The anchored putting ban was a major story going into 2016, and the three most high profile PGA Tour players affected were Adam Scott, Webb Simpson and Keegan Bradley. All three won major championships with an anchored putting stroke in the last five seasons.
While Simpson and Bradley began consistently featuring a short putter last year, Scott bounced between a number of styles and grips during a winless 2015, his first season without a victory since his 2000 debut. To start 2016, he putted poorly at the Sony Open (-0.7 strokes gained putting per round), putted well at Riviera (+1.2 strokes gained per round), and then well enough to win at the Honda (+0.7 strokes gained per round). So far this year, his performance ranks 50th on the PGA Tour — a major improvement over 158th best in 2015.
Short-term putting performance is fickle. Often golfers will have a quick run of success fuelled by putting on a comfortable surface, a minor tweak to their form, or just plain luck in getting a few extra putts to drop. That’s why I’m wary of declaring an end to Adam Scott’s putting woes. His gains over last year’s poor results stem largely from very short and very long putts. In other words, his form has been good enough to consistently make putts inside five feet and he’s found the consistency to lag it close. That improvement at either end has helped him to improve to 87th best (about average) in three-putt avoidance in 2016. In comparison, he ranked second to last (183rd) in that stat in 2015. With a few more starts before the Masters, we’ll have more data points to judge how his transition is going, but for now there’s at least cautious optimism that one of the PGA Tour’s best ball-strikers has found his game on the greens.
For Bradley, however, it’s clear the switch to the short putter has significantly affected his ability to contend on the PGA Tour. Last year, he had his second-best season tee to green in his five years on Tour, ranking 14th in strokes gained tee to green, but has virtually nothing to show for it. Bradley dropped nearly a third of a stroke on the greens in 2015 compared to 2011-14, a big enough slide to send the 20th best player in the game tumbling down the World Ranking. Bradley avoided disaster last year, but the early returns in 2016 show him losing -1.2 strokes on the greens per round. Surely he won’t continue on that pace going forward, but it’s clear an old strength is now a crippling weakness.
Simpson finds himself in a very similar situation to Bradley – only with a more precipitous drop-off. After consistently gaining about 0.3 strokes on the field with the flatstick from 2010-14, he dropped to nearly -0.7 strokes gained versus the field on the greens in 2015. Remarkably, he ranked seventh on Tour in strokes gained tee to green in 2015, but never seriously contended for a title. He’s started strong again tee to green in 2016 (in only 10 rounds), but is still struggling with the putter.
Without the anchored putter ban, both Bradley and Simpson would likely be in strong position to qualify for their third Ryder Cup appearances and likely win an event off the strength of their tee to green play over the last 14 months. Instead, both are staring at lost seasons in their primes.