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Final Say

With The Game At A Crossroads, The USGA Is Set To Take Action

Mike Davis and the birdman

The mean-face ferocity normally mild-mannered USGA executive director Mike Davis demonstrated at the U.S. Open is exactly the decisive action golfers have been wanting from the USGA for too long.

September 10, 2012

Birdman's so-bad-it's-good performance art at this year's U.S. Open trophy presentation might have cracked the zeitgeist, but the more meaningful image was the mean-face ferocity normally mild-mannered USGA executive director Mike Davis demonstrated while bum-rushing the cuckoo off the stage.

That's because decisive action is what golfers have been wanting from the USGA for too long. As the game has gotten weighed down with difficult courses, slower play, higher green fees and harder-to-follow rules -- all of which contribute to dwindling participation -- the wheels at Golf House seemed to grind to a halt.

When the organization did move, as it misguidedly did in its complicated and, to many, inconsequential groove ruling of 2010, it arguably lost more credibility. It's no coincidence an old quip that used to make USGA insiders sound both wry and confident -- "We govern by all the authority not vested in us" -- hasn't been heard for awhile. It remained clever, but it started cutting too close to the bone.

Bottom line, the game has been needing a boss. More than the PGA Tour, the PGA of America or even the R&A, golfers believe their regulator, protector and guide should be the USGA. Davis and current president Glen Nager shared that sentiment as silently disgruntled passengers on the recent drift, and now the understated but determined duo is poised to assert new and needed ideas.

Although the results haven't yet bubbled to the surface, things are happening. Most imminent is the pending decision on anchoring. When it comes down this fall, and all signs point to the governing bodies outlawing the practice, there will be a grace period, shorter for elite competitors, longer for average players, but the effect will be the same. Long and belly putters will soon become relics.

There's a good argument that it's a hasty decision. There is nothing approaching definitive proof scientifically or statistically -- only opinions -- that anchoring is a biomechanically superior method. The very best putters continue almost exclusively to putt conventionally. The pending ruling will undoubtedly, and justifiably, anger players and manufacturers, some of whom might even sue.

But the point here is the USGA is using its de facto authority, vested or not, to clean up a mess. It knows it will be reneging on a 23-year-old decision, which alone doesn't seem fair. It admits that sympathy for players desperate for a "last resort" method is the main reason anchoring has continued to be allowed. But with more players without overt putting problems choosing to switch to the broomstick or belly, there's a threat that in 50 years everyone will be using them. Very simply, widespread use of long putters is not the way the USGA and the R&A want the game to look. Essentially the leadership, led in America by Davis and Nager, is going parental: Why the ban? Because we say so.

Call it arbitrary, but it's a cleaner way than administering a bunch of studies and tests that prolong the process and provide litigious fodder. The USGA is on solid ground when its wiser heads use their best judgment. It was a telling moment when during the Casey Martin case, Justice Antonin Scalia asked, "Aren't all sports rules arbitrary?" Yes, they are. And it's a premise that, in the hands of the qualified, is needed to get the SS Far Hills turned around.

Nager gave fair warning in February during the USGA's annual meeting that change is in the offing. The man is serious about making sustainability the umbrella term to address the game's most immediate ills. With no one denying that golf is in trouble, the leadership has license to push for a more streamlined version of the game that will be browner, shorter, easier, faster and cheaper.

Davis and Nager are putting themselves in the line of fire, but both are big boys. Davis has been the USGA's setup man for the last seven U.S. Opens and been second-guessed the last three. Nager is a world-class litigator who has made his name arguing more than a dozen cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. Each can make clear decisions about what is best for the game and handle whatever heat comes.

More importantly, both have learned from close observation that the heat actually gets worse when nothing is done.

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