Proposed Ban on Anchored Putters: Swatting a Mosquito

By: Marino Parascenzo

Unable to come to grips with the two great gorillas of the game, golf's law-givers - the United States Golf Association and the R&A - have chosen instead to swat a mosquito.

They've banned the long putter, and its shorter brother, the belly putter. Well, technically, they haven't banned them. Such a move would invite lawsuits, Lord forbid. They've been down that road (see the flap - I mean earthquake - over the square grooves in the PING EYE2 irons).

So the heads of golf's ruling bodies, Mike Davis, USGA executive director, and Peter Dawson, CEO of the R&A, were scrubbed up like neurosurgeons to make their announcement Wednesday. Having been schooled exhaustively by their lawyers, they were scrupulous about the point. We are not banning the putter. We are banning the anchoring of the putter.

But you can hardly use the putter without placing it against your body. So this baby is out with the bath water.

Sheltered, then, from the hot breath of the law, presumably, Davis and Dawson proceeded to pronounce the anchoring of the putter a grave threat to the integrity of the game, and therefore anathema.

That was swatting the mosquito.

The long putter is a mosquito because it is hardly running rampant through the game, like so much else in golf equipment. The statistics needle barely flutters at its approach.

Meanwhile, there are two real gorillas tearing up the game - the hot driver and the hot ball. And they go cavorting along, all but rendering obsolete classic courses that don't have the money or land to expand, and forcing builders of new courses into the expensive proposition of trying to contain each new generation of technology.

The USGA took a stab at the hot driver as it began to emerge, trying to rein in the Coefficient of Resistance, the famous COR. The manufacturers were stoking the coals for a lawsuit on that one. Accommodations were made. But not even the preaching by Jack Nicklaus the Evangelist has dented the hot ball.

I am second to no one in my admiration of the USGA and the R&A. The game is a wonder, and it is to their credit. But they have stumbled on this one.

What then, is the sin of the long putter?

Earlier, the USGA thought they could kill off the long putter by saying the stroke wasn't a stroke under the rules, but a "sweep." But the putter head taps the ball, the same as the short putter. That gambit failed.

Now they've made anchoring stick. But that's not the real reason. The real reason is that the long putter looks dumb. It's offensive. A guy standing up holding the grip against his chest with his head bent, sighting down the shaft - looks dumb. It doesn't "look" like golf. It's not traditional. It's not golf "the way it was meant to be played."

But who wants to admit something like that? And how do you put "looks dumb" in the rule book? You don't. That falls in the category of the eye-of-the-beholder. So, what you do is invent a reason that you can put into the book.

The all-time case against looking dumb was the USGA's contrivance to stop Sam Snead's croquet-style of putting. That did look rather silly - Snead standing behind his ball, feet apart, bent over like a croquet player, then swatting the ball. The USGA's rationale for the rule change was that he was straddling the line of his putt.

But how could that be? He was standing behind his ball, and by definition, the line of a putt begins at the ball and ends at the cup. Okay then, for purposes of stopping Snead, they decided the line of the putt extends behind the ball, presumably ad infinitum. What was the sin of croquet-style? It didn't look like golf.

So the clever Snead found something else that soothed his nerves - "side-saddle" putting. He got both feet on one side of his ball - plenty legal, that - and turned and faced the hole, one hand high on the putter, the other low. That also didn't look like golf, but nobody could invent a rules violation for it, so Snead played away.

If Bernhard Langer has to give up the long putter, could he go back to his "Bavarian Death Grip"? Langer had the yips awfully as a teenager on the European Tour. His salvation, finally, was to hold the putter low in his left hand, then trap the shaft against the inside of his forearm with his right hand. It seemed he was tricking his brain into thinking he wasn't putting.

With anchoring now banned, what if Langer has to go back to that grip? Would that be anchoring? And if so, could he continue playing golf, or would the rule effectively end his career?

What are the likely consequences in all this?

For a backdrop, consider that the PGA Tour, which has been known to go its own way, is studying the matter. The tour will probably follow the USGA, but it's not a lock. During the PING square-grooves case in the early 1990s, for example, the USGA's issue was over the distance between the grooves, but the tour's was over the shape - it banned square grooves.

For another departure: The tour has a lift-clean-place rule for soggy courses. That's completely against USGA rules. (The USGA calls that lift-clean-and-cheat.) And there's the crosswalk rule - ground under repair.

The tour probably will agree with the anchoring ban just to keep harmony in the game. But if the tour doesn't, then the question is up to the golfers when they want to play in, say, the U.S. Open or British Open. They would have to either switch to regular putters or de-anchor their long ones.

Such questions are facing autonomous golf organizations all over the world. Golfers themselves are unlikely to do anything but conform because the money's too good. It's conceivable, however, that some careers could be hurt if a golfer can't adjust to a regular putter, or if his aches and pains become too great.

Golf doesn't have to be a Darwinian test. It doesn't have to be a total slave to tradition, either. Time was you had to wear a wool jacket, a knotted tie and a big mustache to play the game.

As to the possibility of lawsuits:

The USGA's Mike Davis, who ought to be beatified for championing the risk-reward holes in the U.S. Open, thinks the threat of legal action shouldn't be a deterrent. " if we're going to let the potential of litigation change what we think is doing the right thing," he said in a Golf Channel interview, "then shame on us."

That can be scary, but the R&A's Dawson is almost cavalier on the subject. He saw little chance of legal action. "Our legal advice," he said, "is that it's very clear the governing bodies have the authority to amend the rules as they see fit from time to time."

If Dawson believes that, he'd better have his lawyers read up on the PING square-grooves suit against the USGA and R&A. It's one of those long, tiresome legal things that'll put you to sleep until it gets to Paragraph 34, the one that reads: "Plaintiff alleges damage in the sum of ONE HUNDRED MILLION DOLLARS ($100,000,000.00)."

Under antitrust law, that could go up to $300 million and both organizations could have been swept away by that one. That one got worked out pretty fast.

As for the rest of the golf world - well, people long have used some rules and not used others as it suited them for their enjoyment of the game. It may not be pure, but it's fun. There's a lot to be said for having fun in golf.

Marino Parascenzo can assure you that hanging around with great and famous pro golfers does nothing to help your game. They just won't give you the secret. But it makes for a dandy career. As a sportswriter with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (now retired), Parascenzo covered the whole gamut of sports - Steelers, Pirates, Penguins, Pitt, Penn State and others - but golf was his favorite. As the beat writer for the paper, he covered all the stateside majors and numerous other pro events, and as a freelancer handled reporting duties for the British Open and other tournaments overseas - in Britain, Spain, Italy, the Caribbean, South Africa, China and Malayasia. Marino has won more than 20 national golf-writing awards, along with state and regional awards. He has received the Memorial Tournament's Golf Journalism Award and the PGA of America's Lifetime Achievement Award in Journalism. His writing has appeared in numerous magazines, among them Sports Illustrated, Golf Digest and Golf Magazine, and in anthologies and foreign publications. He also wrote the history of Oakmont Country Club. Parascenzo is a former president of the Golf Writers Association of America and is on its board of directors. He is the founder and chairman of the GWAA's Journalism Scholarship Program. He is a graduate of Penn State and was an adjunct instructor in journalism at Pitt.