'Anchoring' ban would spark market worries

Keegan Bradley lines up a putt on the 4th green during the final round of the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone Country Club with his Odyssey putter in hand.

Many golf insiders believe belly putting is about to go extinct, legislated out of existence by the U.S. Golf Association and the R&A.

The ruling, if it comes down, would ban the putting method and not the putter. In other words, golfers still could use belly putters or long putters, so long as they don’t anchor the club against the body.

Anchoring is the key word here. The anti-anchoring campaign has a powerful ally, R&A chief executive Peter Dawson, who has made his thoughts clear: Anchoring the grip end of the putter against the body, whether it is done with a belly putter or a chest putter, is contrary to the spirit and history of the game.

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Boccieri Golf's Heavy Putter.

Dawson is careful to emphasize that he does not speak for the entire R&A on this matter. If anchoring is outlawed, it would require separate formal decisions by the R&A and USGA.

As a matter of record, the two rulemaking bodies have acted in concert on all significant equipment rules changes since the driver debacle of 1998. Back then, the USGA and R&A took contrary positions on spring-like effect in driver faces, the USGA imposing a measurable limit, the R&A initially declining to do so.

The two bodies confirmed they have talked about anchoring, but no details of those discussions were released. Sources say the talks are “very serious” and are being pushed primarily by the R&A.

The belly blow, as it were, came in July when Ernie Els used a belly putter to win the Open Championship in the R&A’s backyard. Then Fred Couples followed with a belly-putter victory in the Senior Open Championship. And the long-putter onslaught shows no signs of slowing, with Carl Pettersson using a putter anchored to his chest to grab the first-round lead Thursday at the PGA Championship at Kiawah's Ocean Course.

If anchoring is banned, the decision probably would be quickly enforced on the world’s professional tours but implemented more slowly for most amateur competition, with the introduction of a lengthy grace period. That was how a recent rules change to grooves was – and continues to be – implemented.

The ruling bodies are sensitive to the feelings of equipment manufacturers, many of whom were not happy about the necessity and expense of redesigning and retooling grooves.

Former U.S. Open champion Tom Kite, who has used a chest putter for almost 10 years, was forthright in his assessment of the anchoring question: “Will there be a ban? I don’t know. Lots of people seem to think there will be, but go ask the USGA and R&A. They’re the rules experts. Whatever they decide, we’ll play by the rules. It’s pretty simple.”

A ban on anchored putters would require some manufacturers to take a major hit in the pocketbook.

Take, for example, Boccieri Golf, maker of the Heavy Putter. Founder Stephen Boccieri forcefully argues his case: “Last year (2011), 2 percent of our sales were belly putters. This year, it’s 20 percent. If it wasn’t for the belly putter, we’d be losing money.”

Boccieri rests his position on the difficulty of putting. “There are too many variables, things like getting the proper line and the right speed,” he said. “Sticking a putter in your belly doesn’t guarantee that you’ll become a world-class putter overnight.

“And what about all the golfers who feel that long putters and belly putters have allowed them to keep playing at an enjoyable level? Are we going to tell them that one minute it’s OK and that the next minute it’s illegal?

“It doesn’t make sense. Are they going to take this away from small manufacturers like me? Already I had 10,000 wedges (with old grooves) that I wasn’t allowed to sell.”

Chris Koske, global business director for putter maker Odyssey, talked about the effect when Keegan Bradley used an Odyssey White Hot XG Sabertooth belly putter to win the 2011 PGA Championship.

“Our sales went through the roof,” Koske said. “We sold 8,000 belly putters in 2010. That number went up to 32,000 in 2011. But 70 percent of that came in the third and fourth quarters, after Keegan’s victory. It caused a huge spike.”

Odyssey’s belly sales are “about 12 percent of our sales right now,” Koske said.

According to Michael Fox, global manager for putters and wedges at TaylorMade, sales of TaylorMade belly putters went up 500 percent from 2010 to 2011. And they have doubled again in 2012.

Fox said, “For us, it’s about 15 percent of our putter sales. If you look at putters over $100, it’s probably more like 20 percent.”

What happens if anchoring is outlawed?

“Chaos,” Boccieri said. “I can see some golfers revolting against this. I can see them playing (in non-tournament rounds) by their own rules.”

Odyssey’s Koske was more optimistic.

“If they go and ban anchoring,” he said, “it opens up a whole new avenue of putting. There are so many different ways to do it. The opportunities are endless. There are a handful of things we are testing, and we expect to be ready for whatever happens down the road.”

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