PETER Dawson knew it was coming. And he didn’t have to wait long. It was the second question at the R&A’s traditional debriefing the morning after the conclusion of the 141st Open Championship.
The chief executive was already smiling halfway through the question, which, of course, concerned the game’s biggest events being dominated these days by players using long putters.
In becoming Open champion for a second time, at the age of 42, after his dramatic victory on Sunday, Ernie Els secured a place in the history books as the first player to win golf’s oldest major wielding a belly putter.
His success at Royal Lytham, where the runner-up, Adam Scott, used a broomhandled putter, meant three of the last four majors have fallen to players using non-conventional flatsticks.
Keegan Bradley sparked that trend when winning last year’s USPGA Championship before Webb Simpson also won last month’s US Open with a belly putter.
In answering the question, Dawson hinted strongly that long putters, both belly and broomhandled models, will be banned in the future, though not before 2016, the next time the Rules of Golf will be changed under their quadrennial review. “First of all, the Open Championship result does not have a direct bearing on the discussions about long and belly putters. They were going on well before what happened yesterday,” he said.
“The R&A and the USGA do have this subject firmly back on the radar. We appreciate that there is much speculation about this and that we need to clarify the position as soon as possible.
“There are still further meetings to be had, so we’re just going to have to be patient. But it is under active discussion and I think you’re going to see us saying something about it in a few months rather than years.”
Reading between the lines, there’s a good chance that, by the time Els defends the Claret Jug at Muirfield in 12 months’ time, players will know a long putter ban is in the offing in 2016, giving them plenty of time to get used to short putters again.
“The initial determination has been that we are examining the subject from a method of stroke standpoint rather than length of putter standpoint,” added Dawson. “That takes it into the area of the rules of play, the Rules of Golf, rather than the rules of equipment.
“Therefore it’s the Rules of Golf committees of the R&A and the USGA who are looking at this in detail. Then they have to make their recommendations to the boards of each organisation.”
While either method sticks in the throat of purists, some reckoned Scott becoming the first Open champion using a broomhandled putter would have been the lesser of two evils. However, both methods are under scrutiny. Dawson was speaking the day after two prominent players, three-time major winner Padraig Harrington and world No 1 Luke Donald, both aired their views on long putters.
Harrington effectively claimed that long putters had slipped through the net and had only been allowed so that careers of players like Bernhard Langer weren’t ended prematurely.
“The fact is if somebody invented the belly putter tomorrow, it would not pass,” said the Irishman.
“It puts pressure on the guys that aren’t using one just to compete, so it actually has a negative effect on others as much as a positive effect on some.” Donald, meanwhile, said he “wouldn’t mind seeing them not allowed to be used” when he was asked about the game’s biggest talking point.
“The objections I find from those who object at professional level, at elite level, are all about if people have become failed putters in the conventional way, why should they have a crutch to come back and compete against me when I haven’t failed in the conventional way,” added Dawson.
“That’s the general argument one hears. But we’re also seeing now people who can putt perfectly well in the conventional way thinking that an anchored stroke gives them an advantage. I think that’s the fundamental change that we’ve witnessed in the last couple of years.”
Dawson was adamant that the controvery surrounding long putters hadn’t detracted from Els winning a dramatic event – he came from six shots back with nine holes to play as Scott dropped shots at each of the last four holes – to claim the Claret Jug for a second time.
“No, absolutely not,” he said. “The championship is conducted under the rules of play at the time, and it doesn’t detract in any way from the winner as long as he obeys the rules of play at the time.
“Bobby Jones used concave-faced clubs for some of his major championships. They were outlawed later. Bobby Jones’ victories are in no way demeaned as a result of that and I see this in exactly the same way.”
At Lytham, in a field of 156, Els was among 16 players wielding a belly putter while Scott was one of 27 using a long one.
“At one tournament last year, the R&A reported 21 per cent of players had long putters in their bag.”