LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England -– The stroke in question has been around for more than 75 years, since the late Paul Runyan first anchored a long putter to his belly.
But not until the action became prevalent at all levels of golf from the professional to amateur ranks did the game’s governing bodies, the R&A and the U.S. Golf Association, decide to take a serious look at the belly and long putters, and specifically the act of anchoring the club to the body.
Since early 2012 in meetings at Augusta, San Francisco and Lytham & St. Annes, R&A and USGA leaders have discussed the subject. When they meet again in September, a decision likely will be reached on whether any stroke that anchors a club to the body will be considered a violation of the rules.
“I think it’s incumbent on us to make our position reasonably clear in months rather than years,” Peter Dawson, chief executive of the R&A, said about the anchoring issue while attending the Open at Royal Lytham & St. Annes Golf Club.
Mike Davis, Dawson’s counterpart at the USGA, agrees that it’s time to answer the question. However, Davis concedes that the question is not so simple that it warrants a “yes” or “no” answer.
If the governing bodies are going to ban something, which at this point seems likely, what is it that they are going to ban? According to Davis, who became the USGA’s seventh executive director in March 2011, equipment is off the table and the focus is solely on the stroke itself.
“If you want to ban something, what do you want to ban? Because you just say the word anchoring, it can mean a lot of different things,” Davis said in outlining the difficulty of any rules change. “And it’s not just putting, either. There are clubs that come out that you can literally put – people that have yips with the pitch shots – there are clubs now where you can anchor a club underneath your armpit and pitch that way. The point is, there’s a lot more to this than just somebody with a belly putting.”
Even the term anchoring is not so easy to define, if in fact the stroke were to be banned.
So between the meeting here before the Open Championship and September, much work will need to be done to find a solution and any rule change, if one is warranted.
“We really are saying to ourselves, whatever gets done is going to be tough in the short run,” Davis said. “If we decide to do nothing, that decision – I mean, that indecision, if you will – is actually a decision. Many of us feel like if we decide to do nothing, it’s really unfair to the game of golf and to future governing bodies, people involved, to say 20 years from now, let’s look at it again.”
When Keegan Bradley won the PGA Championship at Atlanta Athletic Club last year, he was the first golfer to win a major title with a belly putter. His victory stoked the fires of the traditionalists, who say the putter should be banned.
Last month, Webb Simpson won the U.S. Open at The Olympic Club with a belly putter, and again the cry of banning the putter was part of the discussion.
Now at the beginning of the third round of the Open Championship, Adam Scott is one shot out of the lead with a long putter. If Scott were to win, his victory would fan the flames of change even further.
“I’ve been putting with a belly putter for over five years,” Bradley said after the second round of the Open Championship. “So I’ve put a lot of time into that club, so it would be very disappointing, but some people really think it’s not a good thing. I’d just follow the rules that they make.”
Bradley has said in the past that he has putted with the traditional and long putters but prefers the belly model. Part of the argument is that an anchored putter is more consistent than a short putter, but the governing bodies are not very concerned about professional golf. It’s more the role of anchoring across the broader game of golf.
“It’s not only the significant increase with the elite touring professionals, but at least in the United States, a significant increase with the recreational players,” said Davis, explaining why the clubs have become an issue. “So that’s why we just felt like, this has been going on for 15 or 20 years, but it’s just been such a small group of golfers, and it’s just been one of the last-resort-type things, and now in the last year and a half, that’s changed.”
The effects of a rules change could be significant on the PGA Tour, with many players using or experimenting with the belly or long putters. Three of the top 20 in the Official World Golf Ranking – No. 5 Simpson, No. 8 Matt Kuchar and No. 13 Scott – use a long putter.
For Scott, the change has made the difference in his play during the past couple of years.
“It’s brought more consistency to my putting,” Scott said Friday. “My putting with the short putter was so hot and cold, and before I switched, it was more often cold than hot. So very, very frustrating to play well and get nothing out of a round. … I putt much more consistent with it, which has a really positive effect on the rest of my game.”
If any change were to be made to the Rules of Golf, it would not take effect until Jan. 1, 2016, when the next rules changes are implemented. That should give players plenty of time to make the adjustment back to the short putter, most likely begrudgingly.
“It’s difficult for me to sit here now and say that,” said Bradley, anticipating a potential change. “But when they make a decision and it’s become reality, if it’s illegal or not, then I’ll be able to really kind of sit down and think about it.“