Glen Nager (left) and Mike Davis (right) with Jack Nicklaus at the 2012 U.S. Open Preview Day.
Obviously, anchoring ain't over. Indeed, the aftermath of last week's much anticipated rules change could itself become an anchor on the game. Still, there is suddenly a strong sense that the USGA has got its mojo back.
The presentation on anchoring last week from Far Hills by USGA president Glen Nager and executive director Mike Davis, which both ratified and explained the ban that will be jointly adopted by the R&A, exuded the kind of confidence and clarity that has been missing from the USGA for too long.
Though no rule change has ever received so much public scrutiny, the moment had a nostalgic feel, a throwback to an imagined time when precise and knowing rules crafters like Richard Tufts and P.J. Boatwright sternly held a principled line and made the hard calls that simply declared, "This is golf."
Lately, with rapid advances in equipment and techniques threatening the traditional but subjective premium on skill and challenge in the professional game, that call has been harder to make. But Nager, now in the final year of his two-year term as president, and Davis, only in his third in the top-salaried job, are going back to the future, on a mission to do what's best for the game. Even if, as Davis has said, "we get black and blue in the process."
Probably sooner than they thought, they did. After proposing the rules change last November, a couple of surprise change-ups from PGA of America president Ted Bishop ("bad for participation") and PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem ("no proof of competitive advantage") led to months of fastballs under the ribs from players and equipment companies emboldened by the high-powered dissenters.
It seemed as if Nager and Davis, rendered mute by the 90-day comment period, had overplayed their hand. But when the enforced silence broke, it did so resoundingly. The bespectacled Nager's presentation -- distilled from the main points of a rigorously rendered 40-page brief -- was delivered with an authority honed by his 13 appellate arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court.
For all its detail, the defense of the ban was built on three simple pillars that the USGA believes are widely supported in the golf community: the unambiguous definition of a legal golf stroke as a free swing of the entire club, the elimination of the potential advantage that anchoring can provide by the diminished effects of nerves and pressure, and the removal of a source of ongoing divisiveness in the game.
When Nager was finished, the main objections to the ban -- that it comes too late, that it lacks supporting data, and that it will drive people from the game -- sounded shrill. That the USGA didn't change any of its original language for the proposed rule led to predictable charges that the comment period had been a sham. But the more convincing converse is that disciplined work by a first-rate mind had produced better reasoning than reactions based on emotion, fuzzy logic and/or self-interest. Nager's presentation is reminiscent of the way former PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman crafted the tour's first annual report in 1983 to deflate a group of star players who wanted to oust him.
Playing wingman on the dais was Davis, a former competitive amateur imbued in the traditions of the game. As the ongoing setup man of the U.S. Open, Davis may understand the skills of elite players as well as anyone in golf, and is a close student of trends. The impetus for enacting the ban now came from Davis' strong sense that an increasing number of the game's best players and instructors were beginning to consider anchoring a superior way to putt. Based on his judgment that anchoring creates a potential advantage that reduces challenge, Davis decided that a ban was best for the future of the game.
Finchem may privately feel the same way, but publicly and as a representative of his membership, he went on record as opposing the ban. In the past the tour has unwaveringly followed the Rules of Golf, but it is possible that this summer the tour will depart from its own history and that of every other professional tour and start down the road of making its own rules.
Nager and Davis have applied clear thinking to that issue and concluded it would lead to chaos. It is doubtful fellow clear thinker (and legacy-minded) Finchem would disagree. Here's betting that the muddled thinking in the anchoring debate is relegated to marginal lawsuits. Ultimately, the USGA's renewed mojo will carry the day.