Q&A: USGA's Davis, Nager, Newell
Nearly six months after the USGA and R&A proposed a ban on anchoring, golf’s two governing bodies have made Rule 14-1b official during a press conference on Tuesday morning.
The Rule’s purpose is to ensure that all players face the same challenge of controlling the entire club in making a stroke and to eliminate anchoring’s potential advantages.
In advance of Tuesday's announcement, USGA executive director Mike Davis, USGA president Glen Nager and USGA’s Rules Committee Chairman Mark Newell fielded questions from Golfweek on an array of topics pertaining to the anchoring ban.
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Since nothing has changed to the proposed ruling, why do you think the golfers will feel like their voice has been heard?
Nager: We have done an extensive analysis of the comments received and shared with the public our assessment of the comments so those who have provided us with the comments, for which we're deeply appreciative, will know that (they have) been heard and will know what our thinking is.
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There's certainly a perception that the USGA is an elitist organization that's out of touch with everyday golfers. Is there any concern that a decision like this only perpetuates that perception?
Nager: This decision is about protecting and preserving the game for all golfers and eliminating potential advantages that mean that not all golfers have been facing the same skill challenge. We believe very strongly that golfers want a well-defined game with well-defined challenges and that they are all teeing off on equal ground.
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Did you sympathize with any of the arguments you heard?
Nager: I wouldn't use the word sympathize. I'd use the word empathize. We greatly empathized with those who are concerned that they will have to adjust their method of stroke from the one they've been using. We strongly believe that we have left many alternatives to them and there will be a substantial period of time in which to transition. We also greatly appreciate the comments that we received on the timing of the issue and the concern about participation in the game. We are confident that now is a necessary time for the promulgation of this rule and we are confident that this rule will strengthen the game and will not have any material effects on participation in the game, at least not any adverse effects.
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Reading through the document you released, you make the point that the rule is somewhat arbitrary, that it is made on a judgment, not scientific evidence. Didn't the USGA already make a judgment on this in 1989? And Mike, you specifically said when you took the job of executive director in 2010 that you didn’t see a need to make a change. So what has changed?
Davis: Good questions. Let me take you back to 1989. This has been something that the rules committees of the USGA and R&A have looked at on a few different occasions over the years. If you go back to then, it's clear looking at the information that there had been a segment of people involved back then that didn't like the long putter and anchoring. What that committee did was say that they studied the long putter and on balance they felt it was OK for the game. We stand by that today. So what's different between 1989 and now is that you have a growing population in golf that are using anchored strokes that really didn't use those strokes in the 80s and 90s. Those were people who tended to have back issues and to have lost their nerves, and now what's happened, in the last couple of years – and you refer to a comment I made a couple of years ago – there really has been this uptick in usage by golfers who didn't really consider this option. They see it as a more efficient way to putt. For some golfers in some situations, there is an advantage. Ultimately, this is really about trying to define what a stroke is supposed to be, trying to protect the tradition of the game where you make a stroke and you hold the club with two hands and you swing it away from the body – so it is a free swing – that's what this really is about. And we felt because of this upsurge and this segment of the game that finds this a more efficient, better way to putt, that's really what is different from a couple of years ago and what's different from 1989.
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Is it safe to say you think they made the wrong decision in 1989?
Davis: No. I did not say that. As I said, we stand by that. When we looked at this, before we made the proposal, there was the discussion should we make the putter the shortest club in the bag? But that didn't get at what was troubling us. What was troubling us is the anchored stroke, taking a putter and putting it essentially into your body and restricting the movement of it. We're perfectly fine with the long putter. It's just how that long putter, or the belly putter, is used. If someone wants to use it and not do it in an anchored method, we're perfectly fine with that.
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Why not study whether anchoring does make a difference or not?
Nager: Well, we have studied it. The study shows that those who play the game and those who teach the game and those who observe the game report that it is an advantage. That's the reason that players anchor. They do it because they believe it makes them better putters. A lot of instructors are advocating the stroke for that reason. Those who oppose the stroke are reporting that they are at a competitive disadvantage because others are allowed to do it. That's important information about the game. What we haven't done, because we don't believe it is a relevant question, is study whether or not anchoring makes all people or the average player a better putter than alternative strokes. That's not the question the Rules of Golf asks. For example, testing the sand in a bunker before a stroke. That rule is not on the basis that the average player gets good information and thus makes a better stroke from out of the bunker from having that information. In fact, I would dare speculate that most recreational golfers wouldn't know what to test for and wouldn't necessarily make a better stroke out of the bunker if they had that information. But it is an important tradition of the game that you're not allowed to test a hazard before you make a stroke. That's the point. The point here is in the traditions of the game we ban all players from getting potential advantages whether they would realize an actual advantage from them or not.
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Why did you go to such lengths to prove scientifically that there was a need for the grooves rule to be change but have elected not to go through a similar process pertaining to anchoring?
Nager: In the context of the grooves rule, we were trying to address an equipment issue. This isn't an equipment issue. In the context of the grooves rule, we found there was no longer a correlation between winning money and accuracy. We started with the proposition that there was a relevant statistical question to look at and so we studied it statistically. In this instance, there's not a relevant statistical question to ask so we're not trying to answer it.
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Did you consider a condition of competition and if so, why did you elect not to approve one?
Nager: The answer is yes. There was a proposal made to us to consider implementing this rule but only through a condition of competition. We elected not to do that. The rule, in this instance, is about a fundamental aspect of the game and that is a stroke, and a fundamental appeal of the game is that all players play by the same rules, use the same equipment, on the same golf courses.
To use an optional condition of competition, which is supposed to be about something peculiar to a competition and not about a fundamental aspect of the game, would be inappropriate. It would result in having the same game played under different rules on different golf courses in different competitions by different kinds of golfers as a result of using an optional condition of competition on a stroke that might be used 30 or 40 times a round; (that) would be to define the game and depart from its great history and tradition.
This is increasingly a global game and the comment period reinforced to us that people want a single set of rules to play by and play the same game and be able to compare themselves to each other playing that same game. So an optional condition of competition wouldn’t have been appropriate for those factors.
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Was there any consideration for advancing the date of implementation?
Nager: Yes. There were a number of comments we received that proposed we should move the date up. However, we also received a lot of comments from those concerned about their anxiety about trying to make that adjustment. And because our rules process is one that is implemented every four years, we decided that given the mixed opinion on the issue, all things considered on balance, it was better to just stick with our regular rules cycle rather than move anything up.
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You mentioned the recreational golfer earlier. There's ample evidence that the anchored stroke and long putter have enabled some recreational golfers – and those suffering from the yips – to continue playing the game and enjoy it more. Are you concerned at all that you're turning them away and contributing to golf's declining participation?
Nager: We empathize with those who suffer from those issues or have concerns about those issues. We think they have plenty of options available to them under this rule and plenty of time to adjust under this rule so there really won’t be an issue for them. What we see in the study we’ve done is the upsurge recently in anchoring is not because of people afflicted by that but the numbers are attributable to people turning to the stroke because they think it is a better stroke to give them an advantage. There has been a lot of important work done on what the causes (are) for the declining participation in the game in the United States and parts of Europe. And those people in those jurisdictions who are playing less or not playing, or whether it’s the expense of the game or the time it takes to play the game – that’s why we’ve taken a leadership role with the industry to develop initiatives to try to lower the expense of the game and reduce the amount of time it takes to play the game. We care very much about those golfers, we care very much about participation in the game, and there’s no meaningful data to suggest that a ban on anchoring will have any effect on participation in the game. We’ve tried very hard in the way we’ve crafted this very narrow ban to leave plenty of options so that no one can’t find a stroke that will allow them to continue to play the game.
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Do you think the population of football or baseball has suffered because those sports play with different rules at different levels of the game?
Mark Newell: I don’t have a particular opinion about either of those sports. What we strongly believe is that golf is a unique sport and for a long, long time has been played by one set of rules. It’s been a critical part of the appeal of the game, the tradition of the game, and the growth of the game. We have players of all ability levels who have moved from one form of competition to another. The same players play sometimes at many different levels, and to have varying rules from place to place would gravely interfere with that tradition.
The popularity of golf is strongly based on a single set of rules and the ability for everyone to play on the same course with the same equipment with the same set of rules. We don’t think the way other sports are administered should affect how the game of golf continues to be administered.
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What part of the rule has been most debated during the comment period?
Davis: A couple of big-picture things. One of the things that came out of this comment period is that whether you were for or against the proposed rules change, there seemed to be almost and I say almost to underscore the unanimous view that people seem to understand the concept that golf is meant to be played holding a golf club and swinging it freely. That’s been around for hundreds of years. What we seemed to find out from this comment period is that there were some people that said, ‘Why now?’ Or they are concerned about participation. But philosophically, golfers understand that the concept of us wanting to define what the golf stroke is – we’ve given a lot of latitude as far as what they can do – we’re simply saying anchoring shouldn’t be part of it. We also found out there is worldwide global support for this. There is support for this rule change, there is support for one set of rules, and there’s not support for a condition of competition. While there may be some people, and it is a minority in the U.S., that don’t want to see this rules change, we think it ultimately has the greater benefit of taking an issue that for decades now has been a division in the game of golf about this issue and we do think this will put closure to it. It’s defining the game and ultimately we think it’s going to help the game long-term.
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Are you prepared for a lawsuit or multiple lawsuits?
Nager: We’re not concerned about that. We believe we’re doing the best thing for the good of the game. We hope that those who oppose us know that they’ve been heard, because they’ve been heard. We hope that those that oppose us will see we have good, thoughtful reasons for what we’re doing and hope that for the good of the game – now having been heard, whether they agree with us or not – accept our efforts to deal with this issue and bring closure to the issue.
Mark Newell: There are three reasons for this decision. One is to preserve and protect the very essence of the traditional golf stroke and the skill and challenge inherent in the game. No. 2, the rule eliminates the potential advantage that anchoring provides. And thirdly, this issue, prior to the USGA and R&A taking a fresh look, has been divisive in terms of whether anchoring provided an advantage or not. This rule eliminates that divisiveness in the game and allows the game to move forward.