The U.S. Golf Association news conference Tuesday that announced an ill-advised ban on putter anchoring was striking for myriad reasons, not the least of which was the large, logoed signage behind the dais. Repeated numerous times on the backdrop, the message read thusly: “For the good of the game.”
Those six words prompt questions and dissent. We can start simply with “Whose game?” Certainly not the multitudes who use a long putter while playing for fun. Certainly not those who switched to anchoring to enhance enjoyment or because of physical ailments. Certainly not people who changed in order to make more putts and better embrace their time-consuming, expensive and difficult hobby.
No, not John Q. Public’s game.
Let’s not kid ourselves. The ban, to start in 2016, would seem to focus on “sport” rather than “game.” On competition rather than recreation. On game-face golf rather than social golf. And therein lies the shame.
While many professionals’ livelihoods will be negatively impacted, the great unwashed and the game’s growth are most affected. Gratification and participation not only sound alike, they are entwined in any activity.
Little wonder that PGA of America president Ted Bishop reacted Tuesday by saying the ban is not “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.”
Though there are no definitive numbers, the USGA estimated 2 to 4 percent of golfers in the United States and Europe anchor putters. Though that doesn’t sound like much, that actually translates to millions of people. Using the 4 percent and applying it to the estimated 60 million golfers worldwide, we get 2.4 million who anchor. And that’s probably low, given that 27.6 percent of the 2012 Open Championship field anchored.
Whatever the actual number, it’s significant. Why discriminate against millions when America supposedly loses hundreds of thousands of golfers annually? Why ask for feedback during a 90-day comment period and then run through the big, red stop signs held up by the PGA Tour and PGA of America?
Golf needs to add, not subtract. It needs to include, not exclude. It needs to attract, not repel.
“It’ll cause a lot of people to quit,” Champions Tour player Michael Allen said of the ban.
Uncertain is what “a lot” will mean. But running off 10 golfers would be too much. Keeping one parent from playing one more round with his son or daughter would be too much.
“Golf lost today,” Cobra Golf president Bob Philion said in a statement. “This is not the direction we should be going; it will only continue to alienate people. … Game enjoyment is how we are going to bring people back to golf. This decision is a giant leap back.”
First and foremost, golf is a social game with a high level of competitive opportunity, not the other way around.
A prominent PGA Tour player-manager says his father, a single-digit handicap, played the game another 14 years late in life because of the long putter. That meant countless more father-son outings for them. That meant more priceless moments.
“I’d let my father throw the ball once a hole if it meant getting him out on the golf course,” the agent said.
Seniors and juniors are arguably the most important constituencies in golf. It behooves the game to keep old-timers in the game for as long as possible and get kids into it as soon as possible.
The USGA and R&A say they are troubled that more and more kids are anchoring long and belly putters. Another perspective is this: We should want children to get the ball into the hole, for growth’s sake.
USGA president Glen Nager said his association and the R&A “care dearly about participation.” Interesting. He said the USGA believes the ban is in the “best interests of the game.” Again, whose game? Chief executive Mike Davis said the USGA is doing what it deems best “for all golfers.” All golfers? Nager said anchoring has been a “divisive” issue for a couple of decades. Truth is, it has been one for a couple of months, since the powers that be proposed the ban.
After watching that news conference, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. So, like the sentimentalist watching a sappy rom-com, I’ll do both.
I was struck by how Joe Six-Pack had no voice during the proceedings. So while others talked with Davis, Nager and R&A chief Peter Dawson, I called Derek Smith, founder of the Game of Golf Institute. Formed in January and numbering 8,000 members, it is a nonprofit group that wants to be the advocacy voice of recreational golf. Its low-key mission is to advance the enjoyment and growth of golf.
Not surprisingly, Smith raised an eyebrow Tuesday, concerned that everyday golfers do not “have a seat at the table.”
“I don’t see how an anchoring ban can be a positive influence on the recreational player,” said Smith, former chairman and CEO of ChoicePoint, a database information technology company. “That would an an unfortunate outcome for the recreational player as the governing bodies try to adopt a rule to discriminate among the best players in the world.”
Those bodies again stressed the need for one set of rules. Yes, bifurcation is a four-letter word to many, but several differences already exist without harm. It’s safe to suggest the vast majority of golf is played not with a strict adherence to USGA rules but with a modified version.
Recreational golfers use range finders, give putts and hit breakfast balls; Tiger Woods doesn’t. Your grooves and spikes are different than Phil Mickelson’s. Some professionals play equipment unavailable to amateurs. Some amateurs carry more than 14 clubs.
Likewise, this anchoring issue is about pros and amateurs, as well as pros and cons. Sadly, the ban was proposed because of a small number of touring professionals, not because of the masses. Let’s pretend for a moment that there is no pro golf. If so, would anchoring be outlawed?
I think we all know the answer.