Miceli: Showdown builds over anchored stroke

Commissioner Tim Finchem publicly opposed the potential anchoring ban for the first time on Sunday.

The biggest volley yet in the anchoring debate came Sunday when PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem opposed the ban on the anchored stroke proposed by the U.S. Golf Association and R&A.

In a letter sent to the USGA on Thursday, Finchem stated the Tour’s opposition to proposed Rule 14-1b, which would ban the anchored stroke commonly used with long or belly putters, beginning when the Rules of Golf are updated Jan. 1, 2016.

“Essentially where the PGA Tour came down was that they did not think that banning anchoring was in the best interest of golf or the PGA Tour,” Finchem said in a news conference Sunday at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship. “I would note that the PGA of America came to the same conclusion after consultation with their membership.”

In two meetings with the Player Advisory Council, first in January in San Diego during the Farmers Insurance Open and again last week on a Monday conference call, Finchem fielded players’ concerns about the proposed ban.

On that same Monday, the PGA Tour Policy Board met for the first time this year, and the four player members – Paul Goydos, Harrison Frazar, Jim Furyk and Steve Stricker – opposed the ban.

“My opinion and a lot of players’ opinions changed because the ban wouldn’t be just for us but for everybody who plays the game,” Stricker said at the Match Play.

Stricker, No. 16 in the Official World Golf Ranking, said many on Tour think the timing of the proposed ban is poor. On top of that, he said, there’s no evidence anchoring helps.

“We’re at a point in time in the game of golf that we’re trying to keep players, lure players into playing the game,” Stricker said. “A majority of the players feel that it only puts a negative spin on that, maybe detracts the local guy, the club member, the public player, whoever, from playing at times. And this rule has been good for 30 years.”

Coincidentally on Thursday, the PGA of America followed up its first letter, dated Nov. 26, against the proposed ban with a second communique outlining more specific opposition.

“In the sprit of the comment period, we felt it was necessary for the PGA of America to comment after formulating some additional opinions,” Ted Bishop, the PGA of America’s president, said from his home in Indiana. “While growth of the game is an issue, one of the biggest issues we see is how our club professionals will be forced to address the ban at their clubs around the country.”

What started as a proposed rule change has intensified into a showdown between golf heavyweights: the USGA in one corner versus the PGA Tour and PGA of America in the other. The outcome remains in doubt as the USGA and R&A’s 90-day comment period expires Feb. 28.

Finchem and Bishop nonetheless have expressed support for the USGA and its role as the game’s governing body in the U.S., yet both leaders continue to sprinkle the word “bifurcation” – different rules for touring pros and elite amateurs compared with recreational players – in interviews and written statements submitted to the USGA.

“I’ve thought more about some areas of bifurcation, whether it would work or not,” Finchem said. “But I think that the focus here ought to be, if possible, to go down the same road, everybody go down the same road on anchoring, and that’s certainly where we are right now. We just hope they take our view on it. We’ll see.”

The anchored stroke surged into prominence when it was used by three of the past five major champions: Keegan Bradley (2011 PGA), Webb Simpson (2012 U.S. Open) and Ernie Els (2012 Open Championship). The stroke is used by a small minority of touring pros and recreational players – less than 20 percent.

Though the issues might have seemed to be focused on the PGA Tour professional when the proposed anchoring ban was announced Nov. 28, Finchem in his comments and Bishop in his letter have outlined two main issues why the status quo should be maintained.

• 1. The absence of data or any basis to conclude that there is a competitive advantage to be gained by using anchoring;

• 2. The amount of time that anchoring has been part of the game.

When the USGA and R&A announced the proposed ban, they conceded that the stroke doesn’t lend an unfair advantage. It simply fails to fit what the keepers of the game see as a proper stroke.

“In terms of comparing players who are using anchored strokes with players who are using conventional strokes, there is no compelling data to say one is better than the other,” said Peter Dawson, the R&A’s chief executive. “It’s an individual thing for individual players. But I emphasize the reason for proceeding with this rule change is not performance-related. It is about defining what is a golf stroke.”

Finchem and Bishop responded by invoking some of the game’s great administrators.

“As it relates to the USGA’s examination of anchoring a putter, highly respected USGA officials including P.J. Boatwright, Joe Dey and David Fay have analyzed it in the past and determined that it is an accepted method of putting,” Bishop said in his letter to the USGA. “Even (current USGA chief) Mike Davis a little more than a year ago publicly stated that anchoring was not problematic and not detrimental to the game.”

The late Dey was the USGA’s executive director from 1934 to 1968, the first commissioner of the PGA Tour (1969-74) and a captain of the R&A. The late Boatwright served as the USGA’s executive director of rules and competitions. Fay headed the USGA from 1989 to 2010.

Finchem also sought to counter a theory that many players turn to the anchored putting stroke because they struggle with the conventional approach.

“It’s a subjective thing,” Finchem said in an NBC interview during the Match Play. “I think, when it came out 30 years ago, that’s where it was viewed at. If you had the yips, go to anchoring. But Keegan Bradley and Webb Simpson don’t have the yips. They grew up with that method. And one out of every five, or a little less than one out of every five plays it. Everybody on the PGA Tour has tried it. For some guys, it works; for some guys, it doesn’t.”

The other issue: decades of the anchoring stroke in use.

In the 1960s, when Sam Snead started putting with a croquet-style stroke, the Dey-led USGA moved quickly and banned it in 1967.

Finchem suggests that the USGA, on two separate occasions, formally reviewed the anchored stroke and declined to impose any restrictions. So why now?

“I don’t have a problem with a guy that says, I think the swing rule should be such that you don’t anchor, and had the USGA made that decision in 1975, it would have been a no‑brainer,” Finchem said in his TV interview. “But the reality is, it’s become part of the game, a significant part of the game, and it has had no negative effect on the game.”

So where does the debate go from here?

Peter Dawson implored on Golf Channel that anchoring had been thoroughly vetted before the rule changed was proposed.

“We believe we have considered this issue from every angle,” Dawson said in November. “But we do recognize the wide‑ranging interests in the subject, and we would like to give stakeholders in the game the opportunity to put forward any new matters for consideration.”

With the comment period ending Thursday, the USGA and R&A presumably have a considerable amount of comments to review. Because it’s the first time the USGA and R&A have initiated a comment period for a non-equipment rule, the process is unclear.

In a statement released Sunday, the USGA said it plans on making a final decision on proposed Rule 14-1b this spring.

That decision will either continue the discussion or put the matter to rest.

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