Major row looms over the long and short of putting
Different putters could be legal for different Major championships, writes Dermot Gilleece
As far back as 75 years ago, when an American professor invented an implement which actually lit up when swung correctly, the putter has been prized as tournament golf's ultimate money-maker. But it is now threatening the authority of the game's rule-makers on both sides of the Atlantic.
All has gone quiet on the proposed ban on anchored putters since the 90-day consultation period on the issue elapsed more than two weeks ago. Which means America's PGA Tour remains on a collision course with their brethren in the world's other professional tours, who are backing Royal and Ancient plans for a change, starting in 2016.
Noting American "sensitivity" on the issue, the R and A welcomed a more favourable reception "across the international golfing community." Meanwhile at a playing level, it has provoked interesting reactions from Pádraig Harrington and Des Smyth.
Harrington sees a clear parallel between the proposed change and the return to V-grooves in 2009, while Smyth's tournament experience with both conventional and anchored putters confirms the belief that a creative, determined professional will always find a way of getting the ball into the hole.
When opposing the change, US Tour commissioner Tim Finchem took a populist stance by reflecting rather than leading the mood of his players. One wonders where this may leave WGC events which are run jointly by the Federation of World Tours.
As for support in the Majors, Finchem can hardly expect the backing of Augusta National, where the chairman of their Competition Committees happens to be Fred Ridley, a former president of the USGA. So, with America's club professionals supporting their brothers on tour, we could have anchored putters permitted in the PGA Championship but banned in the Masters, US Open and The Open.
Given the presence of former R and A secretary and captain Michael Bonallack on their board of directors, European Tour approval was predictable. Especially interesting, however, has been the reaction of South Africa's Sunshine Tour, where Tim Clark, a particularly vocal exponent of the long-putter, learned his craft.
Its top official Johann Rupert sees the issue as having to do with respect for the bodies "who are tasked with the sometimes unenviable job of making changes to the Rules of Golf from time to time."
It may be appropriate to remind ourselves that uniformity in rule-making for world golf happened as relatively recently as 1952, when 12 men, representing the authorities in Britain, Australia, Canada and the US, came together in London's House of Lords. Their objective of developing "a code of Rules of Golf, which could be used uniformly throughout the world", led to the USGA becoming the administrative body for the US and Mexico, while the R and A took responsibility for the rest of the world.
From a playing perspective, Smyth's tournament experience in the last decade is most revealing. Using a broomhandle putter, he captured the Madeira Island Open on the regular European Tour in 2001. When preparing for the 2005 season on the US Champions Tour, however, he changed back to a conventional putter with a variation of the so-called claw or saw grip. And had the biggest successes of his career.
"It was certainly a significant factor," he recalled of a breakthrough victory in the SBC Classic in California. And he won again a month later, in the prestigious Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf in Savannah.
Then, remarkably, he returned to the broomhandle and earned a tie in the Senior British Open at Royal Aberdeen the following July, before losing the play-off to Tom Watson. And his 2005 season ended with victory in the European Seniors Tour Championship in Bahrain.
Against this background, how are we to take seriously the bleatings of Keegan Bradley, Clark and their anchored-putting ilk, especially when such expertise as reading line, pace and grain remains constant, irrespective of the implement? Mind you, there is inescapable appeal in a method which greatly reduces the impact of nerves on the putting stroke.
The fact that anchored-putting has been legal for years is hardly a valid argument. What about the small British ball which remained obligatory in the Open Championship until Royal Lytham in 1974? And the groove changes?
On the eve of his professional debut in the Smurfit European Open at The K Club in September 1995, Harrington made a shock discovery. While the 60-degree Ping L-wedge, which he used for everything from bunker play to chipping, was perfectly acceptable in amateur events, it was illegal on the European Tour at that time because of its square grooves. So he had to find a replacement from Headfort professional Brendan McGovern.
Further rule changes followed, including a switch from U- to V-grooves in 2009 which, according to Harrington "cost me a stroke a day." Why, he wants to know, did the PGA Tour not make a stand on that particular issue? "I can see no difference between this [putter] rule and the groove rule," he said.
Golf's legislators now face arguably their most difficult decision since that London get-together 61 years ago. And after the way they handled the golf-ball fiasco, the putter issue offers a perfect opportunity of restoring integrity to the administrative process. One hopes they can find the strength of will to see it through.