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Sunday, February 24, 2013
Anchor ban debate takes curious turn

By Bob Harig
ESPN.com

Golf's governing bodies asked for comment and discussion on their proposed anchoring ban and ... well ... their ears must be hurting.

After an initial spate of murmuring and resignation over the proposed rule change that would no longer allow golfers to anchor the end of a club against their bodies, there has been an increasingly louder and angrier response to the stipulation that would go into effect on Jan. 1, 2016.

What once appeared to be a gimme putt change has turned into a rallying cry against the United States Golf Association and the R&A, the game's two rules-making bodies that were slammed to golf's hallowed turf on Sunday when PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said that he and his circuit are against the proposed ban. The change to the Rules of Golf was first announced on Nov. 28 with the three-month comment period that is slated to end on Thursday.

Finchem made his comments at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship -- where, by the way, none of the four semifinalists anchor the putter -- after a week that began with the PGA Tour Policy Board apparently agreeing to ask the governing bodies to drop their proposed rules change.

This is stunning, really.

How did we go from a relatively small group of players who anchor their putters grudgingly accepting their fate to the PGA Tour going against the ban and threatening to cause chaos with the rules-making groups?

Forget the arguments being made that anchored putters are not a cure for putting ills, or that they've been allowed for 40 years and it's too late to change, or that putting-challenged amateurs don't need another reason to quit the game.

And don't go down the road that the game has bigger problems than how players putt.

The rules makers had a simple reason for proposing the change.

"Throughout the 600-year history of golf, the essence of playing the game has been to grip the club with the hands and swing it freely at the ball," said Mike Davis, the executive director of the United States Golf Association, when the proposed change was announced.

"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."

And, because the rule would not go into effect until the next rules cycle takes place in 2016, players who anchor would have three years to get used to the new rule.

None other than Arnold Palmer and Tom Watson agreed.

"I have never felt it was a stroke of golf," said Watson, an eight-time major champion. "There are definite advantages with a [long putter] because you take it back and basically the pendulum and weight of the putter take it through the impact area."

Same for Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, Luke Donald, Brandt Snedeker, Graeme McDowell and many others.

"I just believe that the art of putting is swinging the club and controlling nerves and having it as a fixed point. ... It's something that's not in the traditions of the game," Woods said. "We swing all other 13 clubs. I think the putter should be the same. It should be a swinging motion throughout the bag."

But the tour is now against the ban?

Steve Stricker, who originally threw his support behind the anchoring ban, is a member of the PGA Tour's policy board who now sees the other side of the argument.

"It's not surprising, because of all the things that players have gotten to learn about since this has come about," Stricker said. "I was the same way; I was for the ban to start with, and my decision or my feeling is swayed a little bit, also.

"I think the timing of it is poor. We're at a point in time in the game of golf that we're trying to keep players, lure players into playing the game, and we all feel -- a majority of the players feel that it only puts a negative spin on that, maybe detracts the local guy, the club member, the public player, whoever, from playing at times."

PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem echoed Stricker's comments on Sunday during the broadcast of the WGC-Accenture Match Play.

"Going back three or four months, there's certainly has been a fairly significant shift in players who originally, when just put to the question would you get rid of anchoring, sure," Finchem said. "But when they got more in to looking at the impact it has on players, learning about why you would change it, understanding the impact on amateurs, it shifted things."

Huh?

The argument that an anchoring ban would keep people from playing golf is no more valid than ones that suggest using a putter in such a manner is not an advantage.

There are numerous reasons average golfers play less, time and cost being chief among them. While golfers might get frustrated over their inability to putt, that is hardly a big reason for keeping the average golfer away from the game. Research firm Golf Datatech surveyed avid golfers and found that, by 2 to 1, they favored the anchoring ban.

Those who anchor, Ernie Els included, suggest that using a belly putter or a longer putter is no magic wand. And yet, if it doesn't matter, why go to it? Because it helps. Stricker himself said as much when the ban was first proposed.

"I do think it's an advantage," he said. "Any time you can take your arms and hands out of it, especially your hands ... when you can anchor it in your chest is a huge advantage. I'm not a big proponent of long putters."

Now what?

The tour clearly hopes that the USGA and R&A rescind their proposed ban and simply leave things alone. Or it could hope for a compromise with the USGA/R&A in the form of an exception to the rule, which would allow tours or local tournaments the option when it comes to anchoring. They could grandfather anchored putters over a longer period of time.

But what if they don't? Would the PGA Tour institute its own rules?

Stricker suggested last week that while it would be awkward, the tour has plenty of local rules it uses, and that is correct. Preferred lies, the one-ball rule, for example. There are exceptions at the pro level that are frequently employed. But all are accounted for in the Rules of Golf.

To go against the anchoring ban would be to go against the Rules of Golf, which has never occurred in the history of the PGA Tour. The way the rule is now written, there are no exceptions, no ability to make a local rule.

And what it would it mean for the major championships?

This does not appear to be the course the PGA Tour wants to take. "We do not want to be in the rule-making business,'' Finchem said Sunday. But would he if he felt he had to? Or does the tour simply fall in line with the USGA/R&A, annoyed?

One thing is certain, Finchem is clearly going to bat for his players, ones who have argued that such a ban is not necessary. Three of the past five major champions -- Keegan Bradley, Webb Simpson and Els -- have won using a belly putter. He is looking out for their interests.

And yet, because of that, golf could be on the verge of bedlam, if not some very uneasy feelings between those who govern and play the game at the highest levels.