A pity about the putting rule

2013-05-25 00:00

AS expected, the ruling authorities of golf have at last banned the technique of anchoring a putter against any part of the body during the making of a stroke.

It does not seem to make sense to have deferred the ban until 2016, but they have been constrained by their dilatory approach to this issue ever since the longer putters surfaced in both the amateur and professional games.

It illustrates once again that the ruling bodies need to be vigilant about the way the changing times have affected their sports. The technique of anchoring a long putter to the body has been in golf for over 40 years, so no one can accuse the R&A or the U.S. Golf Association of acting in haste.

Any legal action that is brought against the ban on anchoring putters will almost certainly be based on the doctrine of estoppel, which protects one party from being harmed by another party’s voluntary conduct. It is well established that voluntary conduct may be achieved by either silence or acquiescence.

In this case, therefore, it seems that those professional golfers who have relied on the apparent legitimacy of a technique that they have long used may have a case that the ruling bodies will find hard to answer. Given that some professional golfers have a great deal at stake and that the American PGA and the PGA Tour itself are both divided on this issue, it is probably inevitable that the matter of anchoring putters against the body will find itself in front of the courts of the U.S., if not other countries.

This will be a pity for two reasons. The first is that the journey through the American legal system is expensive, tortuous and unpredictable. Furthermore, no one wants to see the rule-making authority of the R&A and the USGA challenged in court.

Secondly, there can be no doubt that the anchoring of putters against the body is against the basic premise of golf, which is that all strokes should be freely swung.

Nerves play an important part in every golfer’s game, perhaps more so than in any other ball game, although I personally would rather face a five foot putt for victory in the Open Championship than the sort of kick which Morné Steyn had when he kicked the Springboks to victory against the British Lions at Loftus. There is a world of difference between a gut-wrenching defeat and a consolation prize of close on a million dollars.

The argument of the American PGA that their research has established that the anchored putter bestows no advantage to its user should be treated with the same contempt as the work of the scientists on the payroll of the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change. According to Tim Finchem, the commissioner of the PGA, their statistical analysis revealed no differences between the success rates of those using the anchored putter and those putting in an orthodox manner.

Just how he can measure the impact of taking nerves out of the putting equation by a statistical analysis is beyond belief.

The case of Bernhard Langer, alone, discredits such analysis. Langer’s early career was beset by putting problems brought on by the yips, which is the most obvious symptom of uncontrollable nerves.

Who can forget Langer’s performance one year at Sun City when he simply could not get the shortest putts into the hole? It was painful to watch a great golfer reduced to such a pitiable figure on the greens, but the fact remains that putting strokes take up more than one third of all strokes played by professional golfers. It is an immense part of the game and the one where nerves play their greatest role.

Langer, to his credit, found a number of different solutions that enabled him to continue with a career that had seemed destined to crash into oblivion. Ultimately, he settled on a long putter anchored to his body and is still making millions on the senior tours. Without the ability to subdue his nervousness by anchoring his putter, Langer would now be teaching golf at some Bavarian driving range. Finchem’s belief that anchoring gives no advantage completely ignores the Langer story.

What about the testimony of Colin Montgomerie? He may not be the most popular golfer in the world, but he is certainly one of the most intelligent. Montgomerie used both methods of putting during his career and is adamant that he putted better when he anchored his putter. Ernie Els is another golfer whose career was rejuvenated when he gained more confidence on the greens when he switched to the anchored putter despite having long called for its ban.

Brett Rumford, who has just won two events on the European tour, is another whose career has been revived after switching to an anchored putter. Anyone who watched him win these two events could not be convinced that he would have done so putting in the conventional manner.

This is a story that has yet to run its course. No one can say for sure when or how it will end. Its most likely outcome will be a period of separation between the laws of golf applicable to the American PGA and the other world tours. This would be a messy situation and one which could cause unrest to simmer between professional golfers.

For amateur golfers, however, the die is cast. From 2016, wherever they play, they will not be allowed to anchor their putters. The sight of golfers suffering from the yips on putting greens will become commonplace once more. The problem with this is that many older golfers will sadly quit the game that they love and which they rely upon for much of their social contact.

All this could have been avoided many years ago if the R&A and the USGA had acted promptly when anchoring first surfaced. In other sports, the most obvious present anomaly is the heavy, desiccated bat now used in cricket.

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