Monday, December 3, 2012

Gut-putt ban a benefit for the world of golf

The golf industry ought to look at the big picture on this "anchoring" ban by the sport's world governing bodies.

In the short term, of course, it hurts the manufacturers who sunk a lot of R&D money and raw materials into designing and building long putters for terminal yips sufferers, head cases and venal young Tour players bereft of consciences.

And it hurts the retailers and club pros who have stocked their displays with the life-changing implements, and won't be able to give them away now because only the foolhardy would try to learn a method that's going to be illegal in 2016.

Long-term, though, the benefits of a mass return to the shorter, more treacherous, thoroughly unreliable instruments of mental torture are certain to be seen in the worldwide sales of new putters to replace those thrown into the pumpkin patch off the 17th green at Richmond Country Club, dragged behind cars, rusted after being placed in toilet bowls overnight to learn their lesson, broken in a dignified manner over a thigh or otherwise rendered hors de combat.

As long as broomstick and belly putters threatened to take all the mystery out of what happened on the greens, the potential for a single putter to last its contented owner several years - even a lifetime - could have led to a crisis in the golf equipment industry.

But Wednesday, the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews (R&A) and the United States Golf Association fixed that, indirectly, by ruling that beginning on Jan. 1, 2016, it will be illegal to anchor the putter on the chest, chin, belly or in a hand held against any of the above. Golfers will be free to continue to use the longer putters, but what they'd do with them is beyond me.

Attempts at humour aside, this one small rebellion against game-changing elements in golf represents a fairly big step for the R&A and USGA, because it signals the possibility that they may yet rise up for the real battle ahead - against golf ball and driver technology that begets ever-longer courses requiring ever more water and land and time to play.

It still seems far-fetched to imagine either body, or both, standing up to Titleist and insisting it make balls that don't go as far, but for now, there is this ruling, and - though the R&A/USGA axis of purity has allowed for three months of public submissions in case there's an angle they haven't thought of - no amount of complaining is apt to change their minds.

Golf, in this case, is nearly unique. Maybe unique, period. I can think of no other professional sport where the technique by which the ball/puck/object is struck, thrown, kicked or propelled is restricted by the rules, other than in basic definitions of the sports - like soccer must be played with the feet or head or chest but never the hands, or the hockey puck may not be thrown, or the basketball may not be kicked.

The rules don't say you can only kick the soccer ball with the instep, or you can't tuck your elbow against your body while shooting the puck. They don't say a bunt isn't a real swing.

There are, of course, a million rules governing equipment, but the anchoring ban is emphatically not about equipment. It's about what constitutes a golf stroke. The R&A and USGA say that freely swinging the hands - emphasis on freely; i.e. unaided by a fulcrum - is the crux of it.

They say the new rule has nothing to do with the fact that three majors in the space of 12 months period were won by players with anchored putters: Keegan Bradley, Webb Simpson and Ernie Els. But the professional level is where the fire started.

The growing number of PGA Tour pros adopting the longer instruments, up to 15 per cent this season, higher than 20 per cent at some Tour stops, was alarming. But not nearly as alarming as the 14-year-old Chinese boy, Guan Tianlang, who won the Asian-Pacific amateur title and an invitation to next year's Masters ... using a belly putter.

It meant the governing bodies could no longer shrug off its use as a fad, but had to take it seriously as a coaching tool, for which they had the testimony of noted guru Butch Harmon in Score Magazine a few months back:

"Belly putting is like stealing," Harmon said. "If I was going to start somebody out who never played before I'd start them with a belly putter, no question about it. It takes the hands right out of the stroke."

And therein lies the argument that always made the most sense, when the anchoring ban was floated: that golf is a game which is meant to be influenced, in part, by nerves. And an attack of nerves, in golf, is most apt to rear its ugly head on or near the putting surface.

If modern instructors are saying that anchoring the club reduces or, with enough practice, virtually eliminates the hands factor in putting, is that not circumventing a body part that ought to be involved in the golf swing?
But to me, as a viewer offended when I see a young professional using one of the long putters, it's a rule meant to be applied to elite players - the high-level amateurs playing golf for serious acclaim, or touring pros whose livelihoods are affected by what the other guy, or guys, are doing.

The aspect of the rule that strikes me as wrong-headed is that there seems no good reason to make the 50-60-70-yearold recreational player go back to suffering the agonies that caused him to abandon the conventional putter in the first place, whether it's back pain or poor eyesight or simply lousy putting.



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