Remember all the squawking from professional golfers a couple years ago when the old square grooves in the faces of irons were banned starting in the 2010 season? Those old grooves were deemed illegal because golf’s rulemakers said the grooves were allowing players to control and spin the ball too much.
The result of all the hue and cry?
It’s been two years since the ban was put in place, and guess what, the boys don’t seem to have suffered all that much.
And here we are, on the verge of yet another ruling from the United States Golf Association and Royal and Ancient Golf Club. When Keegan Bradley, Webb Simpson and Ernie Els won major championships using unconventional putters, those magic wands found themselves squarely in the sights of golf’s leaders.
At first, all talk centered on the putters themselves.
Versions of unconventional length putters have been in existence for decades. Charlie Sifford put a long putter into play on the PGA Senior Tour in the late 1980s. Orville Moody brought major attention to the long putter by winning the 1989 U.S. Senior Open.
Mark Lye became the first player to use a long putter on the PGA Tour in 1989, and Rocco Mediate registered the first PGA Tour victory with a long putter in 1991.
At this point, the clubs were a curiosity, something used mostly by veteran players who were career poor putters as a desperate measure to stay in the game. And no one had come close to winning anything really important like a major, so they were viewed as something of a novelty.
That was then, however, and this is now.
When majors started being won with the broomstick in 2011 and 2012, that did not sit well with either Mike Davis, the executive director of the USGA, or Peter Dawson, his counterpart with the R&A.
Meetings have been held between the two organizations and, perhaps realizing the difficulties and consequences of an across-the-board ban, the focus has changed to the issue of anchoring. Those who anchor the putter on any part of their body—chest, belly, forearm—would be outside of the rules should that be outlawed.
Obviously, emotions run high on both sides of the issue.
There have been not-so-veiled threats of legal action if the putters are banned. Players like Bradley and Els have not been shy about expressing their anger over what might be coming.
“I’m going to do whatever I have to do to protect myself and the other players on Tour,” Bradley told Golfweek's Alex Miceli at the WGC-HSBC Champions in Dongguan, China. “I look at it as a whole, as us all together. I don’t look at it as much about myself. I think that for them to ban this after we’ve done what we’ve done is unbelievable.”
“They’re going to have a couple of legal matters coming their way,” Els said in a story on Golfchannel.com. “It’s going to be a bit of an issue now. I’ve been against it, but since I’ve been using it, it still takes a lot of practice, and you have to perfect your own way of putting with this belly.”
Purists, especially those in the employ of the USGA or R&A, will be happy with nothing less than the complete abolishment of unconventional clubs, claiming that no other part of the golf swing is anchored.
They’re seeing younger and younger players going to the longer putts, to the point that college and high school players are putting that way. They rightly say that the club is a crutch that takes nerves out of the putting stroke.
And it certainly makes sense that the best players in the world, who compete for millions of dollars every year, should play the game as it was drawn up many years ago.
The other side of that coin is the recreational player, the guy who plays a couple times a week and who struggles with the putting touch of a steelworker. He plays with a long putter because it’s allowed him to have some enjoyment on the greens, make a putt occasionally.
There are lots of those guys out there, just as there are a lot of them who tried the putter but ditched them because they didn’t work any better than the long ones.
That’s the argument proponents of the club have made, saying that just because a player uses a long putter, it doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll be a better putter. Some innate ability and a lot of hard work are required to make the long putter work, too.
But how will those recreational players be affected by this ban?
Most of them, who don’t participate in USGA-sanctioned events, will continue to use their big sticks.
“They've got to look beyond professional golf,” Adam Scott told Sports Illustrated. “The governing bodies don't run the Tour; they run golf. Some recreational golfers can't play the game without a long putter. I think that would be a shame if they're going to take people away from the game. I'm sure that's not their intention, but it'll be interesting to see what they come up with.”
The announcement on what the ruling bodies decide is expected by the end of the year, but could come early in 2013. Regardless of when it comes, any rule change wouldn’t go into effect until 2016, the next time the rule book is changed.
By then, those using the anchored putting stroke will have found a new way to putt, just as the PGA Tour players figured out how to play with the new grooves. Even if they wouldn’t, that’s the way it goes. The game of golf, and the art of putting, need to get back to how it was intended.
And let the best players win.