On Monday, promptly at 5 p.m., about a dozen people will be on a conference call that could have a dramatic effect on the future of golf as we know it. The powers that be from PGA Tour headquarters in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., will finally have to take a public stance on anchored putting. This will be new territory for all of us.
I say promptly because Tim Finchem, the PGA Tour commissioner, has never been late for anything in his life, at least nothing that I've observed. He's in control of everything he does, and I mean that as a compliment. He will be convening a phone meeting of the PGA Tour's Policy Board for the express purpose of deciding on a formal response to the USGA's proposed ban on anchored putting.
I sat on that board for three separate terms in the 1990s and 2000s, and under normal circumstances I wouldn't be comfortable even acknowledging the existence of this meeting. I'm doing so here for two reasons. First, several reporters have contacted me about the call; word about this meeting is already out. Second, the issues being discussed will have implications for millions of everyday golfers. The game belongs to all of us, and we all have the right to know what's going on.
The USGA and the R&A, the world's governing golf bodies, have an open comment period about the proposed rule change that concludes at the end of this month. If you're so inclined, try to influence the debate-send an email to the USGA, R&A or PGA Tour and let them know how you feel. That's why Tim is having his Tour Policy Board meeting on Monday. I believe he's going to try to persuade the board to that the Tour should urge the USGA to withdraw the proposed ban.
Personally, I am in favor of the proposed ban. I believe lodging the butt end of the putter in your naval, or holding it against your chest or chin, does not constitute a traditional golf swing and is not in the inherent nature of what we could call a "swing." Yes, there have been many changes in golf over the centuries, but the fundamental nature of how you hold the club and the unencumbered way you make a swing have been remarkably consistent ever since featheries and gutties were rolling down fairways in Scotland.
I believe if you took the greatest players who use anchored-putters (Ernie Els, Adam Scott, Keegan Bradley, Webb Simpson, Vijay Singh, Bernhard Langer, to name a few), put them in a private room and got them to tell you what they really think, they'd say the same thing: it's not really golf as golf was meant to be played. But they would also say that since the USGA and the R&A didn't ban the stroke 25 years ago, it shouldn't ban it now. I'm sympathetic. However, if your goal is to make a proper decision, timing should be irrelevant. It's never too late to right a wrong.
The anchoring ban is an incredibly sensitive subject among players. There's no consensus. On the PGA Tour, Tiger Woods is in favor of the ban while Phil Mickelson is against it. How can we win? Finchem is hearing from all sides, from the USGA, R&A, PGA of America, Tour players and manufacturers, and nobody is saying exactly the same thing.
At board meetings, on the phone or in person, Tim is adept at directing the conversation where he thinks it should go. He is even more skillful at directing specific comments toward particular people in an effort to get them to see things his way. He's masterful. During his 20-year tenure, he has done a magnificent job keeping controversy out of the press. No violations of the substance abuse policy or conduct unbecoming are ever made public. But this will be different.
I believe — and I haven't talked to him about this issue in a while — that Finchem's stance will be that the PGA Tour is in a good place, that a rules controversy over a well-established putting method does not serve the game well and that the Tour should urge the USGA to back off the proposed ban.
The most heavy-handed way he could persuade the USGA to drop the proposed ban, and I would normally never describe Tim Finchem as heavy-handed, would be by convincing the Tour Policy Board on Monday that the Tour should tell the USGA the following: If the USGA goes through with this ban, the PGA Tour will very likely consider creating our own condition of competition that will allow anchored putting on the PGA Tour, the WEB.com tour and Champions tour. If that happens, there will be chaos. The USGA could quickly lose its authority as the governing body of American golf.
Ted Bishop, the president of the PGA of America, thinks a ban on anchored putting will impede the growth of the game. I believe his view of this issue is dead wrong. There are several obvious socio-economic reasons why participation is down, including the shrinking middle class and how much less time we have to play the game. To think that potential new golfers won't play the game because they can't anchor? C'mon, Ted.
In addition, many people in golf are using the anchoring issue as a platform to make bifurcation part of the debate, different games for different groups of golfers. Not just in the rules, but involving the ball we hit, the clubs we swing, and even the course we play. Mark King, the TaylorMade president, recently suggested that the hole be enlarged to 15 inches . Why don't we just invent another sport and call it golf!
Tim won't find it easy to get a consensus in the Monday phone conference, but he'll likely get one. If the Tour's position is to tell the USGA to back down, Finchem will at least cover himself with the many PGA Tour and Champions tour players who want to continue to putt with an anchored putting stroke.
One way or the other, whether the USGA goes ahead with the ban or withdraws it, the Tour would much rather operate under an established set of rules and not make the rules. The Tour has never governed the game. It has enough to do as it is.
In the end, I believe the USGA will not back off the proposed ban, and that the ban will be accepted on the PGA Tour. I have to think that the USGA anticipated this level of pushback from the Tour. But it really is also possible that the USGA will back down. It's so hard to know. This is completely unchartered territory.
In the 20-plus years that I've been watching Tim Finchem's moves very closely, I have never seen him lose an important debate. He's that smart and that good. But this debate is so different and difficult, it's like nothing we've seen before. The players certainly don't have a unified position. The USGA and the PGA of America are at odds with each other. Arnold Palmer is saying one thing (ban anchored putting) and Jack Nicklaus something else (I don't care). You one thing, your playing partner something else.
If Finchem successfully forces the USGA's hand here, a lot of people, including Tiger, are going to be upset. If he does nothing, other people will be upset.
Golf is supposed to be a place where people get a break from the noise and the fights. That's not going to happen this time, even on Tim's watch. On this issue, there's no middle ground. The USGA sees a large number of junior players learning the game copying Webb and Keegan and others. The percentages of Tour players who use anchored putting has crept from 6 percent to 18 percent over the past three years. Somebody is going to leave this conversation unhappy. When I say that, I'm talking about Monday's phone conference — and all the conversations that will come after it.