John Huggan: PGA chief’s nonsense on belly putters

Truly, it was an astonishing performance. Yes, he has many well-honed faults, but to see such a seasoned and skilled debater talk such obvious nonsense was shocking indeed.

Time will tell, but going public with a litany of clearly spurious objections to the plan by the R&A and United States Golf Association to ban the so-called “anchoring” of long and belly putters to the body during the stroke may just prove to be a career-low moment for PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem.

Speaking last Sunday, Finchem’s most egregious claim was that “20 per cent” of amateur golfers currently use putting methods that will be deemed illegal in 2016. But there were others, almost as easy to disregard.

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By Finchem’s skewed reckoning, long putters first appeared on tour as far back as the mid-1970s. It was actually a decade later. Then there was his contention that the USGA and R&A have each conceded that “anchoring provides no competitive advantage”. Not so. Along with the R&A, the USGA steadfastly maintain their proposal “comes in response to the recent upsurge in the use of anchored putting at all levels of the game, combined with growing advocacy by players and instructors that anchoring the club may alleviate some of the inherent challenges of traditional putting”.

Besides, apart from anything else, Finchem’s whole argument breaks down when those who favour anchoring claim no advantage from doing so, then immediately scream about how much their livelihoods would be threatened if the practice were banned. Can’t have it both ways, boys.

Perhaps the only player deserving of sympathy is former Players champion Tim Clark. The South African has a congenital condition that prevents his forearms and wrists from turning inward. As such, “normal” putting is all but impossible. Then again, the rule change will not ask Clark to use a different club, only that he not anchor it to his torso. So even he does not have much of an axe to grind.

Finally, Finchem seemed to be under the mistaken impression that recent major champions Keegan Bradley and Webb Simpson both “grew up” with putters stuck in their respective navels. Again, such an assertion is incorrect. Simpson began using a belly putter when playing college golf and Bradley didn’t switch from conventional until after his largely unsuccessful rookie year as a professional.

Not surprisingly, since his ill-fated appearance on NBC television during the final of the Accenture Match Play Championship, Finchem – a man best judged by his typically sleekit actions more than his too-often disingenuous words – has found himself more and more isolated on this issue.

It remains to be seen what the Augusta National Golf Club – who run the Masters – the Australasian Tour and the Asian Tour have to say on the record. But the European Tour, the LPGA, the Sunshine Tour and the Ladies European Tour have already distanced themselves. So has the British PGA, for what that is worth. And, given that advances in equipment tend to minimise their competitive advantage, many significant players – including the world top two, Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods – have also backed the rules-making bodies. “My position hasn’t changed,” said Woods last week. “I still think the putter should be swung, it shouldn’t be anchored.”

Woods’ view coincides with that espoused by the USGA/R&A: “The player’s challenge is to control the movement of the entire club in striking the ball, and anchoring the club alters the nature of that challenge.

“Our conclusion is that the rules of golf should be amended to preserve the traditional character of the golf swing by eliminating the growing practice of anchoring the club.”

So it is that only the increasingly irrelevant PGA of America has joined wee Timmy in calling for any ban to be cancelled.

Going forward, all of the above has obvious implications for the game’s elite performers. Should the current impasse become official policy on both sides of the argument, players could be asked to switch back and forth between conventional and anchored putters, depending on where and when they are teeing-up in competition. Feel free to anchor your putter on the PGA Tour. But, in three of the four majors or in Europe, or in Australia or in Asia, that would be a no. That, surely, is a situation no one wishes to see.

Still, it would be wrong to overestimate the seriousness of a dispute that will almost certainly end with the PGA Tour (and so Finchem) backing down from their present stance. Even if a large number of professionals – a generally insular and self-interested group – have little or no time for the “bunch of amateurs” who make the rules for the ball-and-stick game they play for such extraordinary sums of money, it can safely be assumed that commonsense will eventually prevail.

And let’s not run away with the idea that the PGA Tour is the only bad guy in this whole sorry mess.

The R&A and USGA are hardly blameless. For one thing, they are attempting to ban something that should have been outlawed the minute it was first introduced. And, for another, they have taken the road of least resistance when it comes to any possible legal conflict with the equipment manufacturers.

Think about it. If the authorities had gone ahead and banned any kind of long-shafted putter – and introduced a rule whereby the “shortest club in the bag” lived up to its traditional title – things would be a lot clearer going forward.

As things currently stand, it is hard to imagine how rules officials are going to police this new regulation in a manner that is both fair and efficient. What, for example, will be the ruling when a gust of wind blows a part of a player’s clothing against the shaft or grip of the club during a stroke? Is that a penalty or not? The whole thing is a mind-boggling maze rather than a straight path, all because the R&A and USGA have – not for the first or last time – run scared from the possibility of litigation.

The biggest rogue in this ultimately distasteful scenario, however, is Finchem. Long renowned for his utter indifference to golf outside the narrow confines (and thinking) of the PGA Tour – witness his attitude to the so-called “World Golf Championships” that have long been played almost exclusively in the USA – he is no friend to a game invented and popularised in Scotland. His smug countenance last Sunday had everything to do with bullying golf’s ruling bodies and nothing to do with any deep-seated problem he may have with anchoring.

Happily, however, this is a battle Finchem is destined to lose. Which is fine – many will celebrate that fact. The hope here is that the R&A and USGA will be just as uncompromising when the time comes for action on restricting the distance golf balls can fly when struck by leading players wielding drivers with heads closely resembling frying pans. Don’t hold your breath on that one though. Nothing will happen as long as the “heid bummers” on both sides of the Atlantic are having their perverse fun growing silly rough, narrowing fairways and adding bunkers to the world’s finest courses.

Sometimes I just despair.