Golf's ruling bodies are ready to put an end to the style of putting that has been used by the winners of three of the last five major championships.
Less than a year after announcing they were going to take a fresh look at the topic, the U.S. Golf Association and the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews announced a proposed rule change today that in 2016 would prohibit the anchored style of putting, the same style that was used by the winners of both the U.S. and British Open this year. The proposed rule would not ban belly or long putters, but it would ban any stroke where the grip or hand is anchored "directly" to any "anchor point" on the body.
The ruling bodies are seeking comment from golfers and the golf industry over the next three months before making a final decision. Assuming the timeline remains unchanged, the rule will be approved by both the USGA and the R&A this spring, and the anchored stroke ban would go into effect with the next official revision of the rules in January 2016.
"It's been a polarizing issue, and for many years you've had people who genuinely care about the game sit on both sides of it," USGA Executive Director Mike Davis told GolfDigest.com. "It's been fairly divisive and it's only gotten more so in the last year, but this decision gets back to the USGA and R&A feeling that fundamentally golf for 600 years has been about picking up the club, gripping it with two hands and making a free swing away from the body.
"We don't write rules to make the game easier, but we don't write rules to make the game harder, either. We write them to define the game, clarify the game, and in this case, the game has always been about swinging the club freely, and the anchored stroke is really a diversion from that."
The rule's proposed language is not overly complicated. Slated to appear under Rule 14, Striking the Ball, the new stipulation would be listed under Rule 14-1b, Anchoring the Club, and read as follows:
"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 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."
Davis wanted to be clear that the proposed rule does not restrict the use of any currently conforming equipment.
"You can use that same club and just move the club, your hand or your forearm off the chest and putt that way," he said. "We're not trying to hurt the game, we're giving you options. We're not saying everybody has to putt conventionally with a 34 or 35-inch putter."
Indeed, the proposed rule not only allows for long and belly putters but also certain types of unique strokes that are not characterized by the new rule as anchoring. Examples of accepted strokes include bracing the grip against the inside of the forearm with the opposing hand (similar to Bernhard Langer's method in winning the 1993 Masters Tournament) or allowing the grip to extend up from the hands but rest against the lead forearm (similar to the stroke employed by Matt Kuchar last year). The USGA has produced a PowerPoint presentation, a poster and a video (below) to illustrate which strokes are permitted and which aren't under the new proposal. View a slide show of acceptable and unacceptable methods here.
"We don't see this as a big trend," he told Golf Channel's Morning Drive in April of 2011. "It's not as if all the junior golfers out there are doing this. No one's even won a major using one of these things anchored to themselves. So we don't see this as something that is really detrimental to the game."
But Davis said today it was almost precisely at that moment that the trend began to turn. Although the overlength putter has been around the game in a small way since the 1930s, long and belly putters have been used in 15 victories in the last two years on the PGA Tour, including the 2011 PGA Championship (Keegan Bradley), the 2012 U.S. Open (Webb Simpson) and the 2012 British Open (Ernie Els). He also pointed to usage data that suggested belly and long putters were used by three to four percent of tour players from the 1980s through the mid-2000s before a sudden upsurge.
Davis said that in 2011 the number was 11 percent, and in 2012 it was 15 percent, and as high as 20 or 25 percent in some events. More importantly, Davis said, "in the junior game, where we've seen virtually no anchoring before, all of a sudden it's started to appear. And that caused us to say, 'Is this what we really want the game of golf to be in the future?' We came to the conclusion that fundamentally that's not part of golf.
"We're nervous about where this could lead, not just in putting but we're starting to see people do it with chip shots, and we just think fundamentally that is not golf."
Although a ban on anchored putting has been decried as unfair by some current belly and long putter users, including Bradley and Tim Clark, both of whom have suggested they might pursue legal avenues, others, including ESPN legal expert Lester Munson, believe precedent is in the favor of the ruling bodies. Tiger Woods, who in the past has made clear his opposition to the belly and long putter, indicated in his press conference at the World Challenge that his opinion was still firm.
"We swing all other 13 clubs. I think the putter should be the same. It should be a swinging motion throughout the entire bag.," he said Tuesday, indicating he was especially concerned that youngsters were copying the pros' anchored putting style. "That's something that I think for the greater good of the game needs to be adjusted."
Bradley has voiced words just as strongly the other direction, telling Golfweek in October, "I'm going to do whatever I have to do to protect myself and the other players on tour. I look at it as a whole, as us all together. I don't look at it as much about myself," Bradley said. "I think that for them to ban this after we've done what we've done is unbelievable." Bradley was less strident on Tuesday at the World Challenge, however.
"I'm obviously not happy with the ruling, but I respect the USGA, and especially Mike Davis," Bradley said. "They make the rules, and I'll adjust appropriately. I'm going to accept the challenge and hopefully do well when they do ban it."
Golf's professional tour leaders did not have an immediate reaction to the announcement, but George O'Grady, chief executive of the European Tour, told Press Association Sport on Monday that he would advise his tour to not adopt its own set of rules.
"Speaking personally on behalf of the Tour," he said, "one of our great facets is that we are connected to the game that every amateur can play as well.
"We could go separately. I would urge the Tour to follow the rules as laid down by the governing bodies."
Davis acknowledges the passion about the issue, but he still believes the rule change is the right thing for the future of the game.
"We understand the other side," he says of the rumblings about lawsuits. "We hate to think that it would get to that point, but we're going to do what we think is right for the game and if we have to get involved in litigation, we will.
"If we don't do what we think is right just for fear of a lawsuit, then shame on us. We shouldn't be in the governance business then."
But Davis isn't adopting an aggressive stance. He knows there will be some initial difficulties, and he is sensitive to any negative reaction the proposal might receive.
"It's a hard issue short term," he said. "We understand the other side, we don't want to hurt golfers, we don't want to hurt the game, but we just want to clarify what the game should be, and we feel this is the right thing to do and we're passionate about it."
He said he's presented the idea of how the rule will allow all belly and long putters and certain types of strokes to golfers who currently use those putters but anchor them. He says he's seen immediate converts.
"I say to them, 'We're not going to take away your long putter. All you need to do is this, where you control the whole club with your hands,'" he said. "It's almost a light bulb moment. They look at me and say, 'Are you serious? This would be OK?' And I say, 'Yes, because if you move the club away from you, you are controlling the whole stroke.' And they look at me and say, 'Oh, wow, this isn't as bad as I thought it was going to be. I can putt this way.'"