John Huggan: The ‘anchoring’ debate takes off

Adam Scott is among those threatening legal action against the putter ban. Picture: Getty
Adam Scott is among those threatening legal action against the putter ban. Picture: Getty
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“I could never use a long putter. Every time I went to take it out of the bag I’d be reminded what a bad putter I was” – Seve Ballesteros

IN almost any other week, it would have been the talk of the tournament. But the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth wasn’t destined to be about the proposed ban on “anchoring” (attaching the club to any part of the body) while putting. Thanks to the various shenanigans perpetrated by Messrs Garcia and O’Grady – with an assist from unofficial European Tour spokesman Colin Montgomerie – the off-course buzz was more about race than pace.

Which, in so many ways, was a pity. This long-anticipated action – due to kick in on 1 January, 2016 – by the R&A and United States Golf Association has implications far beyond the supposedly straightforward act of hitting ball into hole. Should the “no anchoring” edict be universally accepted, the notoriously hesitant rulesmakers might finally feel empowered to do something about the biggest cancer in golf at the highest level – the increasingly obscene distances leading professionals, armed with “frying-pan” drivers and nuclear-charged balls, can hit shots.

That may be something of a pipedream, as the cozy reception afforded Titleist’s head honcho, Wally Uihlein, at the R&A’s recent “summit” in St Andrews would seem to indicate, but you never know. Perhaps the forthcoming US Open at the relatively short Merion will convince those charged with the “good of the game” to take long overdue action.

First, however, the band of blazers on either side of the Atlantic seem likely to have their authority challenged by a nine-strong group of professionals – including recent major champions Webb Simpson, Keegan Bradley and Adam Scott – all of whom are devotees of either “belly” putters or their longer cousin, the “broom-handle”.

Such a prospect has provoked a range of opinions across the world of golf, from those who see any dissent as damaging to the game, all the way to the above-named, who see a ban on anchoring as a threat to their ability to make a living.

“If the option to sue is there, I would support it,” says Australian Brett Rumford, a devotee of the broom-handle and twice a winner on the European Tour this year. “It’s not hypocrisy but it’s pretty close to it when you see what the authorities are doing.

“If the argument is that longer putters help people putt, then surely a 2-iron from a tight lie is a sh**load harder than hitting a hybrid. But that’s OK apparently. Even if that piece of equipment makes it easier for you to hit tough shots. Which it does and is why everyone uses them.

“Plus, look at the drivers we use today. Put an old persimmon wood next to a modern metal and the difference is staggering. They are so much easier to hit nowadays. Then there are the balls we use. The dimple patterns mean they fly farther and straighter. But all of that is OK, according to the R&A and the USGA.

“I don’t see that Adam Scott holing a few more putts is a problem. All it does is reward his ball-striking ability. Golf at the top level is a putting competition. So guys who have used a long putter their whole career have a case. This new rule will be a significant handicap to them.”

At the other end of the scale are those who see the ban as merely “protection” of a game that is fast becoming more science than art.

“These guys need to conduct themselves with more class,” contends former Ryder Cup player Andrew Coltart. “Years ago, Sam Snead wanted to putt croquet-style because he had the yips. But that was banned. So he putted sidesaddle. What he did not do was sue so that he could stick with croquet putting. He accepted the authority of the ruling bodies.

“Ernie Els has been saying the same thing. He recognises that the R&A and the USGA make the rules and that they are doing what is best for the game, not picking on any individuals. That has to be the best way. If the tours were making the rules, those making decisions would be players directly affected by those decisions. Some, many or all would be hopelessly conflicted.

“That’s why you need people without conflict of interest making rules. The R&A and the USGA have been doing that for a long time. And that’s how it should be. We all have to suck it up and get on with it.”

Somewhere in the middle is Sky television pundit, Denis Pugh.

“This was inevitable,” says the leading coach, who works with Ryder Cup players Francesco Molinari and Ross Fisher. “At least some PGA Tour players were always going to react this way. And they have a case. For 30 years it’s been OK to use a long putter or a belly putter anchored to your body. If it [the long putter] was introduced today, I’d be fine with banning it. But it’s been with us for a long time, maybe too long to do anything about it. Plus, it’s one thing to ban it for amateurs, it’s another to do so for pros who use it to earn a living.

“I understand the players’ reaction. They are thinking, ‘why should I listen to a bunch of guys in ties and shirts and jackets? I’ve built a career on this method and now they want to take that away? I don’t think so.’”

So what exactly are we talking about here? Is anchoring that much of an advantage?

“It’s almost hypocritical of me I know, but I am totally opposed to the belly putter,” says former Ryder Cup skipper Sam Torrance, a long-time broom-handle user. “I used to attach the putter to my chin, so I was guilty of ‘anchoring’. Now, I don’t do, so the method I use will be legal.

“To me, anchoring the belly putter is advantageous. The analogy I use is if you put a table against a wall, then slip a bit of paper between the wall and the table. Then, using a pencil, draw a half circle. The likelihood is the drawing will be pretty close to perfect. Now try it after moving the table and the paper half an inch off the wall. You’ll make a mess of it. To me that is how the belly putter works. And that is wrong. Can you imagine if we have different rules for tour events, the US Open, the Open and the Ryder Cup? That would be terrible for the game.”

Another on the side of the authorities is Dubai Desert Classic winner, Stephen Gallacher, who has dabbled with the belly putter.

“The thing about the belly putter is that it won’t make someone who is good with a short putter any better,” says the Scot. “But if you’re bad with a short putter, it will make you better. It takes out fear or agitation or whatever.

“So I don’t think anyone should be suing the R&A and the USGA. All it does is open up a can of worms. I could sue because I didn’t get a drop from a rabbit hole. It could get that silly. Padraig Harrington reckons changing the groove rule cost him two shots per round. But he isn’t suing anyone. He knows the game is bigger than any individual. I think we have to go with the rules makers; they have the good of golf at heart. It’s a bit alarming when you see 12-year-olds growing up using nothing but belly putters. And I’m not alone in that view. Most of the great players of the recent past are of the same opinion.”

Ah yes, grooves. Rumford has a view on that, too. “I chatted to Padraig last year,” he continues. “We were discussing how guys who have recently won majors using longer putters have almost been discredited.

“He pointed out how he won his three majors using square grooves, which have since been banned.

“Does that discredit those wins? Of course not. But the grooves were different. Everyone was using them and everyone could get the ball to spin with an 8-iron from heavy rough. So it was to the benefit of the game to ban them. But the same can’t be said for long putters.”

The last word, however, belongs to Pugh.

“There are two discussions going on here,” he points out.

“The amateurs are quite rightly discussing whether or not anchoring should be allowed. But the PGA Tour is deciding whether or not to challenge it legally. If not, is anchoring then to be allowed on tour? If so, we are down the road to what the R&A calls bifurcation – one set of rules for the amateurs, another for the professionals.”

Opinions. As is obvious from even a brief analysis of this issue, everyone has one. Look for this dispute to run for a while yet.