Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 6, 2012

Anchors Away, But Golf’s Real Problems Are Still In The Bag

While last week’s joint announcement by the R&A and USGA of a proposed change to the Rules of Golf that would prohibit anchoring a club while making a stroke was widely expected, it was still hailed by the purists and traditionalists who make up a large segment of golfers and golf fans. While the rule theoretically applies to any stroke, its obvious purpose is to restrict the use of the long-handled belly and broomstick putters that in recent years have appeared in an increasing number of players’ bags on both the professional tours and at local clubs.

The rule, which isn’t scheduled to take effect until 2016, doesn’t ban long putters outright. But virtually every golfer who wields one of the clubs anchors the putter against some part of his body. In the case of the aptly named belly putter, the end of the shaft is typically anchored against one’s stomach. With the longer broomstick models a golfer grips the end of the shaft firmly against his sternum. Opponents of the long putters contend that by establishing an anchor point rather than swinging freely the putting stroke becomes easier to control, less subject to the vagaries of jangling nerves and twitching small muscles in the hands and wrists.

There would seem to be validity to that argument, especially since for years long putters were seen almost exclusively in the bags of older golfers and those known to be notoriously bad on the greens. They were considered by most as a weapon of last resort for those no longer able to get the ball in the hole with a conventional blade. But lately the popularity of the bellies and broomsticks has grown. On the PGA Tour as recently as 2010 only 6% of golfers used a long putter. In the season just ended that number had grown to 15%.

Along with the growth in sheer numbers came an increase in success for players using a belly or broomstick. Perhaps most significant for the rules makers was the fact that recently that success extended beyond the weekly insurance company or car manufacturer open. In May 2010 South African Tim Clark won the prestigious Players Championship, coming from three strokes back in the final round. It was Clark’s first victory after almost ten years on Tour. Clark has always used a long putter because he suffers from a medical condition that limits his ability to rotate his hands. Fourteen months later Australian Adam Scott won the Bridgestone Invitational, one of four World Golf Championship events, using a broomstick. The following week Keegan Bradley became the first golfer to win a major using a long putter when he defeated Jason Dufner in a three-hole playoff at the PGA Championship. Then this year Webb Simpson won the U.S. Open at Olympic, and 42-year old Ernie Els captured the Claret Jug at the Open Championship at Royal Lytham. Bradley, Simpson, and Els all won using a belly putter.

One day after Els became the third golfer in four majors to win using a long putter, the executive director of the R&A made it clear that a change to the rules was almost certainly coming. Speaking to reporters Peter Dawson said, “The situation is that the R&A and the USGA do have this subject firmly back on the radar. I think you’re going to see us saying something about it one way or the other in a few months rather than years.” Now as promised, the proposed new rule has been announced; and while the rule making process dictates that there be a period for public comment before a final decision is made, there is no real doubt that proposed Rule 14-1b will shortly become a part of the Rules of Golf.

While traditionalists may feel like they have won a great victory, they should pause to consider the very real probability that it’s a hollow one. Golf is changing thanks to advances in technology, and not necessarily for the better. For the USGA and the R&A, charged with protecting and promoting the game, long putters should be well down the list of concerns. But they stand out, simply because the clubs themselves obviously look different from what players and fans are used to seeing. Similarly, the stroke that a golfer employs to use a belly or broomstick looks different from a conventional putting stroke. That makes the clubs and the players using them easy targets. Tiger Woods illustrated the real nature of the objections to the clubs when he proposed that the rules be changed to require that the putter be the shortest club in the bag. One could almost hear the clichéd reason for such a rule; after all, that’s the way it’s always been.

As long putter proponents point out, if a belly or broomstick really guaranteed an advantage, wouldn’t the professional tours have seen not an increase but an avalanche in the number of golfers wielding the long sticks? What professional in his right mind wouldn’t seek every possible legal edge to increase his chances of cashing a bigger paycheck on Sunday afternoon? The PGA Tour’s most comprehensive measure of putting prowess is a statistic called Strokes Gained – Putting. It measures the number of putts a player takes from any distance against a statistical baseline of the average number of putts taken from the same distance by the entire field. In 21st place on the list of Strokes Gained – Putting for the entire 2012 season, Sweden’s Carl Pettersson was the highest ranked golfer using a long putter. Bradley ranked 27th, Simpson 54th, Els 112th, Clark 123rd, and Scott 148th. Perhaps each would have ranked even lower if forced to use a conventional putter; but it’s clear that whatever they are gaining from the long shaft on the fourteenth club in their bag, it’s not propelling them to the top ranks of the Tour when it comes to their proficiency on the greens. It’s also worth remembering that Els was able to win the Open this year thanks to third round leader Scott missing a string of putts over the closing holes.

But because long putters stand out, they will soon be effectively banned. The most prominent names currently using them have indicated they won’t fight the new rule. This week Scott was seen practicing with a conventional putter prior to the Australian Masters, though he switched back to his broomstick when play began on Thursday. But Pettersson and Clark have both indicated they may consider legal action against the rules makers; and the PGA of America expressed its concern about the new rule, citing a survey it conducted of club pros in which two-thirds opposed a ban on anchoring. So the transition may not be entirely smooth, but in the end the rules makers will get their way.

Meanwhile, in the golf bag of virtually every traditionalist who is praising the new rule and decrying the advantage of long putters there can be found a driver with a composite head the size of a cantaloupe. Next to it are a couple of hybrid clubs, the newest cross between fairway woods and long irons; and in a pocket of the bag are a dozen high-tech multi-layer golf balls with the latest aerodynamic dimple pattern. With these weapons the middle-aged purist can hit drives that fly much farther than his drives did when he was a young man. But because he is an amateur the drives are not always straight, sometimes leading to lengthy searches for that high-tech ball. But if it is found in the rough the hybrid clubs allow the doughty traditionalist to hit recovery shots that he could only dream about attempting with a 3-iron.

The result of all this is often slower play to accommodate the searches for wayward shots and increased costs to maintain courses that have more areas in play and must have deeper rough. Meanwhile tees are pushed further and further back so that courses won’t be overwhelmed by pros using the same modern equipment; in the process making many holes and some entire courses more an endurance test than an enjoyable experience for the average hacker. Golf’s highest cathedral, the Old Course at St. Andrews, is undergoing extensive renovations and lengthening of half its holes so it can remain a viable venue for the Open Championship. Europe’s Ryder Cup star Ian Poulter likened it to painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa. But the oversized drivers, hybrid clubs and high-tech balls don’t look funny, so the rules makers will let them be, even as the number of amateurs taking up the game trends downward. But at least they took care of those weird-looking putters.

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