Long Putter Ruling Emphasizes R&A and USGA History of Too Little and Too Late

Kathy BissellCorrespondent INovember 29, 2012

Webb Simpson US Open champ with belly putter
Webb Simpson US Open champ with belly putterWarren Little/Getty Images

Kathy Bissell.

Balderdash. The idea that the USGA and R&A changed the rule on what constitutes a stroke because they did not like the look of the long and belly putters does not pass the sniff test. I don’t care what they tell each other. They changed the rule out of pure annoyance that finally someone won the US Open and the British Open using long putters.  

They didn’t mind that Johnny Miller won at Pebble Beach in 1987, that Charlie Owens played the Champions Tour and won an event in 1985 using the Slim Jim, or that Paul Azinger won the Sony Open in 2000 with the belly putter.  

The long and belly putters have been around for 25 years and the USGA and R&A didn’t do anything. Nothing. Zip. Why now? 

What makes this decision smell worse is that it isn’t the first time they’ve acted this way. So, with a warning—this article is only for the truly paranoid, conspiracy theorists out there—let’s look at some past controversial rulings. Were they really altruistic in nature? Or was plain, old, green-eyed jealousy or red-faced embarrassment at work?

Don’t get me wrong here. I don’t think long and belly putters should be legal.  But that train left the station 25 years ago. To rein in longer putters now with language on "How You Can’t Make A Stroke" smacks of "Not In My Backyard," not of "For The Good of The Game."

If they get taken to court, precedent is on the side of the other guy, particularly if someone’s career is damaged. It looks more like they are embarrassed and don’t want it to happen again at “their” events. 

No matter what history says, or what other people tell you, the R&A banned a club for the first time AFTER someone had success with it: Walter Travis—an Australian born, naturalized American—won the British Amateur in 1904.  

According to the American Golfer:

Golf Illustrated's famous cartoon of Mr. Travis at Sandwich in 1904, with his "Schenectady," is sufficient testimonial to the merit of the putter, and the more recent and violent attention it has received at the hands of the St. Andrews legislators is a crowning testimonial to the fact that Mr. Knight's introduction of the club was a substantial contribution to the pleasure which the game of golf offers


Before that, no-one but an Englishman or a Scot had won their amateur.  The next non-Brit winner was Jess Sweetster in 1926 followed by Bobby Jones in 1930. 


The USGA did NOT ban it, however, perhaps because Travis was an American at that point. The R&A ban lasted until 1962. Talk about holding a grudge.

Then, there was the situation with Mark Calcavecchia and Ping “square grooves.” 

After Calc won the 1989 British Open in a playoff with Greg Norman and Wayne Grady, Calc’s ability to get spin out of the rough with his Ping irons, a technology he’d been using for about four years, was in the spotlight. In honesty, Calc also made some very long putts that week, but the controversy was about the irons, particularly a five iron from the rough in the playoff that landed six feet from the last playoff hole.

If he’d won another Honda Classic, would this have reached a ban?

Whether it was because Calc won the British Open, or because the other players were jealous of his skill out of the longer grass, we will never know. Square grooves became an issue.

The manufacturing history behind this ruling issue was that in 1981 the USGA modified its position on grooves technology slightly. In 1984, new Ping Eye-2s came out conforming, they thought, to those rules. The USGA took issue with the spacing between the grooves on the Pings in 1988. The differences were human hair-thin in measurements. Calcavecchia was always a Ping guy, and he would have used the new Ping clubs whatever they were.

After review, the USGA banned Ping Eye2 irons in June of 1988 for its future events. That was four years after their own rules change, and a year before Calcavecchia won the British Open with them.

However, the R&A had not made a similar ruling, and the PGA Tour had not made a ruling against them. So Calc continued to use the clubs, except for US Open play. But the writing was on the wall.

Karsten Manufacturing sued the USGA a couple months later for $100 million. They settled in January of 1990, allowing all past Ping Eye2s to be grandfathered into conforming status. Ping agreed not to make them that way in the future.

By 1989 the PGA Tour had completed tests of Ping Eye 2s using the expertise of Dave Pelz and real Tour players. (I saw the tests being done at PGA West.) It was determined that the so-called square grooves allowed skilled players to have an advantage.

It was later revealed by a major publication that square grooves gave an advantage out of the rough. (http://www.tutelman.com/golf/justgolf/squaregroove.php )

The PGA Tour announced a ban on square grooves for 1990. Karsten Manufacturing was joined by nine PGA Tour and Senior Tour players who sued the PGA Tour for more than $100 million. The fight lasted until 1993 when it was settled out of court. (http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1993-05-03/sports/9305030205_1_leonard-decof-square-grooves-clubs)

To show who was really right in this, in a 2006 technical report on square grooves, the USGA stated that the square grooves resulted in higher spin rates and steeper ball landing angles.

They announced that they now believed it gave players better control out of the rough, and as difficulty for those shots decreased, it put less importance on driving accuracy.



Then the USGA banned the use of square grooves beginning in 2009. The PGA Tour jumped right in. Phil Mickelson promptly resurrected a1989 Ping wedge with square grooves which had been grandfathered by all lawsuits and said he was going to use it in play. 

That brought the controversy to a head, until John Solheim, CEO of  Karsten Manufacturing, graciously agreed to not contest the new “bans” since they did not affect the grandfathered Ping clubs. Most PGA Tour players just decided not to use the clubs in competition even though they could. Many said newer technologies gave a similar result anyway.  

The paranoid person would ask if this ban was a reaction to the success of Tiger Woods who can hit miracle shots out of gunge, and they would point out that in 2009 and 2010, he was in no position to argue with anybody.  But of course, no one here is that paranoid. So this was recanting what everybody agreed to between 15 and 20 years earlier.

Now one time, the USGA and R&A acted fast. Sam Snead used a croquet-style putting stroke in the Masters in 1967. The rules gurus decided to ban it for 1968 and beyond. Nobody banned it in events prior to the Masters. It was the Masters—on TV—that did it.

In the last 30 years, the USGA and the R&A have failed to restrain the ball allowing it to travel amazing distances. They have allowed the size of drivers to expand to the size of small countries.

The trampoline effect of metal drivers—even though they regulate it to some degree—gives the big-headed clubs and hot balls even more length. The combination has led to ridiculous distances being achieved by guys who are certainly smaller in stature than the giant of long hitters, George Bayer. Bayer played the PGA Tour successfully in the 1950s and 1960s and migrated to the Champions Tour in the 1980s.

In his prime, Bayer was known for his 300-yard plus drives during times of persimmon heads and inconsistent, wound, balata balls.  

Now ridiculously enough, they had to make the illegality the stroke, not the club.  The reason they had to do that is that otherwise golfers would use 3-woods or hybrids to putt.  

So the ruling bodies screwed themselves into the wall coming up with language to say you can’t touch a putter to anything other than your hands and forearms below the elbow. It’s like the old college rules of keeping a door to you room open a foot or that you always have to have one foot on the floor while in your room. Yes, Virginia, back in the days of fossils, there really were rules like that.

This week, maybe the USGA and R&S get As for language. But they get Fs for making this change now and for outlawing long putters without actually saying it. 

This decision smells worse than they think the long putter looks.  


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