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PGA Tour muddy waters on long putters

Bob Harig, ESPN.com
February 27, 2013
The putter controversy does not appear set to go away any time soon © PA Photos
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The timing, as well as the stage, was curious at the very least. During the championship match of the WGC Match Play Championship on Sunday between eventual winner Matt Kuchar and Hunter Mahan, PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem went on national television to state the tour's position on the anchored putting debate.

In no uncertain terms, Finchem let it be known that he believes golf's governing bodies are making a mistake in advocating a change to the rules of golf that would ban anchoring the putter to the body.

Given that the United States Golf Association and R&A had sought comments from all corners, Finchem was clearly within his rights; opinions on the ban are coming from everywhere. And Finchem was deferential to the USGA and its ability to make rules. He simply disagrees on this issue.

But it was a strong public stance when he acknowledged that the PGA Tour policy board already had sent a letter to the USGA stating its position. And to do so during one of the tour's biggest events, convening a news conference and then later taking questions during the broadcast?

Pre-empting a tour event seems a no-no in any other sense, but Finchem chose that avenue to do it, and opened the door to various forms of rebuttal.

The USGA and R&A, citing the comment period that has yet to end, have declined to comment on specific remarks made by Finchem, other than to release a statement Sunday to say they are taking all of the conversation under advisement and will issue a ruling sometime in the spring.

Here are some of Finchem's key points in stating that he and the tour do not believe an anchoring ban is necessary.

1. "I think there are a number of factors here, a number of details, a number of issues, but I think the essential thread that went through the thinking of the players and our board of directors and others that looked at this was that in the absence of data or any basis to conclude that there is a competitive advantage to be gained by using anchoring, and given the amount of time that anchoring has been in the game, that there was no overriding reason to go down that road."

In its joint announcement with the R&A on Nov. 28, the USGA addressed the issue of data in several instances. While it maintains that the issue is not about scientific data and more about what is a proper golf stroke, the rules-making body made clear that it believes some golfers gain an advantage.

From the USGA's news release: "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."

During the announcement, the USGA said its proposal "comes in response to the recent upsurge in the use of anchored putting strokes 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 and therefore may be a preferred way to play the game."

They also added: "The player's challenge is to direct and control the movement of the entire club in making the stroke. Anchoring the club removes the player's need to do so by providing extra support and stability for the stroke, as if one end of the club were physically attached to the body."

"Our judgment is that anchoring the club is inconsistent with the fundamental nature of the swing and, at least for some players or in some conditions or situations, may alter the challenge of making a stroke because of the restriction of the end of the club and the extra support and stability provided for the swing."

And this from the USGA's website FAQ's regarding the anchoring ban: "Certainly it appears to us that the recent large increase in use of anchored putters has been a result of players believing that anchoring the club may be a superior method or that it may help them cope with the effect of nerves and pressure."

The USGA and R&A have cited examples of players who suggested they might not be able to play as well without an anchored stroke and that it would be unfair to take it away from them.

2. Finchem said on NBC that according to "some data," approximately 20 per cent of recreational players use an anchored putting stroke. He did not give the source of the data, and it seems high.

According to the PGA Tour's own information, the number of tour players using an anchored stroke has been on average about 15 per cent. And that number has only increased in recent times.

3. Finchem said in his news conference on Sunday that "a number of players on the PGA Tour who have grown up with a focus on perfecting the anchoring method did so after the USGA, on multiple occasions, approved the method years ago and that for us to join in supporting a ban we think as a direction is unfair to both groups of individuals."

There are two points here. First, there are but a tiny few players who have "grown up" with the anchoring method. Carl Pettersson and Tim Clark are two quick examples of players who have anchored for years; Clark says a deformity in his wrists makes it very difficult for him to putt in the conventional manner.

Anchored putting has risen in the past decade, but nearly everyone you see anchoring today - Ernie Els and Adam Scott, for example - putted conventionally, and did so for years.

From the USGA website FAQs: "The new rule would not ask any player to do something unusual or uniquely difficult in playing the ball and it would enable all players to play as they choose from within a common framework. We do not believe that the change from an anchored stroke to a non-anchored stroke would require a re-learning of the fundamentals of striking the ball. Indeed, many players have used both methods, in practice and in play, and have moved back and forth. Players who spent decades using non-anchored standard-length putters have subsequently switched to anchored putting, and players can move in the other direction as well. Because the rule would not take effect until January 1, 2016, players also would have a long time to adapt, if necessary."

Secondly, the USGA never approved anchoring. Both in his news conference and on television, Finchem made reference to the governing body taking two separate looks at the issue. But only once has the USGA made a statement regarding long putters, and that came in 1989. It said at the time that long putters were not going to be regulated. The focus then was in equipment, not the stroke, and they said it was more about helping people who had physical ailments like back problems than trying to change how the game is played.

So far, organizations such as Augusta National Golf Club, which runs the Masters, as well as the European Tour and LPGA Tour have yet to weigh in officially on where they stand on the issue, which only promises to remain controversial.

The comment period ends Thursday; then the USGA and R&A will convene to figure out the next step, promising a resolution this spring.

The organisations could simply drop their proposal. But if they adopt it, that is when things get interesting.

Finchem said Sunday that the PGA Tour was not in the "rules-making business," so perhaps the tour grudgingly goes along. Then the question becomes, does the tour implement the ban earlier than January 1, 2016, in order to get past the controversy?

Or it could take the unprecedented step of writing its own rules, allowing anchoring on the PGA Tour, and seeing the game played differently across various professional levels, including at least two of the major championships.

This article originally appeared on ESPN.com

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