A threat to the integrity of the game
On 15th September 1985 on the 18th green at The Belfry, Sam Torrance holed a putt against Andy North to ensure Europe won the Ryder Cup for the first time since 1957. He did it using a standard putter. Three years later he endured a torrid season on the greens and decided that for the 1989 season he would employ a broomhandle putter, anchored under his chin. His form improved virtually overnight, and he enjoyed continued success as a result.
In 1991 in the Ryder Cup at Kiawah Island, Bernhard Langer faced a six-foot putt on the final green in his singles match with Hale Irwin. In one of the most famous moments in golf, Langer missed the putt to the right, handing victory to the American team. Langer used a standard putter, albeit with yet another version of a grip designed to conquer the dreaded ‘yips’ that had plagued him most of his professional career. He has used a long putter anchored to his chest for around fifteen years now, again prolonging a distinguished career.
Even the examples above do not represent the birth of the long putter. Phil Rodgers won twice on the US Tour in 1966 using a belly putter measuring 39.5 inches and, in 1983, Charlie Owens started using a 51 inch putter anchored to his sternum and won twice on the Champions Tour three years later.
Growing up in and around golf since the early 80’s the long putter, broomhandle, belly putter, call it what you may, has to me been the last port of call when the putting demons have struck. I wondered why Tom Watson, once the most deadly of putters, did not use it when surely he would have continued winning if he ditched the short stick? The long putter seemed to be something you graduated to when you joined the Seniors Tour to help coax those dreaded four-footers in after years worrying over them in tournament conditions.
In 2011, in his rookie season, and at just 25, Keegan Bradley became only the third player to win a major at the first attempt when he triumphed in the US PGA Championship at Atlanta Athletic Club in a 3-hole playoff with Jason Dufner – the first major title to be won using a long putter. Then, in 2012 following Bubba Watson’s extraordinary Augusta display came two victories in a row for the longstick with Webb Simpson winning the U.S. Open at Olympic and Ernie Els lifting the Claret Jug at Lytham, making it three wins in four majors. And within the stories of the three winners lies the conundrum. Els, in his 40’s (and 10 years after his last major, the 2002 Open) has resorted to the long putter having endured torture with the conventional putter for a number of seasons. He holed a great putt on the final green at Lytham to snatch the title by a shot from Adam Scott as the Australian frittered shots on the final four holes. Here is the case of a career prolonged by switching to the long putter, having already been successful with the ‘proper’ version. Bradley and Simpson, however, are youngsters using the long putter as a method of preference, rather than a weapon of necessity.
Golf’s governing bodies, the R&A and the USGA have proposed a Rule change, effective 1st January 2016, whereby 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” would be prohibited.
The history of the game has been for the club to be gripped with both hands and swung freely, whether for a full shot or a putt, and the challenge of the game has been to control that movement in striking the ball.
Anchoring the putter fundamentally alters that challenge, but has been ignored while relatively few players used the method, primarily in an effort to cure problems encountered using a ‘normal’ style. This is recognised by the R & A in their statement on the proposed Rule change;
“Although anchoring the club is not new, until recently it was uncommon and typically seen as a method of last resort by a small number of players. In the last two years, however, more and more players have adopted the anchored stroke... The decision to act now is based on a strong desire to reverse this trend and to preserve the traditional golf stroke.”
And that perhaps answers my earlier question about Tom Watson, a traditionalist in every sense. He has suffered torment with the short putter, but continues to battle with it and in 2009 was unlucky not to win golf’s greatest prize approaching his 60th birthday. No miracle cure for Watson – he believes the game should be played swinging the clubs freely with two hands and fought his way back to the very top of the game doing just that.
The Tours on either side of the Atlantic have reacted somewhat differently. The European Tour has confirmed its support for the proposed change, even though it is “aware, and have taken into account, the fact that some Members – and especially our Senior Members – use the anchored method”. However, US PGA Tour commissioner Tim Fincham’s view was somewhat different. “Essentially, where the PGA Tour came down was that they did not think that banning anchoring was in the best interest of golf or the PGA Tour.” He stopped short of saying the Tour would defy the Rule should it come into effect, but it is there to represent its Members, and several have grown up using that method in a perfectly legal manner. It is a possibility not to be taken lightly.
Having spent years working towards and achieving a unified set of Rules on both sides of the Atlantic, it would be a retrograde move to have a split again. There is a feeling that the Rule should have been enforced way back in the sixties and to introduce it now would be unfair to those who have honed the anchoring method through legal means by taking away a key component to making their livelihood. The threat of legal action looms large. The consultation period has ended, the Tours have marked their ground, the players have had their say. The golf world now awaits the next move.