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Settling In For A Long Fight

By Ron Sirak Photos by Getty Images
November 19, 2012

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

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.

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?

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.

The game was a lot harder to play when I first took it up, swinging at a wound ball with a tiny persimmon driver. And yet that period, the time when Arnold Palmer and television combined to bring the game to the masses, was perhaps the most robust growth period in the game's history.

The difficulty of the game is one of the allures of golf and as a factor limiting growth it is at best fourth behind cost, pace of play and the fact that established golfers tend not to welcome new golfers. Those are the key issues, not missing a few putts.

Anchoring the putter has saved careers. Scott was No. 186 in the strokes gained-putting stat in 2010 putting in a traditional manner. He switched to the long, anchored putter shortly before the 2011 Masters, which he nearly won.

This year Scott is a still dreadful No. 148 in strokes gained-putting, but he has moved up, improving his differential on the greens from -.746 to -.204. And he nearly won the British Open, finishing second to Els by one stroke after making bogey on the last four holes.

Could they "grandfather" in those already anchoring the long putter as baseball did when it banned the spitball in 1920 but allowed 17 guys already tossing it to continue? (Burleigh Grimes was the last to throw is legally, hurling until 1934.) I suppose they could, but I'm guessing no. Golf likes to have everyone playing the same rules, and I agree.

If anchoring the putter against the body is banned, the timing is as good as it could be. Those employing the method have three years to adapt until the next update to the Rules of Golf is issued.

And if the move is made, you can bet that the opponents of the move will be very vocal. The announcement of the end of anchoring may be near, but that won't mean the end of the argument. In some ways, it may just be beginning.