Why changing an equipment rule is never easy
Regardless of your view on the anchored-stroke ban (beginning in 2016), credit the USGA and the R&A for cleverly changing their strategy, and successfully executing it.
It's no secret that the rules-makers never liked the anchored style of putting, even though they reaffirmed it was OK in late 1989. Since then, there had been a few efforts to rid the game of anchored strokes by changing the equipment rules. But changing an equipment regulation is never easy. It's a costly, complex and frequently litigious process. Plenty of factual performance-based data is required because it's understood that previously approved golf clubs (e.g., longer putters) purchased in good faith by the consumer shouldn't be ruled illegal on a whim.
The R&A and the USGA believed they couldn't make the case for an equipment-rule change, so nothing happened, and the number of players using an anchored putting stroke continued to grow.
But in 2012, the R&A and the USGA came up with a new game plan, much like a football team abandoning a grind-it-out running game for an air-it-out passing attack. They amended a playing rule by declaring that an anchored stroke is similar to a push, scrape or spoon: illegal. That decision will take no previously approved clubs out of play.
The ultimate decision was made solely by the USGA and the R&A despite objections from two powerful organizations, the PGA Tour and the PGA of America. But that's how it can work with the playing rules. When Professor Henry Higgins states in the classic "My Fair Lady" song "I'm An Ordinary Man" that "she will listen very nicely, and then go out and do precisely what she wants," he could be speaking of the R&A and the USGA. The entire exercise took less than a year to finalize. That's warp speed in the rules-making world.
Remember a few years ago when the groove specifications were made more restrictive on all clubs with lofts of 25 degrees and higher? The revisions were "designed to restore the challenge of playing shots to the green from the rough by reducing backspin on those shots" (USGA news release, August 2008). It was an equipment rollback affecting thousands of irons, hybrids and wedges. The implementation was tiered in three stages to soften the impact on the folks who buy their equipment: the amateur golfers. It's understandable if the details have slipped your mind.
The professional tours—men and women, including all the majors—adopted the new regulation in 2010. In 2014, it will be in effect at all USGA national championships and some other elite amateur events, too. (Suggestion to top-caliber amateurs: Check with the USGA to confirm that all your clubs conform.)
The rest of us—more than 99 percent of all golfers—can breathe easy because we won't need to switch out any of our clubs until, according to the USGA, "at least 2024, if not indefinitely."
Changing the groove measurements involved years of laboratory research, field tests and analysis of tour data. It was a collaborative, transparent process. The golf-equipment manufacturers (many are publicly traded companies) were kept fully informed. And though the USGA and the R&A are loathe to admit it, organizations like the PGA Tour, European Tour and LPGA Tour were shareholders with voting power. Their support from the start was a necessity. After all, it was the highly skilled touring professionals who would be most affected. It would make little sense to change an equipment rule if the major tours didn't use it for their competitions.
Has the groove change made an appreciable performance difference among tour players? According to Mike Stachura, Golf Digest's senior editor/equipment, the groove rule's effect is still unclear.
If the USGA and R&A are really serious about rolling back the golf ball, the important constituents who had a vote on the grooves change will be at the decision-making table. And they'll have veto power, too, because they represent their constituents' interests. (Other than restoring approach-shot values on classic older courses at which his players seldom perform, I imagine Tim Finchem wondering what the upside would be for the PGA Tour, and not finding much.) But who will speak for the rest of us: the 99 percenters, who've already been encouraged to "tee it forward"?
It's something to think about as I scour the Golf Digest Hot List for some new clubs that might get me a few extra yards. I can use the help.
David Fay is the former executive director of the USGA.