Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 23, 2013

All Of Golf In Need Of A Mulligan

All in all these haven’t been the best days for golf. First there was way too much attention paid to the tit for tat sniping between Sergio Garcia and Tiger Woods, two players who share a long-standing dislike for one other. Their latest contretemps began almost two weeks ago when they were paired together for the third round of the Players Championship. On the second hole Woods elicited a loud roar from his typically massive gallery by pulling a 3-wood from his bag, indicating that he was going to attempt a high risk second shot on the par-5. But the reaction came just as Garcia was in midswing on the other side of the fairway, causing the Spaniard to flinch and send his own second shot astray. Given their acrimonious history and Garcia’s penchant for victimization, no one was going to convince Sergio that the incident was anything but purposeful on Tiger’s part.

Fueled by ongoing questions from reporters neither player seemed capable of changing the subject for the next ten days, with Woods calling Garcia a whiner and the latter responding by implying that the former is an habitual liar. Then on Tuesday the playground taunts took on an entirely different tone when Garcia parried a joking question with a racially tinged response that he apparently thought was funny. Profound apologies, always the best kind, soon followed; but the whole affair was enough to remind one of the many virtues of the words “no comment.”

While grown men who make millions of dollars playing a game were busy calling each other names, their female counterparts were trying, without much success, to get a tournament underway. The Pure Silk – Bahamas LPGA Classic was supposed to begin on Thursday. LPGA Tour officials are rightly proud of the new event. With its $1.3 million purse the tournament is one of three new stops on this year’s schedule, reversing years of first decline and then stagnation in both the number of tournaments and total prize money on the Tour. American Stacy Lewis, 2012 LPGA Player of the Year, counts Ohio-based Pure Silk among her corporate sponsors, and she helped convince the company’s management to sign on as the lead sponsor for the event. With four rounds of coverage by the Golf Channel and a picturesque location at the Ocean Club on Paradise Island all seemed primed to produce lots of positive images and news for the women’s tour.

But even as players were still arriving in Nassau on Tuesday the entire area was inundated by a violent storm. Nearly a foot of rain fell in less than eight hours, leaving debris throughout the course and standing water on nearly half the holes. Needing time to return the golf course to playable condition the Tour had no choice but to delay the start of the tournament until Friday, shortening the event to 54 holes. By Thursday, with water still covering parts of the 9th and 15th through 18th holes, the tournament was further truncated with the announcement that the first two rounds would be staged over a 12-hole layout. LPGA rules require a minimum of 36 holes for a tournament to be considered official and prize money awarded. With a strong chance of more storms on Friday, what was once envisioned as a showcase for the Tour was in danger of turning into a waterlogged debacle. But overall the women were still ahead of the men. At least Lewis didn’t respond to a question by saying she’d have dinner with Ai Miyazato and serve only sushi.

Yet in the end neither name calling nor epic rain could distract golf fans from the worst news of the week, Tuesday’s long-expected joint announcement by the USGA and R&A that they were adopting their proposed rule banning an anchored putting stroke beginning in 2016. USGA president Glen Nager said the rule was necessary “to preserve one of the important traditions and challenges of the game – that the player freely swing the entire club.” The problem with Nager’s statement is that for a small but significant number of golfers, both amateur and professional, that “tradition” hasn’t been true on the putting green for decades.

It’s been more than twenty years since I first saw a broomstick putter being used by another amateur, the top of the shaft anchored against his sternum, in a friendly afternoon game. Tim Clark and Carl Pettersson, both of whom have played on the PGA Tour for more than a decade, have used anchored strokes throughout their professional careers. Twice Masters champion Bernhard Langer has won 18 Champions Tour events since turning 50, all with a long putter and an anchored stroke. At any given PGA Tour stop about fifteen percent of the pros are now using belly or broomstick putters and an anchored stroke. While it’s hard to quantify the usage among amateurs, it’s a given that we hackers have a strong tendency to emulate what we see on television, be it new equipment or ponderously slow play.

Perhaps an anchored stroke does afford an advantage. But if true it has been doing so for a long time, for a significant minority of golfers. The new rule is bad news not because of its substance but because it is literally decades too late. The USGA and R&A have decided to close the barn door not just after the horse has left the barn, but after it has left the premises altogether, traveled to Kentucky, won the Derby, and gone on to a successful career at stud.

The insistence by the governing bodies that a perceived tradition be maintained is unlikely to be the final word on the matter. Both the PGA Tour and the PGA of America opposed adoption of the new rule. It remains unclear how either organization will respond now that the decision has been announced.

If the Tour decides to ignore the rule by adopting its own “conditions of competition” standard allowing continued use of anchored putting strokes, then the long history of players at all levels of the game playing under the same rules will end. There might actually be an upside to that, for if bifurcation becomes reality it would allow the Tour to consider other changes limiting some of the technological advances to clubs and balls that in the hands of pros are rendering more and more courses obsolete. On the other hand, if the Tour elects to abide by Rule 14-1b, then legal action by several of the players who currently use an anchored stroke is a virtual certainty. Professional golfers are people too, and people generally do not take lightly actions that interfere with the way they make their living.

The PGA of America represents 27,000 teaching pros who have seen the number of players coming to their courses decline in recent years. They recognized that any action which for some players makes the game harder is only going to accelerate that exodus. On its own the organization would have a harder time justifying a basis for allowing its member pros and their clubs to ignore a single rule of the game. But what those club pros know is that irrespective of what the rule book says, what happens out on the course can be another matter. On the weekends the hackers roll the ball over, or give one another do-overs. If a few years hence, at clubs all across the land, a banned putting stroke is still being used, it’s not likely that the club pro is going to be calling the USGA to rat out his members. Should that turn out to be the case, the ultimate losers will be those who this week vainly sought to preserve their idea of tradition.

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