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USGA, R&A propose long-awaited ban on anchoring

Stephen Dunn

To no one’s surprise, the USGA and R&A announced on Wednesday that Keegan Bradley, Webb Simpson, Ernie Els, and a growing number of PGA Tour golfers must come up with alternative ways to use their long putters or switch to shorter models.

As of Jan. 1, 2016, when golf’s governing bodies next update the rule book, anchoring putters against players’ bellies or chests will be in violation of the Rules of Golf, the USGA and R&A said during a widely anticipated conference call. The prohibition will not outlaw long putters, but rather affect the practice of creating a pivot point by placing a hand against a sternum or stomach.

“The R&A and the USGA are announcing a proposed rules change, which would prohibit the anchoring of the club in making a stroke,” R&A chief executive Peter Dawson said in a Wednesday morning teleconference.

Dawson’s USGA counterpart, Mike Davis, confirmed that the ruling would affect anchored strokes only and not the gear.

“This is a purposely narrow ban,” Davis said. “This is going to be focused just on anchored strokes. This is not an equipment change.”

Bradley and a lot of other guys will not be happy with the mandate. Some 50 of the 156 contestants at this year’s PGA Championship employed some form of long putter, though not all braced them with their bodies, according to the Wall Street Journal’s John Paul Newport.

Unless Ernie Els carries through on a veiled threat to sue golf’s overlords, however, the edict may bring an end to a debate that had simmered for years, bubbled up after Bradley won the 2011 PGA Championship, and reached a boiling point after Els became the third major champion -- after Bradley and Simpson -- to triumph with a a belly putter in the bag.

Those in favor of the ban -- a vociferous group led by Tiger Woods -- argued that wedging a club to the body was antithetical to the traditions of golf, and it offered practitioners an unfair advantage.

“I just believe that the art of putting is swinging the club and controlling the nerves. We swing all other 13 clubs; I think the putter should be the same,” Woods said on Tuesday, ahead of the defense of his World Challenge title at Sherwood Country Club.

Davis agreed.

"It's all about the future of the game," he said. "Golf gets back to holding the club in two hands and swinging it freely."

Woods, a long-time proponent of an anchoring ban, lobbied the USGA to implement a ban but was hardly alone in his loathing for an approach that gained a measure of popularity among the 50-plus crowd on the Champions Tour in the 1980s. Golf legends Arnold Palmer and Tom Watson, among others, have taken issue with what they consider a crutch for golfers with the yips.

Brandt Snedeker, 2012 FedEx Cup champion, recently added his voice to the anti-anchoring chorus.

"I feel like they should be banned,'' Snedeker, who used a regulation flat stick on his way to leading the tour in the strokes gained-putting category and placing second in total putting, said on Golf Channel’s “Morning Drive” earlier this month. "I've got no problem with longer putters if you want to make sure they're not anchored; I've just got a problem with anchoring.

“There's a reason why guys that have belly putters use them: they work,” Snedeker said. “If they didn't work, they wouldn't use them.''

Even Els, a blunt critic of long putters for years, reluctantly changed his tune last year, joking that he would “keep cheating” as long as the rules-makers allowed it.

Long putters are not exactly new to the golf world. Newport noted that Orville Moody won the 1989 U.S. Senior Open with a broomstick not unlike that which Adam Scott took up last year. Paul Azinger, in 2000, became the first golfer to win a PGA Tour event with a belly putter.

But it wasn’t until the new crop of 20-somethings on tour, who began employing belly putters before they ever got to the big leagues, that the unconventional wands became lightening rods. When juniors like 14-year-old Guan Tianlang of China, who qualified for next year’s Masters with a belly putter affixed to his non-existent gut, enter the game with long putters, traditionalists just want to gag.

“One of the things that I was concerned about going forward is the kids who get started in the game and starting to putt with an anchoring system,” Woods said in his Tuesday presser. “There’ve been some guys who’ve had some success out here and obviously everyone always copies what we do out here. That’s something that for the greater good of the game needs to be adjusted.”

The question in many minds was why, since there seemed to be no empirical evidence that anchoring provided any sort of competitive edge.

“My argument the whole time is to change something that drastic, it needs to be based off facts and not so-called what certain people think the tradition of the game looks like,” Simpson said Tuesday at Sherwood. “So that's why I've thrown out that nobody in the top 20 last year in strokes gained was using a belly putter or long putter. This year I believe one person, I believe it's Carl Pettersson.”

Fellow belly brigand, Bradley, agreed.

“If we had such an unfair advantage,” Bradley averred, “you’d see more guys using [long putters].”

Nevertheless, with the debate growing louder over the past year, it was clear that the USGA and R&A would heed the call for action. Davis and Dawson, pledged to speak on the issue by the end of the year, noting that they would address a change to the rule and not to the equipment.

Wednesday’s decree was not without precedent. Remember the grooves brouhaha in 2008 that led to lawsuits, charges of cheating, and excessive hand-wringing? Those with longer memories will recall the outrage of the old guard, who, repelled by Sam Snead’s croquet-style putting, put an end to that practice in 1968.

Which brings us to the first day in the rest of the putting lives of Bradley, Els, and Tianlang. Simpson, who has practiced with a shorter putter, may be ready to use it by the PGA Tour’s season-opener in Hawaii.

Bradley, not so much.

“I've grabbed my buddies' just for fun, but I'm not doing any sort of practice with the short putter,” he said, noting that the rules change won’t go into effect until 2016. “I'll use my style of putting until then. And you know, when that time does come closer, I'll start to mess around.

“But as of the time right now,” Bradley said, “I'm still focused on the belly putter.”