Anchoring, the unconventional putting method once roundly viewed as the last resort for the yip-afflicted and old guys with bad backs but whose popularity soared in recent years as three of the last five major champions employed the technique, effectively died on Wednesday. It was 80 years old, or thereabouts.
The cause of death was a contentious ban proposed by the Royal & Ancient and the United States Golf Association, the game's governing bodies. The organizations will use the next three months to weigh feedback on the proposal before making the ban official, but the Far Hills, N.J., coroner's office gave anchoring a zero percent chance of survival. Though the proposed rule would not go into effect until Jan. 1, 2016, when the next set of rules changes are implemented, the coroner went ahead and declared anchoring dead at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday.
Anchoring, which dates to the 1930s and perhaps earlier, joins square grooves, the Callaway ERC II driver, "scooping," "scraping," and croquet-style putting on the long list of technology and techniques eliminated by the USGA and R&A. A memorial service will be held in Scottsdale, Ariz., at the home of longtime anchorer Tim Clark. In lieu of flowers, Clark has asked that mourners send him their soon-to-be obsolete alternative-length putters, which he will use to construct a "magnificent shrine to anchoring" in the Sonoran Desert.
Candlelight vigils were held at golf courses and golf-retail shops across the country on Wednesday. At The Villages, a sprawling retirement community that dubs itself "Florida's Friendliest Hometown," the atmosphere was anything but amiable. As news of the proposed ban spread, hundreds of seething residents took to the streets in protest, some whirling their long putters over their heads like tomahawks. Coffin manufacturers from Myrtle Beach, S.C., to Billings, Mont., reported a surge in orders for skinny, 42-inch pine boxes.
When reached by phone, Fred Couples, an avid anchorer who suffers from chronic back pain, openly wept. "What now?!" he cried. "What now?!"
Anchoring's final days were full of angst, teeth-gnashing and rigorous debate. As recently as 18 months ago, USGA Executive Director Mike Davis said he didn't believe anchoring was a "big trend" and that "we didn't see this as something that was detrimental to the game," but the winds quickly shifted as more and more players added long putters to their bags. In late 2011, Ernie Els, who had called for an anchoring ban in 2004, reversed course and acquired a belly putter, proclaiming, "As long as it's legal, I'll keep cheating like the rest of them." To the rules czars in Far Hills and St. Andrews, that remark, coming from a U.S. and British Open champion, must have felt like a kick to the groin.
A more obvious sign that anchoring's end was near came in July after Els (and his belly putter) edged out Scott (and his long putter) to win a second claret jug, a scourge to purists everywhere. A day later, the R&A chief, Peter Dawson, revealed that the issue of anchoring was "squarely back on the radar" of the game's governing bodies and had been for some time. Which was another way of saying that the tweed coats and blue blazers were already deliberating about how to euthanize anchoring as quickly and uncontroversially as possible. Of course, the long-putter faithful and supporters of bifurcation did not let anchoring go quietly.
Dawson added in July that anchoring's future would be decided in a matter of months not years, which sparked fierce debate across the golf world. Among those in favor of the ban were Arnold Palmer ("it does not have a place in the game"); Tiger Woods ("I'm a traditionalist when it comes to [putting]"), and reigning FedEx Cup champion Brandt Snedeker, who fretted on the Golf Channel earlier this month about the "influx" of junior players carrying long putters. "Is that keeping with the traditions of the game?" he said.
Those who opposed the ban included just about every player who uses or has used a long putter. Phil Mickelson, who has tinkered with a belly putter, called the potential ban "grossly unfair" to players who have spent so most of their careers honing the technique while, presumably, neglecting to practice conventional putting methods. On the basis of that point, some players suggested that, should the ban pass, they might challenge it in court, though it appears they don't have much of a legal leg to stand on.
Anchoring's roots are murky. It's impossible to say with any certainty who was the first golfer to determine that jittery hands could be mitigated by nestling the butt of a putter into one's sternum or stomach. Who knows — perhaps Old Tom Morris toyed with a long-shafted putter on the practice green at Prestwick 150 years ago. We do know that the first patent for an anchored, or "body-pivot," putter was issued to Richard T. Parmley of San Diego, Calif., in 1965. Parmley wrote that "a principal object of this invention [was] to significantly reduce the difficulty of putting accurately, without eliminating skill as a factor in the game.
"Another object was to accomplish the foregoing without any radical departure from conventional club configuration, so as the gain prompt acceptance by golfers generally and arouse no official disapproval."
Parmley achieved the latter of those goals — until now, anyway — but mainstream acceptance was harder to come by. Phil Rodgers, a brash American pro who came up the ranks with Jack Nicklaus, was an early adopter, adding a belly putter to his arsenal in the late 1960s. But his lackluster putting failed to elevate his flatstick's cachet. That much-needed boost came in 1986 when Charlie Owens bagged two titles on the senior circuit with a 50-inch beanpole he literally glued together himself. "I found the key to the lock," Owens told Sports Illustrated. "With this putter, you can't jerk the ball when you're nervous." Three years later Orville Moody won the Senior U.S. Open with a broomstick, stoking the dialogue over the fairness of bracing a putter against one's chest.
After Moody's win, P. J. Boatwright, then executive director of the USGA for rules and competitions, told the New York Times: "We don't know if we are going to outlaw [anchoring] or not. But, as with the croquet style of putting, there are some who just don't think it is golf." Less than two months later, the USGA and R&A did make a decision, one we now know they wished they could have had back. Anchoring, the organizations decreed on Aug. 19, 1989, was all good.
In the '90s, no one gave much thought to the ruling, mostly because anchormen weren't hoisting trophies. Rocco Mediate and his 49-inch wand prevailed at Doral in 1991, making him the first PGA Tour winner to tote a long putter, but it was a quiet decade thereafter for the dwindling broomstick brigade. In 1992, Golf Magazine ran a piece on anchoring's plunging popularity. The accompanying illustration depicted a long putter in a satin-lined coffin.
Trends come and go, and frequently they come again. And so it was with long putters as the new millennium dawned. In 2007, Colt Knost won the U.S. Amateur with a belly putter. Two years later, Angel Cabrera won the Masters, also with a belly putter, albeit without anchoring it to his body. Then, in 2011, the levy broke: Bradley won the PGA to become the first anchoring major-winner; Mickelson – Mickelson! – began experimenting with a belly putter; and Bill Haas, also with a belly putter, won the FedEx Cup.
This year, more Belly Mania: Simpson and Els rode belly putters to major titles; Adam Scott credited his long putter for his much-improved form; and 14-year-old Guan Tianlang of China used a belly putter at the Asia-Pacific Amateur to punch his ticket to the 2013 Masters. The only thing a belly putter didn't win was a Nobel Prize.
And, then, alas, on Wednesday morning came the cruel, inevitable end. Despite a dramatic, 11th-hour plea for clemency from putting guru Dave Pelz, the governing bodies read anchoring its last rites and flipped the switch. Anchoring is survived by Paul Azinger, John Brodie, Jim Furyk, Bernhard Langer, Bruce Lietzke, Johnny Miller, Vijay Singh and countless old guys with bad backs.