Golf adopts rule to ban anchored putting stroke

Golf’s two governing bodies outlawed the anchored putting stroke used by four of the last six major champions, approving a new rule that starts in 2016 and urging the PGA Tour to follow along so the 600-year-old sport is still played under one set of rules.

The Royal & Ancient Golf Club and the U.S. Golf Association adopted Rule 14-1b, which prohibits players from anchoring a club against their bodies.

“We strongly believe that this rule is for the betterment of the game,” USGA President Glen Nager said. “Rule 14-1b protects one of the important challenges in the game — the free swing of the entire club.”

The decision Tuesday ends six months of sometimes rancorous debate. The rule was opposed by the PGA Tour and the PGA of America, which contended the stroke commonly used for long putters was not hurting the game and there was no statistical proof that it was an advantage.

“We recognize this has been a divisive issue, but after thorough consideration, we remain convinced that this is the right decision for golf,” R&A chief executive Peter Dawson said at European Tour headquarters outside London.

The next step — and perhaps the most important step — is for the PGA Tour to follow the new rule or decide to establish its own condition of competition that would allow players to anchor the long putters. Most believe that would lead to chaos in golf. If a special condition were allowed for the PGA Tour, it would mean players could not use the anchored stroke at the U.S. Open and British Open. Augusta National is likely to follow the new rule at the Masters.

PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem said in February the USGA and R&A would be “making a mistake” to adopt the rule, though he also has stressed in just about every interview that it was critical for golf to play under one set of rules.

The tour said in a statement it would consult with its Player Advisory Council and policy board to determine “whether various provisions of Rule 14-1b will be implemented in our competitions, and if so, examine the process for implementation.” It declined further comment until then.

“I think it’s really important that the PGA Tour — and all the professional tours — continue to follow one set of rules,” USGA executive director Mike Davis said. “We have gotten very positive feedback from the tours around the world saying that they like one set of rules, they like the R&A and USGA governing those. So if there was some type of schism, we don’t think that would be good for golf.”

“And we are doing what we think is right for the long-term benefit of the game for all golfers, and we just can’t write them for one group of elite players.”

The new rule does not ban the long putters, only the way they commonly are used. Golfers no longer will be able to anchor the club against their bodies to create the effect of a hinge. Masters champion Adam Scott used a long putter he pressed against his chest. British Open champion Ernie Els and U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson used a belly putter, as did Keegan Bradley in the 2011 PGA Championship.

PGA of America President Ted Bishop, who had some of the sharpest comments over the last few months, also said his group would discuss the new rule — and confer with the PGA Tour — before deciding how to proceed.

“We are disappointed with this outcome,” Bishop said. “As we have said publicly and repeatedly during the comment period, we do not believe 14-1b is in the best interest of recreational golfers and we are concerned about the negative impact it may have on both the enjoyment and growth of the game.”

Some forms of anchoring have been around at least 40 years, and old photographs suggest it has been used even longer. It wasn’t until after Bradley became the first major champion to use a belly putter that the USGA and R&A said it would take a new look at the putting style.

“It can never be too late to do the right thing,” Nager said.

Those in favor of anchored putting argued that none of the top 20 players in the PGA Tour’s most reliable putting statistic used a long putter, and if it was such an advantage, why wasn’t everyone using it?

The governing bodies announced the proposed rule on Nov. 28, even though they had no data to show an advantage. What concerned them more was a spike in usage on the PGA Tour, more junior golfers using the long putters and comments from instructors that it was a better way to putt. There was concern the conventional putter would become obsolete over time.

The purpose of the new rule was simply to define what a putting stroke should be.

“The playing rules are not based on statistical studies,” Nager said. “They are based on judgments that define the game and its intended challenge. One of those challenges is to control the entire club, and anchoring alters that challenge.”

The topic was so sensitive that the USGA and R&A allowed for a 90-day comment period, an unprecedented move for the groups that set the rules of golf. The USGA said about 2,200 people offered feedback through its website, while the R&A said it had about 450 people from 17 countries go through its website.

Among those who spoke in favor of the ban were Tiger Woods, Brandt Snedeker and Steve Stricker.

“I’ve always felt that in golf you should have to swing the club, control your nerves and swing all 14 clubs, not just 13,” Woods said Monday.

Tim Clark and Carl Pettersson have used the long putter as long as they have been on the PGA Tour. Scott switched to the broom-handle putter only in 2011, and he began contending in majors for the first time — tied for third in 2011 Masters, runner-up at the 2012 British Open, his first major victory in the Masters last month.

“I don’t really have a backup plan,” Scott said at The Players Championship. “I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing and deal with it then. I don’t think there will be anything much for me to change. If I have to separate the putter a millimeter from my chest, then I’ll do that. … My hand will be slightly off my chest, probably.”

The putter would have to be held away from the body to allow free swing. Mark Newell, head of the USGA’s rules committee, said the rule would be enforced like so many others in golf — players would have to call the penalty on themselves.

Bernhard Langer also uses a broom-handled putter, and the 55-year-old German was on the leaderboard at the Masters on the weekend before tying for 25th.

“It’s very disappointing,” Langer told Golfweek magazine from St. Louis, where he was preparing for the Senior PGA Championship. “We’ll have to wait to see what the PGA Tour says, and right now, we’re all guessing. If they make their own rule, then nothing changes. If they don’t make another rule, we’ll have to adjust. It’s been talked about and talked about and it’s just disappointing. I just don’t understand why it took them 40 years to come to their conclusion.”

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