USGA and R&A).”

Triplett said he felt the ruling came down as a “whim of the USGA, and I think that’s unfortunate golf.”

“You look at the game, and it’s changed significantly over the years, from rocks and feathers to rubber, and from hickory shafts to steel and graphite. Our sport has changed perhaps more than any other sport in history and we’ve always adjusted to the changes. So I don’t see how this is going to make any difference.”

Lehman, another well-regarded pro from Scottsdale who has rolled it from both sides but also prefers the traditional method, was even more emphatic.

“You look at somebody like a Keegan Bradley (2011 PGA champ), the way he putts, or Webb Simpson (2012 U.S. Open champ), the way he putts, and they’ve been doing it that way since they’ve started,’’ said Lehman, arguing against the idea that the long putter comes into play late in the career, when players lose their putting touch.

“To tell them, no, you couldn’t use that anymore, I think you would have a huge fight on your hands. I support those guys in that fight, because boy, it’s a long time after the fact, and the horses are way out of the barn by now so how do you call them back in?

“I’m personally not in favor of outlawing it. I don’t think it makes a bit of difference. “

The fight is coming, BTW, at least according to my golf writing friends on Facebook. Many of my colleagues who cover the Tour on a weekly basis insist that a group of players that include Bradley, Scott, Carl Pettersson and part-time Scottsdale resident Tim Clark, to name a few, already have banded together and might sue the USGA and R&A over the ban, claiming the ruling bodies are taking away their livelihood. After all, drive for show and putt for dough, right? Seriously, if players can sue over deer antler spray, this certainly might be a more legitimate cause.

But the Long Putting Gang is waiting to see how the Tour will handle this, and if they’ll even go along with it. Certainly the PGA Tour’s statement that followed the announcement of the ban was icy at best: “We will now begin our own process to ascertain whether the various provisions of Rule 14-1b will be implemented in our competitions and, if so, examine the process for implementation.”

Apparently the Tour will have a comment period of its own, and hopefully that 30 days won’t be drawn out like the 90-day wait by the USGA and R&A that turned out to be more like six months. In the meantime, you might want to look up the word “bifurcation.”

The PGA of America also wasn’t exactly jumping on the USGA-R&A bandwagon. In fact, PGA ‘prez’ Ted Bishop, whose troops run the golf clubs across the country, might be the biggest proponent of the anchoring ban. In the PGA’s official reaction to the ban, Bishop stated that it’s “not in the best interest of recreational golfers, and we are concerned about the negative impact it may have on both the enjoyment and growth of the game.” I know a few club pros who said the long putter will still be in good standing at their clubs, regardless.

There are others who disagree with the ruling, although I think the everyday golfer is kind of oblivious to it. That’s because only about 2 to 4 percent of them use the long putter, while 18 percent of the pros have brought it into play. Besides, the everyday guy doesn’t belong to the USGA or R&A anyway, so who cares about rules? Hey, they’ve been taking mulligans, rolling their balls in the fairway, and giving “gimmes” for years. It’s the way they play.

What was interesting was the reaction in Europe – or the lack of reaction. Golf World quoted Sandy Jones, the chief of the British PGA as saying: “It does seem to be more of an American problem, one that has a lot to do with the speed of the greens over there. Eliminating variables in the stroke (anchoring) is much more helpful when the greens are slick.”

So why did golf’s ruling bodies institute the ban? USGA president Glen D. Nager called it “necessary,” and that was about as poignant as it got.

“Our best judgment is that Rule 14-1b is necessary to preserve one of the important traditions and challenges of the game – that the player freely swing the entire club,” Nager said. “The new rule upholds the essential nature of the traditional method of stroke and eliminates the possible advantage that anchoring provides, ensuring that players of all skill levels face the same challenge inherent in the game of golf.”

That certainly seemed like a better answer to me than the one provided by Peter Dawson, chief executive of the R&A: “We recognize this has been a divisive issue but after thorough consideration we remain convinced that this is the right decision for golf.”

The first time I heard the anchoring ban argument, it was because kids were flocking to the long putter. Then it became the advantage on slick greens theme, and I’m sure there will be others before this quarrel is settled.

Golf manufacturers and gurus like Dave Pelz have railed against the ban on anchoring, some of it selfishly. Still, I have yet to see one single shred of scientific evidence that says those who go long and need to anchor while putting have an advantage over their opponents. I guess I’m just not a purist, preferring to let people do whatever it takes to get the ball in the cup (barring croquet mallets and pool cues). Hey, the game is tough enough!

That’s what bothers me about this ruling, and I’m a guy who always has putted in the traditional style with a regular — or is that “short”? — putter. I tried to putt with the long putter once, but had no touch when it came to lagging the ball (some say I don’t have much touch with the shorter version, either). But I’ve watched guys like Bradley, Simpson and Scott putt with their long wands, and it certainly looks like a back-and-forth putting stroke to me.

Now we’ve got another divisive ruling when the game is struggling to maintain its numbers. I’m not sure about the timing, or whether the USGA and R&A have once again fallen on their own swords, as they did with the square grooves battle that they lost 20-some years ago.

How will the anchoring ban pan out? Unfortunately, I think we are years away from knowing if Rule 14 1-b will be the end of an era, or the beginning of an error.

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