Golf World

2013-03-09 00:00

TROUBLE is brewing in the world of golf. It all has to do with putting and those golfers who use putters that are anchored somewhere to their bodies. If Bobby Locke, who is regarded by many critics as the best putter of all time, is looking down on the developing storm, he would be nonplussed because in his day such a putting style did not exist. Putters then were of a conventional length and swung freely.

The trouble with the traditional method of putting is that some golfers succumb to the yips, which is the apparent loss of fine motor skills without an obvious explanation.

The most notable sufferer from the yips was the legendary Ben Hogan, who was forced into premature retirement from the game despite ball hitting skills that were still sublime. He found himself frozen over putts, unable to take the putter back, much to his own embarrassment and that of his fellow professional golfers who worshipped at his feet.

Other golfers find themselves prone to involuntary spasms of the wrist or fingers that propel putts in unexpected directions, often clean off the green. Sometimes such sufferers are unable to get the closer putts anywhere near the hole.

The great Sam Snead also suffered from the yips. He developed a long putter that he used croquet-style, with the ball between his feet, which were planted either side of the line of the putt.

No sooner had he achieved some proficiency with this style of putting than the lawmakers of the game banned it by stipulating that a putt could not be made with feet astride the line of the putt.

Tellingly, the lawmakers, who are the Royal & Ancient Golf Club and the United States Golf Association, did not ban the use of long putters. It was not long before sufferers of the yips turned to long putters in an effort to prolong careers as professionals or, as amateurs, simply to carry on enjoying the game.

By anchoring the long putter under against his chest, a golfer such as Bernhard Langer, who was all but put out of the game by the yips, was able to resume his career with stunning results. Orville Moody, the ex-marine who won a U.S. Open, was another who found salvation by using and anchoring a long putter.

For many years, the users of long putters were regarded with some sympathy by their fellow golfers.

To them it was the sign of a fatal illness and few resented the cure. Eventually, the long putter users started winning and the grumbling started. At first it was sotto voce and good-natured, but it gradually became more strident.

The lawmakers, however, remained silent. One of the valid criticisms against them is that they allowed the anchoring of long putters to continue for too long before they finally acted.

An outspoken proponent of a general ban on long putters was Ernie Els, who regarded their use as akin to cheating. Little did he realise that his own fallibility with the short stick was merely dormant.

Tiger Woods, sensing that a user of a long putter would one day deprive him of a major win, was another who voiced his disapproval.

The trouble really started with the development of the belly putter, which is anchored in the belly button. Suddenly a number of young professionals, who had never putted with anything else, appeared on the various tours and started winning.

In the meantime, Els’s putting woes had reached the stage where his position in the game was threatened. Despite his earlier protestations, he switched to a longer putter. It took Els time to get used to his belly putter, but it slowly became apparent that he was becoming more comfortable on the greens. He then emerged from his wilderness to win two tournaments in a row.

The tipping point took place at the 2011 PGA tournament, which Keegan Bradley won with an astonishing display of putting using a belly putter. Nine months later, Webb Simpson, also using a belly putter, won the U.S. Open. The following month, Els completed his comeback with a victory in the 2012 Open Championship. Within a year, three Major winners used belly putters.

At last, the lawmakers acted. After an extensive study, they announced last November that, subject to comments received during a 90-day review period, the anchoring of putters against the body would be prohibited from the beginning of 2016.

At the end of the review period, the commissioner of the PGA of America, Tim Finchem, under pressure from Bradley, Simpson, Els and others, responded that his body would oppose the proposed change. He did this despite support for the change from the European and other professional tours.

Almost immediately, Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy fired shots across the bows of the American PGA by confirming their support for the prohibition of anchoring, thus undermining Finchem’s position

Consequently, the spectre of bifurcation has been raised. In other words, there could be different laws for golf on the PGA Tour. This tour is hugely powerful in the game, but how would its playing members feel if three of the four Majors and all the World Golf Championship events were played under a law that did not apply to their own tour?

The U.S. Open and Open Championship belong to the USGA and Royal & Ancient respectively. The Masters is owned by Augusta National, and its members are known to support the change. Outside the USA, Finchem is regarded as a jumped-up rooster who is mesmerised by his power. His indifferent leadership has placed his PGA Tour in a position where it could drift apart from the world game.

Face will be lost by someone, but the smart money is against it being the USGA and R&A, whose guardianship of the laws of golf has been impeccable for over 100 years.

The new law, however, will not be welcomed by the host of amateur golfers who have found a refuge from the dreaded yips by anchoring the longer putters. With the game in decline in the West, one wonders if the lawmakers may not come to regret putting at risk the participation of all those former and future sufferers of the yips.

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