Clubmakers fear restraint but don't anticipate big hit

Keegan Bradley walks on the third playoff hole during the final round of the 93rd PGA Championship at the Atlanta Athletic Club on August 14, 2011 in Johns Creek, Georgia.

Keegan Bradley walks on the third playoff hole during the final round of the 93rd PGA Championship at the Atlanta Athletic Club on August 14, 2011 in Johns Creek, Georgia.

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.

• • •

For roughly a decade, putter sales in the U.S. had trended downward – hardly a freefall, but enough of a slide to stir angst among manufacturers.

Then, with a stroke of Keegan Bradley’s Odyssey White Hot XG Sabertooth belly putter, their worries seemingly vanished overnight. Bradley’s victory at the 2011 PGA Championship ignited what had been a smoldering interest in long putters, bellies as well as broomsticks, which a handful of PGA Tour players had brought to the forefront of golfers’ consciousness.

At Odyssey, belly-putter sales tripled to more than 30,000 units in 2011 from the year before, with the lion’s share of them moving in the fourth quarter, after Bradley’s first major triumph. Likewise, TaylorMade witnessed long-putter sales, which accounted for 2 percent of the company’s total putter sales in 2010, jump to 8 percent in 2011. Its share, according to TaylorMade, was trending even higher for 2012.

“We’re looking at 12 percent by the end of the year,” said Brian Bazzel, TaylorMade’s director of product creation for irons, wedges and putters.

But for Bazzel and other clubmakers, the door to such good fortune appears on the verge of slamming shut.

With the USGA and R&A preparing to ban the anchoring stroke – and, by extension, marginalizing the effectiveness of long putters – equipment companies are expecting the sale of such clubs to flatten as quickly as they spiked. Though they’ll miss the sales boon, major equipment makers somewhat surprisingly are taking the governing bodies’ anticipated interference in stride.

The lack of saber-rattling by manufacturers, however, shouldn’t be mistaken as indifferent compliance.

The reality is, this anticipated regulatory action won’t affect their business as severely as previous equipment clashes with the USGA and R&A.

When the governing bodies, for example, forced equipment companies to cease making “aggressive grooves” beginning in 2011, they had to spend a fortune retooling manufacturing systems for a wide variety of clubs to make all of them conforming. By comparison, an anchoring ban wouldn’t require such a costly overhaul. And though the recent sales surge is impressive, long putters still represent only a fraction of major companies’ overall business, and their fiscal impact is relatively minor.

But what the anchoring controversy reveals yet again is the uneasy coexistence that defines the relationship between governing bodies and manufacturers. Among the latter, there is growing sentiment that the USGA and R&A not only are restraining commerce, but hurting the game they’re charged to nurture.

John A. Solheim, Ping’s chairman, president and chief executive officer, declined to comment about this issue, but shared with Golfweek a letter he drafted in August to Mike Davis, USGA executive director, and Peter Dawson, chief executive of the R&A.

“After several challenging years, golf is beginning to gain some momentum. A number of programs currently underway to help grow the game may soon accelerate this positive movement,” Solheim wrote. “However, adopting new rules restrictions – like a ban on anchoring putters – will act like dragging the brakes on these new programs.

“Is it in the best interest of the game to tell a substantial number of golfers their style of play is no longer welcome, or that their enjoyment of the game (and possibly their pace of play) is going to be diminished? What about the needs of some of our elderly and handicapped golfers? . . . Golf does not need more restrictions. The game – and your rules process – all benefit when you involve everyone whose support this sport clearly needs.”

Solheim’s reference to an open dialogue between equipment companies and the governing bodies resonated with industry peers, who say such discussion has been lacking during the anchoring review. The omission is baffling and frustrating, company officials say, because in recent years the ruling bodies had instituted public forums to gain input from manufacturers.

“Typically, we’re contacted for comment,” said Chris Koske, Odyssey Golf’s global business director. “This is a bit unprecedented.”

Added Bazzel: “They’ve been fairly tight-lipped.”

But with little recourse, and even less interest in litigation, equipment makers say they’ll adjust and adapt. Besides, some say, the long-putter windfall wouldn’t have continued unabated anyway.

“With a product so different from the norm – and long putters definitely are not traditional – you eventually run into a cap. . . . Even mallet sales are (only) 20 to 30 percent” of Odyssey’s total putter sales, Koske said.

If an anchoring controversy never had materialized, long-putter sales were estimated to reach perhaps as high as 25 percent over the next couple of years, according to Odyssey’s preliminary forecast. With an anchoring ban taking effect, Koske anticipates his company’s long-putter sales returning to more “normal” levels, near 6 percent.

“There’ll still be golfers out there who want belly putters, regardless of what the USGA does,” said Koske, adding that belly putters outsell broomstick putters roughly 4 to 1.

Some manufacturers are optimistic that a putter setback will be short-lived. And they insist their designers and engineers will create other products to help the putting-impaired.

“The loss of business won’t be as bad as people think,” Bazzel said. “People will be in the market to buy a new putter. They’ll try something different.”

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