Commentary

Legal fight for long putters would fail

Golfers have time, money for fight, but they would lose court battle over anchoring

Updated: November 16, 2012, 7:31 PM ET
By Lester Munson | ESPN.com

If Keegan Bradley, Ernie Els, Webb Simpson and Carl Pettersson are serious about a legal challenge to a potential rules change that would ban anchoring of long putters, they have the time and the money that would be required in major litigation.

The rule change would not go into effect until the 2016 season, giving the long-putter foursome three years to pursue litigation against the USGA and the R&A, which combine to govern the rules of golf all over the world. With their triumphs in three of the past five majors and other victories, they have earned more than $14 million in the past year, more than enough to capture the attention of several law firms.

They are, however, missing one important thing -- a legal basis for their claim. They can talk about due process. They can argue about the elimination of anchoring as a wrongful interference with their pursuit of a living. They can claim a violation of American antitrust laws. But none of these legal theories, or any other legal theory, are likely to work.

Webb Simpson
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesWebb Simpson anchors his long putter during his putting stroke, as do Ernie Els, Keegan Bradley and Carl Pettersson, among other players.

The vast majority of legal precedents say clearly and unequivocally that governing bodies such as the USGA and R&A enjoy unfettered authority to determine the rules of the games they oversee. Judges are reluctant to intervene in the governing of a sport or a business, and they don't want to be in the position of second-guessing those who define the game.

There is little doubt that Bradley & Co. can find a lawyer somewhere who will be willing to take a fee and file a lawsuit on their behalf, though. Litigation is part of the American way of life. But there is also little doubt that their lawsuit will end badly at some level in the court system, and the golfers will be using short putters as the 2016 season opens.

If the golfing authorities were attempting to ban the long putter itself, there may be some relief in the courts for equipment manufacturers, but even that would not be a sure thing. The change that many think will take place by the end of the year, however, is not a ban on long putters; it's a change in the definition of the golf stroke that would prohibit anchoring the long putter against the body.

In some circumstances, litigation, or the threat of litigation, can become leverage in a settlement discussion with the ruling body of a sport. The square-grooves-on-golf-clubs controversy is one example. But the legal basis for any claim on anchoring is so weak that the litigation would end before the players could begin to negotiate for, say, a grandfather clause that would allow them to continue to use their long putters but ban anchoring for new players.

It takes more than an appealing argument to succeed in the courthouse. It is easy to support the idea that players who use the long-putter on the PGA Tour and the dozens of Champions Tour players who rely on long putters should be allowed to continue to anchor their putters. As Jeff Rude opined in an excellent special section of articles on the long putter controversy in Golfweek, the authorities should forget about changing the rule on anchoring and should "instead prohibit slow play, 180-yard 9-irons, $500 green fees, $200,000 initiation fees and plaid pants."

It would seem the players might be better off leveraging a public relations campaign.

President George H.W. Bush found happiness on the golf course using a 52-inch Pole-Kat long putter and anchoring it against his chest. During his years in the White House, the authorities did nothing about changing the rule on anchoring or on any use of the long putter. They will not admit it, but the folks at the USGA and the R&A did not appear to be interested in interfering with the golf game of the most powerful man in the world.

Bradley and the other players should arrange a gift for President Barack Obama -- the Odyssey White Hot XG Sabertooth belly putter that Bradley used to win the PGA Championship in 2011. Obama plays his frequent rounds of golf left-handed, so it would be a good idea to give him both the left-handed and the right-handed models. The president plays to an 18 handicap and needs all the help he can get. He may find happiness moving to the right.

Now that he has been re-elected, Obama might be willing to allow photographs of his golf rounds. Are the authorities going to ban a technique that would show up in such photos worldwide? Perhaps not.

A gift to Obama might be a long shot, but it's more likely to succeed than a lawsuit.

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