USGA, R&A approve ban on anchored putting — but controversy is far from over

May 22, 2013

The USGA has spoken.

Now we'll see what everyone is going to do about it.

In a joint press conference with the R&A Tuesday morning, the USGA enacted the rules change proposed back in November that has split the golf world: Starting Jan. 1, 2016, players competing under USGA/R&A rules will no longer be allowed to affix or "anchor" the putter to their bodies. Rule 14-1b will prohibit most players from using the increasingly popular belly and broomstick models.

"This is about protecting the fundamentals of what the game has always been about," USGA executive director Mike Davis said, taking questions after the announcement. Longer putters themselves won't be illegal, but the anchoring of them — belly putter to the midsection, broomstick putter to the sternum — will be.

USGA president Glen Nager opened Tuesday's press conference and spent much of it rebutting arguments against the ban, among them that it's unfair to ban what has long been legal, and that a ban could potentially hurt participation. Peter Dawson, chief executive of the R&A, said in a written statement released Tuesday: "We recognize this has been a divisive issue but after thorough consideration we remain convinced that this is the right decision for golf."

(RELATED: Great Moments in Anchored Putting History)

Four of the last six major champions have won with an anchored stroke — Adam Scott (2013 Masters), Ernie Els (2012 British Open), Webb Simpson (2012 U.S. Open) and Keegan Bradley (2011 PGA Championship). But they're not the only ones with something to lose. Anchoring has long appealed to older players who may not be able to bend over as much for a conventional stroke. The ban has split golf's governing bodies like nothing else, pitting the USGA and R&A on one side, and the PGA of America and potentially the PGA Tour on the other.

"The last thing the governing bodies want to do," the R&A's Dawson has said, "is be party to any kind of schism in the game." But the schism is real.

Although the USGA has done little while equipment advances transformed the game, new executive director Davis and president Nager are spearheading a more activist leadership that is expected to soon take on other issues, among them the game's glacial pace of play, its declining participation and water conservation.

No issue is likely to be more of a lightning rod than anchoring. Those in favor of the ban say it's never too late to do the right thing, while those opposed say anchored putting should have been banned when it came on the scene decades ago, and outlawing it now amounts to moving the goalposts mid-game.

"We are simply trying to define the way that golf should be played," Davis said in a wide-ranging interview in the June issue of Golf Magazine. "For hundreds of years, golf was about taking a club, putting a ball into play and seeing how many strokes it takes you to get it in the hole. And while some people say, 'Hey, I have more fun anchoring,' we're simply saying, 'We don't think that's golf.'"

The ban was proposed in November and followed by a 90-day comment period. The European tour and several state and regional organizations backed the USGA and R&A, but PGA of America president Ted Bishop and PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem did not. Finchem later softened his position, and the Tour issued a statement Tuesday saying, in part: "We will now begin our process to ascertain whether the various provisions of Rule 14-1b will be implemented in our competitions and, if so, examine the process for implementation."

The PGA's Bishop has been less sanguine. When he met Dawson under the oak tree at the Masters in April, accounts had their discussion coming to an abrupt end. According to one report, Bishop said their difference of opinion was "nothing personal," Dawson said it was, and Bishop turned on his heels and left.

Players have been equally divided. Tim Clark, who anchors his putter, flew from his home in Scottsdale, Ariz., to La Jolla, Calif., for a players' meeting with the USGA's Davis at the Farmers Insurance Open in late January. Carl Pettersson has called the ban a "witch hunt." Bradley has said he feels as if he's playing with a target on his back, and Simpson argues there is no data that proves using a long or belly putter is an advantage, which the USGA's Davis admits is true.

"I'm opposed to the ban," Larry Nelson told Golf on Monday. "There are a bunch of other, more important issues. One or two guys are trying to do their own thing based on their opinion, and the ban might hurt the game more than help it."

Tiger Woods is the most high-profile player lining up squarely behind the USGA and R&A. Rory McIlroy and Arnold Palmer also favor a ban on anchoring.

"Well, I hope they go with the ban," Woods said Monday, media day for the AT&T National. "That's something that I've said, that anchoring should not be part of the game. It should be mandatory to have to swing all 14 clubs."

Some have speculated that a ban could lead to lawsuits from players and/or manufacturers. How the Tour reacts is of particular interest, as it could implement the ban much sooner than 2016, or never. Under that scenario the Tour would no longer play by the USGA's rules, creating a so-called "bifurcation" of the game. The PGA of America also could strike out on its own, which would affect not just the PGA Championship but many other national, state and regional tournaments. Either scenario would undermine the USGA's leadership role in the game.

Finchem has said he'd prefer the game move forward as one entity under one set of rules, and Davis and Nager echoed that sentiment Tuesday, especially in light of golf's impending return to the 2016 summer Olympics in Rio. Woods said Monday he hopes the Tour outlaws anchored putting as soon as possible. Padraig Harrington perhaps best embodies the complicated cloud of reason and emotion swirling around Rule 14-1b. Harrington recently began to use a belly putter but said at the Players he will keep using one until it is illegal — as it should be.

"It's for the betterment of the game that we get rid of it," he said.