There is no more nerve-wracking task in golf than the four- or five-foot putt. Nerves jangle. Palms sweat. Could be the Masters, for history. Could be the club championship, for posterity. Could be a Friday foursome, for beers. That simple stroke is hard.
Over the past two decades, golf manufacturers have provided pros and amateurs alike with a potential solution. Long putters, many of which are anchored against a player’s chest or belly, have offered a way to steady hands and clear heads.
On Tuesday, the powers that determine the rules of golf made such strokes illegal.
Golf, the men of the U.S. Golf Association said at a televised news conference, involves “important challenges.” To prove it, they issued a 39-page report, broken into six sections, with 24 sub-points therein. They used masters-degree phrases — “bifurcation,” “empirical data.” They must, they said, “protect and preserve the game and its challenges.”
This to determine how a golf club can – and cannot – be held.
Remember Adam Scott, the dashing Australian who last month won the Masters? He won it by standing over a putter that rose up just under his chin and rested on his chest. He swung it like a pendulum, and he made a 12-foot putt to win a sudden death playoff and earn himself a place in the history of the game.
Beginning in 2016, that very stroke will be history.
Although some leading golf organizations oppose the change, the USGA and the R&A – its British counterpart, R&A standing for “Royal and Ancient” – are the keepers of golf’s standards and rules. And Tuesday they announced a long-awaited ban on so-called “anchoring” of putters, introducing Rule 14-1b. Between now and Dec. 31, 2015, a golfer will be able to take a long putter, rest it against his or her body and use it to roll a ball across a green into a hole. On Jan. 1, 2016, practitioners of such a stroke will be cheating.
The long putter, which has actually existed for nearly 50 years, can stay, the USGA and R&A said. Just don’t poke it into your chest or your belly. Swing it freely, shaky hands or not, because those that determine the rules of the game feel that’s the way the game was meant to be played.
“The bottom line is that anchoring has generated serious division within the game and among players about whether those who anchor play the same game and face the same challenges,” said Glen D. Nager, a Washington lawyer, member of the Chevy Chase Club and president of the USGA. “Such divisiveness is corrosive to a game that’s based on sportsmanship.”
The issue, within golf circles, is quite serious. Winners of four of the past six major championships – the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship – have used anchored strokes to earn their victories.
The PGA Tour, which organizes the main men’s professional tournaments in the United States, objects to the ban. It said it will determine whether the rule “will be implemented in our competitions and, if so, examine the process for implementation.” The PGA of America, which conducts the Ryder Cup and the PGA Championship and includes some 27,000 teaching professionals, is also opposed.
The schism raises the unprecedented possibility of two sets of rules to govern the game — though the PGA throughout history has always left rule-setting to the USGA and R&A.
“We are disappointed with this outcome,” PGA of America President Ted Bishop said in a statement. “As we have said publicly and repeatedly during the comment period, we do not believe 14-1b is in the best interest of recreational golfers and we are concerned about the negative impact it may have on both the enjoyment and growth of the game.”
The LPGA, which oversees the women’s U.S. professional tour, said it would abide by the rule.
Some of the game’s foremost names are completely behind the change.
“As far as the PGA Tour, I hope they do it as soon as possible, to be honest with you,” Tiger Woods said Monday at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda. “I’ve always said that. I’ve always felt that golf — you should have to swing the club, control your nerves and swing all 14 clubs, not just 13.”
Or, as Arnold Palmer told reporters in March: “I’ve stated my position, and that is that we do not need a contraption to play the game of golf.”
It’s unclear how many amateur golfers use the technique. Officials at Tuesday’s news conference said surveys suggested it was between 2 and 4 percent, though the PGA Tour and National Golf Foundation said they had no specific numbers.
Buddy Christensen, the president of the Golfdom store in McLean, Va., said the sale of long putters rose significantly a few years ago but has been “bone-dry” since the USGA and R&A announced their proposed ban in November. And though he didn’t approach Tuesday’s announcement as a game-changer in the equipment industry, he – like other golfers – said it could send the wrong message
“How will it affect the everyday player?” Christensen said. “I’d like them to buy more clubs, like them to play more. I’d like them to enjoy it more. It all comes hand-in-hand. I don’t know if banning the belly putter prevents that, but it psychologically feels like it.”
Psychology has always been, and will always be, such an important part of putting, regardless of the implement or the manner in which it’s used. In 2016, for Scott and others, a new psychology will exist: How to stand over those same slippery four-footers, newly forced to execute an old-school stroke?