The Case for Long Putters to Remain Legal

PACIFIC PALISADES, CA - FEBRUARY 18:  Keegan Bradley lines up his birdie putt on the 18th hole during the third round of the Northern Trust Open at the Riviera Country Club on February 18, 2012 in Pacific Palisades, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Harry How/Getty Images
Jake MannContributor IIIDecember 20, 2012

For those that follow the links closely in the offseason, you may have heard about the proposed ban on anchoring putters that's being considered by the USGA and the R&A. 

Known as rule 14-1b, the proposal essentially disallows the usage of an "anchor point," as mentioned by a previous B/R piece on the subject. 

For the most part, the press's initial reaction to the potential rule change has been relatively supportive, claiming that belly putting is only used as a cure for the yips, or worse, it will lead to drastic changes to the game down the road.

Even major PGA Tour players are getting in on the action.

Tiger Woods voiced his opinion (via ESPN) in November, saying the technique is "something that's not in the traditions of the game," adding that "[w]e swing all other 13 clubs. I think the putter should be the same. It should be a swinging motion throughout the bag."

Other golfers who have spoken against anchored putters include Steve Stricker and Tom Watson, with the latter mentioning to Australian Golf Digest: "I firmly believe it is not [a stroke]."

With all of this in mind, however, there are still some compelling reasons to consider striking down proposed rule 14-1b while it's still in its 90-day grace period.

In the early-eighties, drivers in the 150cc range were commonplace, and stainless steel drivers had just begun to catch on in the professional circuit. As this technology improved, particularly from steel to titanium, the size of driver heads began to increase, with some models hitting 500cc in the early-2000s. 

To reign in this cubic expansion, golf's governing bodies limited driver size at 460cc in 2003-2004, and according to Planet Golf, the move was preceded by the 460cc Cleveland Launcher, which "had been released as a 330cc model" one year earlier. 

In other words, the USGA and R&A allowed the game of golf within the tee box to improve over the course of two decades before making a concession, and they did not set the size limit back to an archaic threshold.

On the greens, meanwhile, the adoption of the anchoring putter as a viable piece of equipment has followed a similar timeline. As noted by WorldGolf, "the recent fad became popular when Paul Azinger stumbled onto a similar concept in 1999," compared to the "body pivot putter" that was briefly used on Tour in the '60s.

Just a few short years later, a number of PGA pros were winning with regularity using the club, including Vijay Singh and Fred Couples. Colin Montgomerie was also an early supporter of the long stick.

By this century's second decade, a host of young players—those that have used anchoring putters in college—are seeing success on Tour, most notably Keegan Bradley and Webb Simpson. Both have won major championships with the club in the past two years.

Now, you can probably see the similarities between both equipment evolutions, on the tee and on the green, so why is it that the USGA and R&A are favoring the former?

The proposed rule 14-1b is the equivalent of requiring all golfers to use 150cc drivers. Pros like Bradley and Simpson, that have benefited from a natural advance the anchoring putter's place in the game are being unfairly punished. More importantly, they are being punished more than golfers who saw a major uptick in production as titanium club heads got bigger.

Instead of considering an outright ban on the putting technique, isn't it possible that a rule could go the route of the previous 460cc limit? One compromise that belly and non-belly golfers may be able to agree on is an upward limit to the length of a belly putter (as a fraction of height), or even as an option at specific tournaments only.

Webb Simpson shared similar thoughts with ESPN at this year's PGA Championship:

"Do I think they should be banned? No, and here's why. You take a wooden driver compared to a 460 cc titanium, and to me that's a lot bigger difference than a 35-inch putt to a 45-inch putter. Last year, the strokes-gained putting, nobody in the top 20 used a belly putter or a long putter. If anybody says it's an advantage, I think you've got to look at the stats and the facts."

In addition to the driver-putter comparison, Simpson also pointed out a glaring hole in most proponents' sentiments about an anchoring putter ban: none of the game's elite putters actually use the thing.

According to statistics found at PGATour.com, Phil Mickelson is the only golfer in the top 10 to have even briefly used a long putter in tournament play, and even that was for just one month in 2011.

While there are certainly viable reasons to consider 14-1b as a legitimate rule change to make come 2016, the USGA and R&A must be careful in how they treat this case in comparison to the 460cc driver-limit they established a decade ago.

If a rule change were to go into effect, the best would be one that allowed for a little leeway, not one that sends PGA pros that use anchoring putters back to the stone age.

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