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Tuesday, December 4, 2012
This should be a gimme

By Steve Wulf
ESPN.com

Beautiful.

That was my initial, facetious reaction to the news that the USGA, together with the Royal & Ancient, wanted to limit the use of elongated putters. Where were they, I thought, when golfers started bringing Fisher-Price clubs to the tee box? Why do they care so much about 10-footers and so little about the 350-yard bombs that have turned tough par-5s into easy birdie-4s? Is the broomstick or belly putter really a threat to country club civilization?

Golf has always carried on this dual love affair with tradition and technology. The rules, for instance, distinguish between a hole dug by a burrowing animal such as a rabbit, where you get relief, and a hole dug by a non-burrower such as a dog, where you have to play the ball as it lies. P.G. Wodehouse would approve.

But not even H.G. Wells could've foreseen a golf ball designed by NASA, or the hybrid club you pull out of your bag to hit that ball out of that hole.

Belly Putter
Golf can survive and thrive with Phil Mickelson and others using belly putters.

So there is a certain irony in the notion that the most unforgiving of all the major sports also seems the most lenient when it comes to equipment. If the evolution of baseball's tools of the trade mirrored that of golf's, Miguel Cabrera might be coming to the plate with something that looked like a tapered cricket bat.

Then I got to thinking. The USGA is not MLB. It is an organization with millions of members, not 30. Although it has to preserve the essence of golf, it also has to answer to a marketplace built on improvement. Occasionally, the USGA makes mistakes: It caved when it came to the size of drivers (460 cubic centimeters is about 80 too many), and, as Jack Nicklaus has pointed out, it has to take the nitro out of the golf ball before courses become obsolete. But by and large, it strives to live up to its motto, "For the good of the game."

Take the proposed recommendation on the long putters, a change to Rule 14 labeled 1b. It is not a ban on the clubs themselves but rather on anchored putting: "strokes made with the club or a hand gripping the club held directly against the player's body, or with a forearm held against the body to establish an anchor point that indirectly anchors the club." The USGA and the R&A see the anchored stroke as unnatural, and they're right. As Karen Crouse of The New York Times points out, they felt the same way when they made Sam Snead stop using a croquet stroke at the end of his career.

There will be resistance, particularly from the PGA Tour. Three of the past five majors were won by players with long putters, and 15 percent of tour golfers now use them. They're big sellers in pro shops, although the latest news might depress Christmas sales.

Perhaps what's most impressive about the joint proposal is its deliberate nature. Before making a final decision in spring 2013, both organizations are soliciting written comments and arguments on their respective websites (RandA.org/anchoring or USGA.org/anchoring). And even if passed, the rule would not go into effect until Jan. 1, 2016, giving golfers plenty of time to adjust their strokes or sell their putters at a yard sale. (Kind of like Burleigh Grimes getting 14 more years to throw the spitball.)

We're in an age when hockey fans are powerless to stop the suits from ruining the game and the NFL risks its credibility with replacement refs, and baseball again has to face up to the fact that it looked the other way when the game drastically changed by internal means.

So it's nice to know the guardians of golf are taking, ahem, the long view. By listening to their constituency, they're being thoughtful, mindful and respectful.

Beautiful.