Brace yourself: Anchoring decision looms over golf

Webb Simpson was one of three players to win a major in the past 15 months using a long putter.

Webb Simpson was one of three players to win a major in the past 15 months using a long putter.

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8:41:23 AM ET. 04/24/2014




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Editor's note (added since story publication): It's clear that the USGA and R&A are getting close to a decision on anchoring, at least the PGA of America believes so. Before the turkeys hit the Thanksgiving table, new PGA of America president Ted Bishop sent an e-mail to all of its members with a simple question?

With regards to anchoring a golf club:

a. Yes, I would favor a ban on anchoring a golf club

b. No, I would not favor a ban on anchoring a golf club

How do you feel about the same questions? Vote below!

Reader poll

Should anchoring your club be banned?

  • Yes, I would favor a ban on anchoring a golf club 51%
  • No, I would not favor a ban on anchoring a golf club 45%
  • Doesn't matter, I will use an anchored club anyway 3%

2586 total votes.

• • •

A decision is coming. That much is clear. The U.S. Golf Association and R&A are mulling the fate of long and belly putters, or more specifically the act of anchoring the club. To date, no rule forbids the bracing of the club against the chest or any part of the body, but that is expected to change.

Remarkably, less than a year and a half ago, anchoring wasn’t even an issue. USGA executive director Mike Davis said then of alternative-length putters: “We don’t see this as a big trend. . . . We don’t see this as something that is really detrimental to the game.”

Almost as quickly as he uttered those words, however, PGA Tour stars Webb Simpson, Adam Scott and Keegan Bradley won tournaments using long putters. The governing bodies took note.

But the pivotal moment that placed the anchored stroke on trial occurred at this year’s Open Championship when Ernie Els – whose game had been resuscitated by the unconventional belly putter – snatched the Claret Jug in full sight of the guardians of convention, the R&A.

Furthermore, of the 156 players at the Open Championship, 43 used broomstick or belly putters (27.6 percent of the field).

The day after the tournament, R&A chief Peter Dawson decreed: “You’re going to see us saying something about it one way or the other in a few months rather than years.” An announcement on anchoring is expected to come as early as December, though any ban might not take effect until as late as 2016, when the Rules of Golf are revisited.

What changed is a growing concern that anchoring could threaten the established way of playing the game, and that it might supplant the traditional putting stroke. That’s why the game’s leaders are scrutinizing the issue, which could lead to the biggest decision affecting the putter since having banned the croquet style nearly 45 years ago.

To some, a ban would cause outrage. Such a rule would remove for many golfers with shaky hands, fluttery nerves and faulty eyesight the pleasure of at least thinking they can get the ball in the hole as adroitly as their more conventional friends.

Golf purists wonder what took so long.

More than two decades ago when the long putter first came under scrutiny, Arnold Palmer charged that it produced a competitive advantage and called its use “un-American.” Earlier this year, Palmer was asked if there were any equipment innovation over the past half-century that he would like to abolish. Palmer didn’t hesitate.

“The long putter,” he said. “I’m totally against allowing the body to be in touch with the club. It gives a stabilizing aspect that is against what the rules and spirit of the game intend.”

Anchoring in its many forms has been debated among golfers with the same fervor as the upcoming election. Once a decision is made, there will be plenty of time to dissect its implications.

For now, it’s most instructive to examine the circumstances that have steered the decision makers to this defining moment.

• • •

Never underestimate the creativity of a desperate putter. At the first U.S. Amateur, in 1895, Richard Peters used a billiard cue and stroke to putt. There wasn’t a rule prohibiting such a technique, but the USGA declared the cue didn’t conform to golf-equipment standards (Decision 14-1/2), and Peters lost his first-round match.

Leo Diegel, a World Golf Hall of Fame member, was another tormented soul who tried all sorts of technical antidotes without avail. He even consulted a neurologist. In 1924, Diegel devised a technique all his own: stiff-wristed, bent over, elbows jutting out at right angles to the shaft like the wings of an airplane. He was ahead of his time, holding the putter against the pit of his stomach. The style was so distinctive that it became known as “Diegeling.”

The odd angles of Diegel’s posture provided an unending source of good-natured ribbing all his life, and even after: “How they gonna fit him in the box?” Walter Hagen said at Diegel’s funeral.

Unorthodox putting techniques did not at first alarm golf’s guardians. When these unconventional methods began to spread and threaten the very nature of the game, however, the administrators took action.

Precedence for the USGA and R&A to act does exist. In 1966, Sam Snead, 54, held the 36-hole lead at the PGA Championship before his putting nerves frayed. On the 10th hole, he tapped the ball twice and was penalized a stroke. On the next green, he straddled the putting line, grasped his conventional center-shafted blade putter near the grip end with his left hand, stooped and slid his right hand down the shaft near the blade. When Bob Jones observed this technique months later at the Masters, he reportedly complained to USGA executive director Joe Dey that croquet putting wasn’t golf as it was meant to be played. Dey concurred. In 1968, the USGA banned the croquet style (Rule 16-1e). Snead and Bob Duden, who marketed a putter named “the Dude,” were among its foremost practitioners.

“We made the decision with great reluctance,” Dey said in ’68, “but we felt it was the only way to eliminate the unconventional styles that have developed in putting. The game of golf was becoming bizarre. It was some other game – part croquet, part shuffleboard and part the posture of Mohammedan prayer.”

“I was crushed,” Snead said. “I figured I was finished, unless I could find a way to sidestep that new rule.”

In a less litigious era, Snead found a solution. He began putting sidesaddle and won three more Senior PGA Championships.

“I’d pitched horseshoes by the hour out behind the barn when I was a kid,” Snead told Gerald Astor in the “PGA World Golf Hall of Fame” book, “and Ijust put that movement into my putting.”

Significant concerns about an anchored putting stroke first arose in connection with the introduction of long putters. Although the very first use of a longer putter has been traced at least as far back as the 1930s, use of such clubs was minimal until the 1980s, when Charles Owens popularized using one.

Like Snead, Owens suffered from the yips, the involuntary loss of control that affects a player’s stroke on short putts. He had tried all sorts of remedies,including painting his putter a different color before each round.

“I had a can of red, white and blue – anything to help me not think about the putter and distract the mind,” Owens said. He won the 1974 Florida Open with a 24-inch putter. Nothing worked for long, though, and it drove him to take a teaching job at Rogers Park in Tampa, Fla. In the early 1980s, he said he tinkered with a Wilson 8802 putter, welding the end of two shafts together to assemble a long putter. The first time he used it, in a 36-hole local tournament, he took 24 and 21 putts. The putter’s weight wasn’t quite right, so he purchased a brass bar, sketched a diagram and had a machinist cut the shape.

“My putter looked like a spaceship,” Owens said.

He christened the 52-inch club “Slim Jim.” However, he said he had neither the time nor the money to apply for a patent, a decision he would come to regret.

The club revived his game on the Senior Tour in 1986. Owens, who had trouble bending over the ball because of a surgically fused left knee, won twice that season.

Former USGA executive director David Fay said the USGA began serious deliberations about the long putter when Owens qualified for the 1987 U.S. Senior Open and petitioned for use of a cart. He was rejected, but in the midst of the discussion, someone asked, “What do we think of the putter he’s using?” Fay recalled.

P.J. Boatwright, who was in charge of rules and competition for the USGA, acted swiftly.

“His view was that any piece of equipment tends to have off-setting benefits,” Fay said. “It passed, and we didn’t do anything.”

Soon scores of players – among them Gay Brewer, Jim Ferree and the former quarterback John Brodie – were succeeding with Owens’ putter. The converts swelled when Orville Moody, who won the 1969 U.S. Open putting cross-handed, became a transcendent performer. Moody could pummel a ball off the tee 220 yards with a putter, and he could blast out of a sand trap with a putter, yet his putter yips seemed incurable.

“I tried everything,” Moody recalled in 1989. “I tried putting sidesaddle, cross-handed, left-handed. I even tried putting with my eyes closed. When I did that, I didn’t exactly know when I was hitting the ball, so that took the hitch out of my stroke for a while. But then that idea went haywire, too.”

Owens and Ferree demonstrated for Moody how to wield the long putter. Moody noted in an instructional piece that he struggled mightily the first time he tried a long putter. When he arrived for his tee time at the 1987 Senior Players Championship at Canterbury Golf Club in Ohio, Moody carried two putters.

“I said, ‘What’s this all about?’ ” Ferree recalled. “He said, ‘I think I’m over (my yips). I’m going to putt with the short putter.’ ”

As Ferree recounted, Moody proceeded to four-putt the second green and three-putt the third. He never used the short putter again.

With the long putter, Moody was reborn. In 1988, the first year performance statistics were kept on the Senior Tour, he ranked No. 1 in putting – averaging 1.759 putts per hole – and won three events. When Moody won the 1989 U.S. Senior Open, some USGA officials said long putters were nontraditional, leading the ruling bodies to consider whether to adopt an equipment rule to limit putter length.

“The USGA didn’t mind until someone won its tournament with it,” Ferree said.

The long putter had gained support among the recreational ranks, too. At the time, the most celebrated recreational golfer with the yips was President George H.W. Bush. After lamenting his symptoms on the CBS telecast of the 1989 Kemper Open, Bush was inundated with advice on how, in one writer’s words, he could achieve “a thousand putts of light.”

Soon thereafter, Bush began using a 52-inch Pole-Kat model, and he was hooked. Golf’s version of an urban legend has claimed that the USGA was not about to declare it illegal and deprive the commander-in-chief of his golfing crutch.

“That had no bearing whatsoever,” Fay said.

Fay was less than two months into his tenure as executive director of the USGA when he made the announcement in August 1989 at the U.S. Amateur at Merion.

“Putting is a very individual art form,” he said in a news release. “To inhibit a golfer’s style would take some of the fun out of the game, and that’s not why we make the rules.”

Fay stands by the first part of his quote but had second thoughts about the rest.

“I don’t know what possessed me to say that,” he said.

The view at the time was that this putting style was largely a method of last resort for a small number of golfers, and there was little concern that it would become mainstream. In 1991, with encouragement from Ferree, Rocco Mediate used a 49-inch model while winning his first tournament, the Doral-Ryder Open.

“I was the Antichrist of the putting world,” Mediate said.

Until Mediate’s triumph, Bruce Lietzke had been considered the most successful practitioner of the long putter, and he could relate to the barbs: “The worst thing I heard was when someone suggested to (Arnold) Palmer that he try it and he said he wouldn’t because it was ‘un-American,’ ” Lietzke said.

“I don’t know how he could say that. It was pretty much discovered by a black man, popularized by an Army sergeant and it’s used by the president. Now find me something ‘un-American’ in that.”

Owens considers the belly putter an offspring of his long putter. It wasn’t until Paul Azinger won the 2000 Sony Open with a 46-inch putter wedged into his stomach that the belly putter gained recognition. But the number of users increased only marginally and overall remained relatively insignificant compared with the conventional stroke.

There had been no move to regulate the stroke for some time. In April 2011, Davis noted that “no one’s even won a major using one of these things anchored to themselves.” Four months later, Keegan Bradley was the first to do so, at the 2011 PGA Championship. (Angel Cabrera won the 2009 Masters with a belly-length putter but did not anchor it.) Webb Simpson and Els followed this year and lifted the stigma of the old man’s crutch.

Davis confirmed during the USGA annual meeting in February that given the recent increase in the use of certain anchored strokes involving belly and long putters, rulesmakers would review anchored strokes. Some expected the novelty to fizzle, but anchored putting on Tour has climbed from 6 percent in 2010 to 11 percent in 2011 and 15 percent this season, according to the USGA, which cited Darrell Survey numbers.

Johnny Miller, who was one of the earliest adopters of a long putter on Tour at the 1980 Los Angeles Open, may have best expressed Tour pros’ motivation to make the switch. Miller compared his putting woes at the time with a conventional-length putter to a football team that gets inside the 10-yard line and settles for a field goal every time.

“You’ve got to get seven points if you’re going to win,” he said. “It tears your heart out to be solid tee-to-green and then finish 15th because of your putting.” Yet all these years later, Fay still contends that alternative-length putters are no putting panacea.

“I didn’t think the long putter was an issue in 1987 when it first popped up, nor when we made a decision in 1989, and I don’t today,” Fay said. “But I understand the rulesmakers would be concerned if 15 years from now young people are getting into the game and choosing to use a long- or belly-putter method of stroke as the way of getting the ball in the hole.”

Which leads back to the essential question: Is anchoring damaging golf or making it more inviting for all?

The verdict is expected soon.

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