Ron Sirak

Settling In For A Long Fight

An imminent ruling on anchoring would hardly mean the end of the debate

PGA Tour: Ernie Els

Ernie Els' win at the British Open was the third by a belly putter in a span of four majors.

November 20, 2012

When George H. W. Bush was President of the United States, he kept a 52-inch putter in the grandfather clock in the Oval Office so he could practice when he had a free minute. Bush the Elder was known for his rapid pace of play, but he was also known for anchoring that putter against his chest.

Now presidents, and even ex-presidents, can pretty much do what they want on the golf course -- ask Bill Clinton about mulligans -- but for just about anyone else the end appears to be near when it comes to anchoring the putter.

Related: Could players legally fight a ban?

Or at least the announcement of the end is near. The whispered word is that lawyers for the USGA have spent the last couple of weeks closing all the loopholes and making as specific as possible the language on the new rule, which would not go into effect until 2016.

After three of four majors championships beginning with Keegan Bradley in the 2011 PGA were won with anchored putters (Webb Simpson and Ernie Els were the other two, both this year), and with more and more young players making the switch, the matter got on the radar screen of the USGA and the R&A.

The two governing bodies promised in July they would make a decision on the technique before the end of the year, and there is not much of the year left. Now I'm not a lawyer, and I don't even play one on TV, but I'm wondering if the 2001 U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Casey Martin might be of some concern here.

In ruling that the PGA Tour could not establish walking as a condition of competition -- allowing Martin to use a cart under the Americans with Disabilities Act -- it appeared as if the Court undermined the power of governing bodies to make rules that impinge on an individual's right to make a living.

If the USGA and R&A do ban anchoring, and if there are lawsuits, those suits will not come from manufacturers -- the long putters are not being banned, just the way they are used -- but by individuals. Would Bradley, Els, Simpson, Carl Pettersson, Tim Clark, Adam Scott and the like sue, saying the ban hurts their right to make a living?

Related: Is the USGA close to making a decision?

There have been hints of legal action, especially by Clark, who has anchored the putter for 16 years. I wonder what would have happened if Sam Snead had sued the USGA when it prohibited him from putting croquet-style in 1968? I wonder if Slammin' Sammy ever considered it? Probably not. Those days were not a litigious as today.

Certainly, banning anchoring seems to be consistent with the prohibition against straddling the line of your putt, as Snead did until the USGA banned it. "The history of the game cries out that you play it from one side of the ball," Joseph C. Dey Jr., executive director of the USGA at the time, said. "Bizarre stances and clubs were beginning to make it look like another game."

But the croquet-style, like anchoring, is more than just bizarre looking: It is a competitive advantage. Some would say it is merely an improvement, and what's wrong with that? Well, I guess it's just a case of establishing where to draw the line. Anchoring is pretty close to using an outside agency as a swing aid.

Al Barkow, who wrote the biography, The One and Only Sam Snead said the argument for the croquet-style ban "was that it was not traditional, a spurious raison d'etre that might well have been actionable if a professional had wanted to take it to court. After all, it denied [Snead] the right to support himself, and it certainly wasn't endangering the community. Thirty years later, someone probably would have sued."

Now, there is an argument that a prohibition against anchoring the long putter against the body will make golf more difficult for the recreational golf and thus limit growth of the game. I pretty much reject all the golf-is-too-difficult arguments to explain away the fact that participation rates have been flat for nearly two decades.

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