John Huggan: Old ways are Guan for good

Well plaid, son: Guan Tianling will play Augusta next year, though the short-hitter's a long shot. Picture: Getty
Well plaid, son: Guan Tianling will play Augusta next year, though the short-hitter's a long shot. Picture: Getty
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Teenager’s qualification for Masters heralds a year of change for game

IN A game so inherently conservative, rule amendments typically take place only after prolonged negotiation and analysis – before possible implementation only once every four years. Change in golf has always tended to occur slowly, if at all. Yet, next year, we are going to be treated to all manner of refinements and modifications to what has for long enough been the accepted norm. “Metamorphosis” might be too strong a word, but “transformation” is a fair enough description of this soon-to-be new reality.

The list is both substantial and wide-ranging.

The world’s best (and now, most highly-compensated) golfer is going to be using new clubs and wearing new clothing.

A (long overdue) ban on “anchoring” in putting is imminent and so likely to be more than a vague promise by 1 January.

Only ten months after one Chinese 14-year-old, Andy Zhang, qualified for the US Open, another, Guan Tianling, will play in the Masters at Augusta National in front of two newly minted female members, each wearing the iconic green jacket over, no doubt, rather fetching accessories.

And, would you believe it, a fully-fledged World Golf Championship will for once live up to its grand title and take place in a land other than the United States. Next thing you know, the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews will be opening its clubhouse doors to the public (30 November, St Andrew’s Day, to be exact).

All of which is perhaps fitting, exactly a century on from what was a seminal moment in the worldwide development of the game Scotland gave to the world. Even now, the result of the 1913 US Open resonates almost like no other. Up against two of the sport’s most fearsome competitors – the game’s only six-time Open champion Harry Vardon and the massive-hitter who was Ted Ray – an unknown American teenager (and an amateur to boot) was the best of the three in the 18-hole play-off at the Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts. For golf and for Francis Ouimet – who would later win the US Amateur and become the first American captain of the R&A – life would never be the same again.

Perhaps the most interesting development – albeit the least surprising given the level of pre-publicity – is Rory McIlroy’s switch from Titleist to Nike in a decade-long deal reported to be worth £157 million. Thus following in the footsteps of Tiger Woods, it is to be hoped that the young Irishman will emulate the 14-time major champion’s subsequent on-course performance while continuing to be the very antithesis of Woods’ off-course persona. The second half of that fervent wish is a safe enough bet, but changing equipment – even in these ever-more sophisticated days of custom fitting and radar swing and ball flight analysis – is always a risk.

Nick Faldo is one who thinks so.

“I call it dangerous,” says the three-time Masters and Open champion. “I’ve changed clubs and changed equipment and every manufacturer will say, ‘we can copy your clubs, we can tweak the ball so it fits you’. But there’s feel and sound and there’s confidence. You can’t put a value on that. It is priceless.”

Another with similar views is former US Open champion Geoff Ogilvy, who claims that choosing a new set of clubs is “more art that science”. Which is a great point. Every golfer of whatever standard knows to trust the sensation that comes with picking up a club for the first time. While it may not be possible to know for certain if said club will successfully complement one’s technique, knowing when the club is not suitable is invariably instantaneous. Without you being able to explain how or why, it just won’t feel right. And feel, as Ogilvy points out, is “everything”.

One other prerequisite for success at the highest level these days is, of course, the ability to smash a turbo-charged ball far into the middle distance using a driver closely resembling a frying pan. And that is where the remarkable Guan may have problems when he pitches up at Augusta National next April. The 14-year-old Asia-Pacific amateur champion claims to average “about 250 yards” from the tee, a puny distance that will surely prove inadequate over a Masters venue stretched to something akin to 7,700 yards. While this column would love to be proved wrong, even the most gifted will struggle to break 80 hitting at least a long iron to almost every green.

Still, maybe Guan will find temporary salvation in the so-called “belly putter” he wielded to such great effect when qualifying for the first major of 2013. But he’d better make the most of that club while he can. Already – despite the self-interested protestations of Adam Scott and Keegan Bradley and those of Phil Mickelson, who seemingly can’t resist any opportunity to disagree with his old nemesis, Woods – that particular method appears doomed to extinction. And that eventuality is surely in the best interests of the game. Certainly, Tom Watson thinks so. The five-time Open champion – despite being prone to the odd “yip” or two – is no fan of either the belly or long, “broom handle” putter wielded by the likes of Sam Torrance and Bernhard Langer.

“There are definite advantages with the long putter,” claims Watson, who will be appearing in next month’s Australian Open at The Lakes course in Sydney. “You take it back and basically the pendulum and weight of the putter will take it through the impact area. There really is no chance to jerk it too much if you keep it pretty still.”

Throw in the fact that a 14-year-old prodigy uses a belly putter and we have reason enough to ban the thing as soon as possible. It can be argued that the clearly talented Guan has never actually played “proper golf” and that the sooner he learns how to do so, the better. “Save the short putter,” is this column’s current battle cry.

Nor does close scrutiny back up Mickelson’s argument that to institute a ban would be “grossly unfair” to those who have adopted various forms of anchoring over the last 25 years or so. By that spurious measure, no one would ever attempt to fix faults in their swings or games, lest any subsequent improvement be deemed somehow unscrupulous. And besides, the greater good of the wider game is surely more important than the supposed “rights” of a few unfortunate individuals doomed forever to “yip” putts from short range. Sometimes, “harsh” can also mean “fair”.

Finally, the news that the 2013 HSBC Championship at Mission Hills in China is to be a WGC is to be welcomed, even if it is coming about only because it suits the needs and wants of PGA Tour Commissioner, Tim Finchem. Unlike those charged with ruling on long putters, the “good of the game” is of no concern to the diminutive American. For him, the bottom line is all.

Come to think of it, a change in the hierarchy atop the world’s biggest and most lucrative professional tour would be no bad thing. And maybe 2013 will be the year when that happens. But even if it doesn’t, there’s still a lot to look forward to.