Lawyer and former Merion club champ says the 'belly ban' is bad policy for USGA

The following is a letter from Carl Everett to the USGA about the USGA's proposal to ban anchored putting strokes on Jan. 1, 2016.
 
Dear USGA officials,
 
Thank you for the opportunity to comment on the proposed Rule. I hope your transparency extends to an explanation of your final decision. For the reasons discussed below, I urge the USGA and R&A to drop the anchor discussion and turn to golf’s real issue, the ball. Here’s why:
 
Too fine a line
 
Using Rule 14 rather than Rule 4 and Appendix II is a charade. Nobody in his or her right mind will want to use a long putter if it can’t be anchored. There are ways to use a belly putter without anchoring, but the relatively few players who do have altered the loft to account for the shaft angle relative to the target. Talk about non-traditional clubs! 
 
While the Rule 14 approach is intended to avoid legal pitfalls with banning particular clubs, it places the enforcement task on opponents/fellow competitors, which is a good way for players to make enemies rather than friends. If the anchoring rule goes into effect and I see a long or belly putter in someone’s bag, I fear I will have to be a policeman on every green to make sure anchoring is not taking place. Doing so will generally necessitate positioning myself so that I am facing the player rather than preparing for my own upcoming shot and may require me to inquire about the player’s intent on a particular stroke. That’s crazy! The only other place in the Rules addressing intent is in the definition of “stroke;” but when a swing does not result in contact, it is usually fairly obvious whether the player intended to hit the ball.
 
Litigation will follow
 
Despite the USGA’s assertion that the proposed Rule would not ban clubs, manufacturers that have gone through the process of obtaining approval of their long or belly putters, tooled up and produced a significant quantity are almost certain to sue since sales have to decline if anchoring is banned. Using legal claims based on estoppel, quasi-contract or similar theory, manufacturers will be able to shop for what they believe is a favorable forum state that might place the economic health of its local businesses above the desires of golf’s rule-making bodies. Conceivably the USGA will be subjected to multiple lawsuits as different manufacturers sue in different states. The situation is to be contrasted with the Casey Martin lawsuit, which was based on federal law (the Americans With Disabilities Act), where uniformity is a strong policy goal. Your R&A friends may not appreciate the potential variability of judicial interpretations when state law is at issue. 
 
Press coverage of the proposal indicates that litigation by touring pros is a distinct possibility. While it seems a stretch to invoke the ADA, creative plaintiffs’ lawyers can be expected to articulate reasons why it is impermissible to reverse what has become a long-standing practice used by many players who have achieved competitive and financial success. 
 
Long putters have been around for the better part of a golfing generation. Who can blame those who have attained success from making every effort to maintain a status quo in which they have been successful? A rift between the USGA and the PGA Tour might develop, jeopardizing the sacred cow of uniform rules. Proposal of the rule itself has created something of a rift among PGA Tour members and has provoked catcalls from fans directed at particular players. This distraction is clearly undesirabIe.
 
The Proposal and the Infographic appear inconsistent
 
At the risk of seeming like the condemned man suggesting improvements to the guillotine, I must note that one of the pictures accompanying the proposed rule contradicts the text. Note 2 describes an anchor point to exist “when the player intentionally holds a forearm in contact with any part of his body to establish a gripping hand as a stable point…” The pictures of permitted strokes include one in which the forearms are held against the body. How is that not a violation? Will a fellow competitor or opponent be expected to inquire as to the player’s intent regarding a stable point? 
 
What about Exception 1 to Rule 14-3?
 
Back to the guillotine situation, shouldn’t Exception 1 be rewritten to foreclose attempts to employ an anchored stroke to alleviate a medical condition? As you have emphasized, long and belly putters are acceptable equipment. While generally directed at unusual equipment as opposed to unusual use of equipment, Exception 1 could arguably be relevant since Rule 14-3 deals with, inter alia, unusual use of equipment, which would seem to include anchoring a long or belly putter. Leaving aside the professional tours and USGA events where the “committee” is the sponsoring organization, what is there to prevent emasculation of 14-1b by requests for relief by competitors with back ailments or similar conditions directed to the multitude of committees running other competitions? A player can assert that the putter in question alleviates a medical condition and that he or she has a legitimate medical reason to use it. In its public statements the USGA has conceded that use of a long or belly putter does not give the player an undue advantage over other players so condition (c) of the three in the Exception is already resolved to the anchoring player’s advantage. Conditions (a) and (b) are highly individualized so it seems almost certain that similar situations will be resolved differently by different committees.
 
(Not) Good for the Game
 
To its credit the USGA has tried mightily to popularize golf, suggesting that we play it forward, be inclusive and take actions that are for the good of the game. Now is not the time to retreat to the stuffed-shirt image that a wave of lawsuits is likely to produce. The USGA’s stature will be diminished, even in victory.
 
Long and belly putters have allowed many players to keep enjoying the game. While there evidently is no statistical support for the notion that those putters create a competitive advantage, their use is widespread, particularly among senior men. My guess is that your equipment surveys at USGA events show the highest percentage of long or belly putters at the Senior Amateur. What can the ruling bodies hope to accomplish by instituting a rule that will probably cause some players to quit competing?
 
Get on the Ball
 
To the more serious golf community, proposal of the anchoring rule has already reinforced the notion that the ruling bodies are preoccupied with trivialities when compared to the havoc being caused by the ball. The same is true of the recent grooves rule. How many parents of aspiring young players had to purchase new irons because junior wanted to try to qualify for the U.S. Open? That’s simply wasteful, particularly since it does not appear that the grooves rule has accomplished anything. Skilled players can do nearly anything with an appropriately engineered ball.
 
The USGA talks about sustainability and the need to reduce costs by limiting the amount of acreage being maintained, yet clubs feel forced to increase length to remain relevant in the face of drives that carry 300-plus yards. Lengthening holes usually means adding new tees to the irrigation system and some expansion of landing areas. Those steps might keep a course tournament worthy, but they don’t translate into additional rounds or improve the pace of play. They also can create liability issues for clubs when the alterations bring neighboring properties more into the line of play.
 
At a tournament dinner nearly a decade ago, former USGA senior director of rules and competition Tom Meeks told the players that it was not a question of whether the ball would be dialed back, but how much. The USGA and R&A have had plenty of time to work something out. Time is a-wasting as clubs continue to stretch their courses.
 
Sincerely,
 
Carl Everett
 
Carl Everett is a Philadelphia-based lawyer and a three-time club champion at Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pa.
 
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