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The End of an Era: USGA/R&A ban anchored putting

Golf's ruling bodies announced this morning that the anchored stroke, the method typically employed by players using long and belly putters and the method that has been used by the most recent winners of the game's two oldest professional championships, will no longer be allowed, beginning in 2016.

AdamScott1.jpgIn a joint announcement, the U.S. Golf Association and The Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews cited the definition of the stroke as "freely swinging the entire club" to explain their rationale for instituting a ban on anchored putting, which has been used by the winner of four of the last six major championships, including Webb Simpson's and Ernie Els' wins with anchored belly putters at last year's U.S. Open and British Open and Adam Scott's recent Masters victory with an anchored long putter.

The announcement comes nearly six months after the ruling bodies proposed a rule banning anchoring, and, in unprecedented fashion for a playing rule, after a 90-day public comment period. The rule, which will be known as 14-1b, will go into effect beginning in 2016. Its language is unchanged from the proposed wording announced last November:

"In making a stroke, the player must not anchor the club, either 'directly' or by use of an 'anchor point.'

Related: The anchoring rule in pictures

"Note 1:  The club is anchored 'directly' when the player intentionally holds the club or a gripping hand in contact with any part of his 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 may swing the club."

USGA President Glen D. Nager called the decision "necessary." 

"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," he 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."

Peter Dawson, R&A chief executive, echoed Nager's opinion, and acknowledged its controversial nature. "We recognize this has been divisive issue but after thorough consideration we remain convinced that this is the right decision for golf."

Though they sought public comment on the proposed rule to ban anchoring, the ruling bodies were impressed by both the volume and passion of the responses they received. The USGA took in approximately 2,200 individual responses, while the R&A received 450 from 17 countries.

Related: Notable rules changes in golf

In a 40-page explanation, the USGA and R&A outlined responses to a laundry list of objections to the proposal. The document reads almost like a legal treatise or amicus brief, not surprisingly perhaps given that current USGA President Glen D. Nager has argued 13 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. It could also be seen as a first strike against potential anchored putting lawsuits in the future.

Among the most telling words in that document:

On why anchoring is a problem: "Rule 14-1b is based on a judgment that anchoring the club, rather than freely swinging it, might assist the player by altering and reducing the challenge of making a stroke."

On why the rule did not need statistical justification: "The playing rules are definitional: individually and collectively, they reflect what the game is and how it should be played. For example, a player may not pick up the ball and roll it into the hole. That is not because the rulemakers assessed through statistical or other empirical analysis whether players rolling the ball by hand are more successful than players using a club to strike the ball; rather, it is because rolling the ball with one's hand is simply not 'golf.'

On whether it was unfair to ban a method that has been in use for more than 25 years: "It is only recently that a non-trivial and recurring use of anchoring methods emerged--an extremely short time in the history of this 600-year-old game and not reflective of any established tradition."

On why anchoring is not golf: "The concept of immobilizing one end of the golf club  against the body ... is a substantial departure from the traditional understanding of the golf swing."

On why allowing the long and belly putter previously did not stand as tacit approval of anchoring: "No one who chose to use this technique was promised that a rule prohibiting anchored strokes would never be adopted. ...[I]nsisting that any emerging issue of play either be resolved by immediate rule change or  be set aside and permanently ignored would ... place an untenable burden on the rulemaking bodies and be to the severe detriment of the game."

On why banning anchoring will not hurt the growth of the game: "[T]here is a difference between possibly not playing as well and playing less or not at all; and there is a difference between expressions of possible future intent made well in advance of the rule's effective date and actual behaviors that will only later occur as players adapt to the rule." 

On why players will not face extreme hardship because of the ban: "Just as golfers did not need years to transition from making non-anchored strokes with a shorter putter to making anchored strokes with a longer putter, they should not need years to transition to a non-anchored style. The 2016 effective date provides more than enough time for whatever transition steps are deemed desirable and necessary."

On bifurcation: "The history of golf is actually a history of movement toward unification of playing and equipment rules--and this is more than ever true today, as golfers of different abilities from myriad geographies and cultures seek to play the same sport on a national and international basis, and soon in the Olympics."

A GolfDigest.com poll suggests the general public's initial perception of the rule may be as divisive as the leaders of the ruling bodies affirmed today. To the question, "If anchoring is banned by the ruling bodies, would you still do it if you felt it made you a better putter?" slightly more than half (54 percent) answered "yes." 

The leading organizations that play by golf's rules have been just as divided on the issue. The European Tour and LPGA Tour have supported the rulemakers' authority to ban anchored putters, while PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem made it clear that his players "did not think that banning anchoring was in the best interest of golf or the PGA Tour."

Whether the PGA Tour would choose to adopt the rule if it went through, Finchem said at the Players earlier this month: "When they complete this, we'll turn around and have a conversation with our players and our board about the position we should take." 

The most strident opposition came from the PGA of America and its president Ted Bishop, who cited a poll of its membership conducted before the language in the proposed ruling was announced in which 63 percent opposed the anchor ban. Bishop maintained that imposing the ban would have a detrimental effect on the growth of the game. "Enhancing the enjoyment of the game is a personal thing to every golf professional," he told Golf Digest Stix in February. "We can't afford to lose one round of golf or one golfer."


The ruling bodies' explanation concludes with what in that light now sounds like an almost solemn wish: "We understand the concerns expressed by those who feel disadvantaged by this decision. We hope that, when the rule takes effect more than two and a half years from now, the lengthy transitional period and the vast variety of clubs, methods of stroke and playing styles that remain available will enable all golfers to move forward and continue to enjoy the fun and challenge of the game as before."


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