Ruling hits belly-putter brigade in solar plexus
Published 29/11/2012 | 05:00
IT'S fortunate the ruling bodies of world golf have nothing to do with horse racing, given their penchant for leaving stable doors ajar.
Still, the Royal and Ancient and United States Golf Association must be congratulated for taking relatively quick action against belly and broom-handle putters.
The measures which have been announced to outlaw the "deliberate anchoring" of any club to the body will restore to players like Rory McIlroy, Brandt Snedeker and Tiger Woods the full advantage that assured, nerveless putting must always bring – especially where it counts most, down the back nine on Sunday at the Majors.
McIlroy, for one, is delighted with this boost to his Major-winning prospects, tweeting: "Fully agree with the anchoring ban. Better image for the game of golf, skill and nerves are all part of the game. Level playing field in 2016."
One drawback, however, is having to wait until January 1, 2016 for the new Rule 14-1 to come into force. Golf's playing rules are updated and published every four years, and the current cycle only started last January.
It's also regrettable that handicap golfers who found in the long putter an escape from the recurring nightmare of the yips might feel they have little option but to give up the game.
Those players for whom belly and broom-handle putters were a weapon of last resort will not be given special accommodation as the governing bodies insist on all levels of the sport being subject to the same rules.
Yet the anchoring of putters to the belly, chest or chin, thereby taking twitchy wrists or hands out of the equation at the business end of professional and elite amateur events, is a blight which simply had to be removed from the sport.
Three of the last five Major champions – Keegan Bradley, Webb Simpson and Ernie Els – have wielded long putters, but by far the most unsettling recent success by a player swinging an anchor was that of 14-year-old Guan Tianlang from China.
His victory at the Asia Pacific Amateur Championships ensured that Tianlang will become the youngest golfer ever to play at the US Masters next April, when, one supposes, a global TV audience will get to see the youngster using his belly putter.
Having unveiled the rule change, the USGA and R&A "will use the next three months to listen to any further comments and suggestions from throughout the golf community before a final decision is taken in the spring of 2013," according to R&A chief executive Peter Dawson.
USGA executive director Mike Davis revealed that his organisation ruled long putters legal 23 years ago, but "in the past 18 to 24 months we have seen a significant increase at all levels of the game of people using anchored strokes".
"For years, we saw 2, 3 or 4pc of players at PGA Tour events using anchored strokes," he went on.
"All of a sudden, we get to 2006 through 2010 and it jumps to an average of 6pc. In 2011 it rose to 11pc, then this year to 15pc. In some events, over 20 to 25pc of the players in the field were using anchored strokes."
In fact, 51 of the 156 players who teed it up in August at the PGA Championship used a broom-handle or belly putter, including two of those who tied third behind McIlroy – Carl Pettersson and Bradley.
Bradley and Pettersson recently suggested that they may take legal action in the event of a ban on belly putters. Yet good sense and reason clearly had prevailed this week when the 2011 PGA champion said he'd return to using a conventional putter if required by rule.
It must be stressed, the R&A and USGA are not banning long putters. Instead, anchoring has been outlawed because, Davis explained: "We believe a player should hold the club away from his body and swing it freely, whether it's a putt, a chip, a pitch or any other shot from the fairway or teeing ground.
"We think this is integral to the traditions of the game."
Woods made precisely the same case this week and it enjoys support among the vast majority of his colleagues, with Padraig Harrington expressing best the need for fast action.
"The reason for making the decision, I think, is so kids coming into the game don't think it's the way to go," Harrington said.
Referring to Tianlang, he went on: "I'm sure he's using that putter thinking there isn't anything against the traditions of the game. Yet it's time to make that change now, so it doesn't become so embedded that people, kids in particular, think it's the right or normal thing to do.
As for those who might have played legally for most of their career with a long putter and in 2016 will face a difficult adaption, Harrington shrugged: "Well, they've had many good years of it. It's hard to think you could find anybody in the professional game using a long putter who didn't know this day was coming.
"If belly putters were coming onto the scene now, they'd not be passed. Yes, they should have done it 16 or 20 years ago, but it's become so commonplace now, it's starting to get entrenched. So, they needed to put a stop to it."