PGA Tour Power Play: The Potential Impact of Finchem's Impending Message

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PGA Tour Power Play: The Potential Impact of Finchem's Impending Message
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When the USGA and the R&A announced a proposed anchoring ban back in late November, it seemed a foregone conclusion that they would cruise through the 90-day comment period and quickly finalize the rule change.

The PGA Tour may put a major wrench in those plans, though.

According to a report from Michael Bamberger at Golf.com, commissioner Tim Finchem is going to announce the PGA Tour's opposition to the proposed anchoring ban some time on the NBC telecast of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship Sunday afternoon.

This anticipated announcement will come just days before the comment period's Feb. 28 conclusion, and less than a week after Finchem participated in separate conference calls with the Player Advisory Council (PAC) and the PGA Tour Policy Board. The exact details of the latter call are unclear, but it appears that the 12-13 members of the PAC who participated in the communication with Finchem almost unanimously opposed the anchoring ban.

If this last conference call report is true, Finchem's impending announcement makes sense. While the PAC has no voting power on PGA Tour issues, it does carry a great deal of weight on these matters.

The 16-member council represents the voice of the players, and the PAC's recommendations are highly valued by the people who do have the voting power: the nine-member policy board (made up of four player directors, four leading businessmen known as volunteer independent directors and a PGA of America director).

It's pretty simple: If the players are angry about the anchoring ban and the PAC speaks on their behalf, the Tour's policy board, under Finchem's guidance, is going to follow in step and make public its opposition to the ban.

Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Jim Furyk is one of the Policy Board's four player directors. He likely played a large role in bringing about the announcement forthcoming Sunday afternoon.

 

Finchem's Strategy of Opposition

Important questions abound here. First and foremost, what opposition exactly is Finchem going to offer?

The long-time Tour commissioner is a man known for getting what he wants, always acting as a forceful executive head to the policy board. Yet, he is also highly pragmatic. Finchem understands that he can only get so far by imposing his own will and at some point must cater to other parties on an issue.

Finchem could threaten that if the USGA and R&A plan to finalize the ban, the policy board will plan to vote against it and enact the Tour's own local rule on the matter; a quite forward and aggressive tactic to say the very least. That is not the tact he is likely to take though. Instead, considering his background, something of a less confrontational, but still formidable, stance will be expected to pop out of Finchem's mouth.

The Tour's top man will likely force the issue into the USGA's hands, calling on them to rescind the proposed ban before it comes into actuality. Finchem, on behalf of the PGA Tour, will be asking the USGA to take into account its opposition and react accordingly. 

Of course one could argue that if the USGA fails to heed this advice the same message remains: the Tour will adopt its own local rule that nullifies the ban on anchoring.

That could be jumping a step though; it might be implied in the message but there's no way to prove it unless it's said outright. By taking this softer tactic, the Tour will be giving the appearance that the USGA still controls this decision.

 

PGA Tour vs. USGA: The Battle

Now, another question becomes important. If this is the tactic that Finchem and the Tour decide to go ahead with, where will the issue go from there?

This is, of course, much tougher to answer. There is no fool-proof way to tell what exactly the USGA will do and just how far the Tour will go to oppose the anchoring ban and assuage its constituents' fears. Will the USGA take the Tour's suggestion as a threat and back off on the ban?

If the USGA doesn't take the Tour's suggestion seriously, will the Tour break off from the USGA on this issue and adopt its own rule on anchoring?

Whatever the uncertainties may be, don't expect the Tour to fight a weak, short battle if it doesn't get what it wants. The reports have made it clear that a large majority of the players on the circuit oppose this ban, and the PGA Tour is going to do all it can to back up its constituents. 

So, if the Tour does suggest a reversal of the ban to the USGA on national television, it will be intended to be a hard opening strike from the guys at Ponte Vedra and one that will immediately put the USGA on the ropes.  

It may seem a tad drastic that the USGA would be put behind the eight-ball just by this, considering the expected version of the statement is not incredibly vicious, and if the USGA is anything, it's stubborn.

The issue here for the USGA is enormous though.

If the men of this organization were to fight the PGA Tour brass all the way on this issue, they will get the anchoring ban they want. It brings with it a huge potential cost though: a shellacking in the court of public opinion.

For the USGA that could pose a large problem. The organization has been maligned for years for its inability to impede the rapid technology buildup that has forced classic courses to juice up in order to stay viable. Drivers with massive heads loaded to bash it a country mile, irons with forgiving sweet spots made to minimize any mishit and golf balls manufactured to create maximum distance and spin have proliferated the golfing scene, and seen many great courses balloon to over 7,500 yards just to keep up with the pros.

Another backlash from golf enthusiasts could be a large blow that the USGA can't afford to take when it is already struggling mightily to get new golfers into the game.

In order to avoid this negative publicity in the case of a battle against the PGA Tour on anchoring, the USGA would have two options. These men could give in to the PGA Tour, or take a much riskier approach: prove to the public that they have more credibility in suggesting what is right for professional golfers than the PGA Tour.

And that would be a large uphill climb.

After all, the Tour is run for professional golfers and largely by them, as the player representation in the PAC and the Tour’s policy board demonstrates. Would this not be the organization whose decision you would trust when it comes down to what is good for professional golf?

Yes, people can throw the line out there that the ruling bodies make the rules and the tours are simply out there to follow them. But at some point, one must question from where the credibility in this statement originates.

Scott Halleran/Getty Images
The USGA has really struggled to get Americans back into golf in recent years.

Robert Garrigus made that point clear at the mandatory players meeting in San Diego in late January when he reportedly asked USGA executive director Mike Davis whether any of the board members in charge of making this change ever hit a golf shot in competition.

Davis reportedly answered no.

In a roundabout way, Garrigus was pondering this: Why should the USGA, an organization run by a group of amateurs who have never played professional tournament golf, decide such a high issue for professional tournament golf? Why are they the ones to be entrusted in deciding the dilemma of anchored putting on the professional circuit rather than the professionals who actually play?

 

The Caveats Explained

Of course, it might be pointed out that the USGA has this right to control this issue because the PGA Tour plays under its rules. It stands to reason that the body controlling professional golf’s rules should also control its most salient rules issues.

The PGA Tour, however, lives under these rules voluntarily and could snake away from them if its policy board deemed it appropriate. The two organizations are there to live in symbiosis, one producing rules that will give the game a healthy structure, the other following along and giving the rule-making body credibility. The rule-making body is not there to dictate this relationship and force through rules that the other organization may feel are harmful or disruptive.

Sam Greenwood/Getty Images
Robert Garrigus challenged the USGA's role in the anchored putting ban at a recent players' meeting.

In that sense, they are an alliance, and an alliance can be broken when one member goes outside its jurisdiction and tries to gain too much power.

Speaking of jurisdiction, the USGA is largely known to be the ruling body that governs the game not just for professionals, but for every Joe Golfer out there. People may be quick to remind of that when it comes to the anchoring-ban issue. 

After all, this proposed anchoring ban, the USGA has noted, is meant to get rid of the anchoring stroke at all levels of the game, rather than just among the professionals. It would be insensitive to only pay attention to how the pros feel on this issue.

This is simply a way to get the skeptics sniffing off the trail, though. An anchoring ban will certainly affect the everyday golfer, but to a much lesser extent than the pros.

Whereas PGA Tour players would potentially have to ditch their anchoring techniques completely by 2016, the transition will be a lot slower in the recreational area of the game; nobody is going to stop you from playing a casual round of golf with an anchored stroke.

This issue could be completely nullified as well, if two separate sets of rules were made for amateurs and professionals. This idea, known as bifurcation, is out there for the USGA to use, but they have not even sniffed at it.

No matter how anybody wants to spin it, an anchoring ban is mainly a professional issue, and any reasoning that the pros must roll with it in order to better the game for all is blowing smoke.   

 

Drawing the Battle Lines Ahead

Considering all of this, Finchem could put the USGA in quite a pickle Sunday afternoon.

The decision on the anchoring ban will likely be kept under the USGA's control. But will it really be in control?

There might only be one way for the USGA to look good in this scenario: agree to the PGA Tour's suggestion and drop the proposed ban. 

If the USGA organizational brass rejects the PGA Tour's (expected) suggestion, it looks bad. A small group of non-tournament-playing amateurs, in that case, will be making a decision greatly affecting professional tournament golf that is far different from what the actual tournament professionals actually want.

The only way that the USGA could look good by way of rejection is if the Tour accepts it and acquiesces to the ban without questions. It's possible, but highly unlikely that the Tour would give in this easily if its membership's opposition to the policy is really as strong as reported.

Otherwise, a Pandora’s box could be opened up.

The USGA could finalize a ban while the PGA Tour finalizes a local rule to reject it. Considering the PGA of America's negative stance on the anchoring ban, they will follow along with the Tour. That would mean every non-major championship and the PGA Championship would allow anchored putting, while the U.S. Open, Open Championship and probably the Masters (considering its conservative history) would not.   

Scott Halleran/Getty Images
If the USGA and the PGA Tour split on the anchoring ban decision, Billy Payne and the Green Jackets at Augusta will have to make a tough call in deciding where they stand on this divisive issue.

That is something neither side wants to put on the table. If it had to be, though, who do you think would catch more slack: the PGA Tour acting on behalf of its constituents' majority beliefs or the USGA acting against the wishes of the majority of these players due to the ideas of a small group of amateurs who have not played even an ounce of tournament golf?

Even worse, this protracted battle could end in a double disaster for the USGA. The organization's leaders could fight by keeping the ban after the PGA Tour votes to enact a local rule against it, only to relent after months of bad publicity force the USGA to give up its cause before it does any more damage to its organization.

This is the worst-case scenario forecasting far ahead, but if the PGA Tour is ready to really fight the USGA on this issue, it holds almost all of the leverage.  

Overall, if Finchem sends this message of gentle coercion Sunday afternoon, the issue of the anchored putting ban could really put a lot of heat behind the issue and on the USGA. Many thought this 90-day comment period would be a waste of time, believing the minds of those in charge of the ruling bodies were already made up. 

But, an unexpected challenge from the PGA Tour might be the first step in getting the USGA to anchor its decision 180 degrees in the other direction. 

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