Now let me start by saying this: I use a traditional putter and so, to a degree, I don’t really have a dog in the anchored-putter fight.
On top of that, I love and respect the USGA and the R&A for all they do to preserve and protect the integrity of the game, as well as to grow it. We need governing bodies in golf, and we need the governing bodies to continue to work together as they do or the rules by which it is played all over the world will become fractured and subject to potentially dubious influence. The rules, as they stand, are confusing and voluminous enough without having a different set by which to play, depending upon where in the world you are.
That being said, the ruling bodies collectively botched this one. With two years to come up with a suitable interpretation for their intention, and what they believed would serve to protect the spirit of the game, it would seem in this case they suffered from nothing more than that age-old golfer’s infliction: paralysis from analysis. So before I get to my solution, let me first start with the reasons why I believe what the ruling bodies came up with for the anchored putter ban was wrong, why it has the potential to hurt the game, and why it comes at the worst possible time.
It’s not an unfair advantage
Anchored putters have been around for a long, long time, and while belly-putters are the newer kid on the block, Phil Rogers first used one in competition in the 1960s. I could give you all the brain science to back it up, but the fact is, if anchored putters were really such a huge advantage they would have been adopted en masse a long time ago by all the players on the various tours. They play golf for a living; it’s how they pay their mortgages and trust me, their often king-size egos aren’t so big that the majority of them wouldn’t adopt a new piece of allowable equipment if it really gave them an advantage. You don’t see hordes of touring professionals clinging to their persimmons and steel-shafted drivers out of tradition. When it became clear that metal, graphite, and titanium were obviously better options, they dropped that old stuff like a bad habit.
While the USGA and R&A govern golf, they’re not involved in the day-to-day operations, and their interpretation of this new rule has set us who do up for endless disputes — like the controversy over what Bernhard Langer did while winning his first tournament after the anchor ban. Unlike Adam Scott, many who use anchored putters won’t abandon them altogether, and trying to determine whether or not a player’s forearm is actually touching his body or not, especially in cold weather where players are wearing bulky jackets and many layers, is pretty much impossible and unenforceable.
Since Jan. 1, I’ve had to get in the middle of more disputes between members than I have in 25 years, and every one has been about whether or not a certain player was anchoring.
A major fix to a minor problem
When golf’s governing bodies made the decision to ban anchored putting, a big part of the discussion had to do with their concern over the rise in popularity of belly putters and their increased use among tour players and younger players. The problem is that segment of golf’s participants comprises less than 1 percent of those who play the game.
Most players who used anchored putters were just the regular Joes trying desperately to find something that would help them get through a putting slump or a case of the yips. If golf’s governing bodies really wanted to stem the supposed tide of adoption without hurting the regular guy or gal, they could have just worked with the PGA Tour to adopt a policy restricting their use in major competition.
Just about every young amateur that has any game at all dreams of playing in the big show, and kids emulate their idols. You should have seen the near perfect cross-handed impression of Jordan Spieth I witnessed from a 10-year-old at an event recently, but I digress.
You’re not going to see kids adopting things that won’t be allowable once they do qualify to play in a big event some day, and if the Tour players weren’t using them, it wouldn’t be long before anchored putters would be seen by the next generation as an old-man’s club that no decent player would be caught dead with.
Discrimination and abuse
If you’ve read the text of the new rule or have seen the posters the USGA spent considerable expense putting out, one thing becomes immediately apparent. Despite all they hysteria over belly-putting, the new rule likely impacts golfers who used long putters, or the broomstick-style of putting the most.
Anchoring your forearms against your body is OK if you’re putting traditionally, but it’s not if your putter is longer and/or you’re using a split-hand grip with the top hand inverted? I guess the USGA figured out pretty quickly that certain body types (read big bellies) wouldn’t be able to putt even in a traditional manner if they just said your forearms can’t touch your body, so they came up with an interpretation that would leave those guys alone while still attempting to eliminate any similar stabilizing ability for those with a longer wand.
The way the rule is written, it’s OK for me to anchor my forearms against my sides (read: belly) as long as I don’t invert the top one and or split the hands. But if I essentially do the same thing with my top hand hanging down, as long as the hands at least touch each other (read: aren’t split) I’m good? According to the rules I am, but if you’re confused by now without the aid of all the fancy infographics that the USGA has provided us then you get my point.
Golf’s highly publicized drop in participation over the past half-dozen years is nothing to sneeze at. And at a time when we need to be doing most everything we can to not only attract new players, but retain the players we have, we don’t need to be doing anything that turns off many avid players to playing or playing more. And I’m sure the level of discouragement I’ve seen among a handful of players at my own club is going on simultaneously around the country and the world.
When the Mayo Clinic studied the yips a few years back, they did one survey whose results claimed that upward of 25 percent of the people who gave up golf did so because of the yips. An estimated 10-15 percent of players used some form of a long or anchored putter to help them play this great game before the ban. Now I don’t think all of those golfers are going to just up and quit. Many will grumble, adjust, and move on to some other putting method that allows them to putt just poorly enough to stay in the game at some level, but is that really what we want? Do we want to make the game less enjoyable for people who already love it, and at the same time run the risk of taking the fun out of it for a small percentage so much so that they consider giving it up?
So now that I’ve told you essentially why I believe this crusade against the unconventional among us is more than just a bit wrong-headed, let me tell you what we could and should have done instead, and how we can walk it back a bit.
In my heart of hearts, I agree with the sentiment behind what the USGA and R&A were trying to do. I’m a traditionalist and want to see the game’s great traditions preserved and respected. But long and belly putters have been around for a long time now, so I think at this point they almost qualify. If we are really hard set on banning anchoring, not the length of our putters, I get that. It would have been much simpler, fairer, easier to enforce, and would have created far less confusion, however, if Rule 14-1b simply said:
No part of the club may touch any part of the body other than the hands, and the hands are considered to be part of the club.
With that change, all this anchoring stuff would have been a moot point. It would have left Langer and most of his broomstick brethren alone, but would have essentially eliminated most forms of anchoring (like the scary belly-putter phenomenon) in a way that would have been far easier to enforce and interpret.
How can we walk it back? That one’s easy, and while the USGA and R&A may have a bit of egg on their face in the short term, a statement about the difficulty of enforcement of the rule under how it’s currently written would satisfy most players and allow them to save face while creating an enormous amount of goodwill among a segment of players that they have at this point alienated.
Everyone makes mistakes, but ultimately, the people we most respect own up, learn, and grow from those mistakes. And what we should learn from this one is that, despite the best of intentions, this wasn’t the best move we could have made and it certainly didn’t come at the best time.
I’d love to hear what you think.
On Spec: Please don’t play blades (or maybe play them anyway)
Host Ryan talks about the different ways to enjoy the game and maximizing your equipment enjoyment which doesn’t always have to mean hitting it 15 yards farther. The great debate of blades vs cavity backs is as old of an argument you will find in golf but both sides can be right equaling right. Ryan explains why.
Want more GolfWRX Radio? Check out our other shows (and the full archives for this show) below.
What’s going on with the decline in putting on the PGA Tour?
Watching the PGA Tour recently, I was struck by Frank Nobilo commenting on how professionals and their instructors work down to the smallest detail, a reflection on the intense competition on the PGA Tour and the fact that to be successful you cannot ignore anything. He made this comment with his thumb and forefinger barely not touching for emphasis.
That being the case, the numbers below should cause major introspection by every player and their coach. They are self-explanatory and have been verified by a third party expert who deals in putting data.
All figures are Shotlink data from the PGA Tour. To preclude undue influence by an anomaly years 2003-5 are averaged as are 2016-18
Average make percentage from 5 distances, 2003-2005 combined
- 6 FEET: 71.98 percent
- 8 FEET: 55.01 percent
- 10 FEET: 43.26 percent
- 15-20 FEET: 19.37 percent
- 25 FEET AND BEYOND: 5.96 percent
Average make percentage from the same 5 distances, 2015-2018
- 6 FEET: 70.43 percent
- 8 FEET: 53.54 percent
- 10 FEET: 41.39 percent
- 15-20 FEET: 18.80 percent
- 25 FEET AND BEYOND: 5.33 percent
- 6 FEET: 1.55 percent
- 8 FEET: 1.67 percent
- 10 FEET: 1.87 percent
- 15-20 FEET: .57 percent
- 25 FEET AND BEYOND: .83 percent
One comment, green conditions have been vetted to the point where they are not considered a culprit. Faster, yes, but pristine surfaces, and very consistent week to week. There are some outliers like the U.S. Open greens but they are included in the data shown and caused no significant spike for that week.
Further, on the subject of greens, today’s professional has booklets showing green patterns, high MOI putter heads, instruction from putting specialists, and caddies, expert green readers in their own right. Bottom line: if anything the greens help not hurt.
So your turn. Look at the data. Appoint yourself all-powerful guru to improve putting data. What would your plan, be? Oh and this little tidbit so you can earn a huge consulting fee: We took six players, three on either side of the halfway point, your solution resulted in a one-shot per TOURNAMENT improvement. Average INCREASE in earnings for the season: a smidge over $500K!
A merciful new local rule
This April, within a list of 2019 Rules Clarifications, the USGA and R&A quietly authorized a new Local Rule that you can expect to see enacted everywhere from the U.S. Open Championship to, if you’re lucky, your own club championship.
New Local Rule E-12 provides some protection from an unintended consequence of Rule 14.3c, which requires that your ball come to rest in the relief area for the drop you’re taking. When I first read about this option, I confess that I was a bit skeptical. But now that I’ve experienced the Local Rule in action, its value has become very clear.
My initial skepticism came from the fact that I like it that every time, we drop we now must drop in a relief area. I also like the simplicity of requiring the ball to come to rest in that relief area — no more awkward need to figure out if your ball stayed within two club lengths of the point where your drop first struck the course, as used to be the case. So right from the start, I was very comfortable with the new rules in this regard. But in some cases, particularly for those who haven’t carefully studied the revised rules, this simple approach has caused problems.
The freedom this new Local Rule provides applies exclusively to back-on-the-line relief drops, such as you might make from penalty areas or for unplayable balls. It’s a bit complicated, but let me take you through how it helps. We’ll use yellow-staked penalty areas as an example. Last year, for back-on-the-line drops such as these, you’d identify the point where your ball last crossed the margin of the water hazard and draw an imaginary line from the flagstick through that point, select a nice place to drop anywhere you chose back along that line, and then let it drop. If you picked a point sufficiently back, and your ball didn’t hit anything prohibited, and it didn’t stop more than two club lengths from where you dropped it, you were good to go.
This year, instead of dropping on that imaginary line, you drop in a relief area that surrounds that imaginary line. Just like before, you identify the edge of the penalty area where your ball last crossed, go back as far as you wish along an imaginary line from the flagstick through that point — but now you should identify a relief area around your selected drop location. To do so, you pick a point on the line, then define a relief area one club length from that point no closer to the hole. So you typically have a semicircle two club lengths in diameter in which to drop. If you drop a foot or two back from the front edge of the semicircle, there’s almost always no problem with the ball coming to rest outside the releif area and you’ll be ready to play. But if you drop right on the front edge of your defined relief area, or if you didn’t bother to identify a point/relief area along the imaginary line before you dropped, and your ball bounces and comes to rest even the slightest bit forward — it’s now outside the relief area and subject to a two-stroke or loss of hole penalty for playing from the wrong place if you end up hitting the ball before correcting your mistake.
That might seem kind of harsh — you take a back-on-the-line drop like you did last year, it bounces and stops an inch forward, you hit it — and you get severely penalized. If you had simply established the relief area an inch or two forward, things would have been perfectly legal! The 2019 rules, in their effort to simplify and make consistent the drop/relief procedure, created an unintended potential trap for players that weren’t careful enough managing their business. This seemed like it was going to be a big enough problem that the USGA and R&A decided to graciously do something about it: Introduce Model Local Rule E-12.
When this Local Rule is adopted, a player is given some additional freedom. If he or she applies the relief area/drop principles correctly, there is, of course, still no problem. But if he or she ends up with the ball somewhat outside the relief area, there still might be no penalty. As long as the ball originally struck the course within where the relief area should be, and as long as it didn’t come to rest more than one club length from where it first hit the course when dropped, you can still play it penalty-free (as long as it’s not nearer the hole than where the ball originally lay in the case of an unplayable ball drop, or nearer the hole than the edge of the penalty area where the ball last crossed for a penalty area drop).
While all that’s a bit complicated sounding, in practice it’s intuitive. And as an added bonus, it probably doesn’t matter if you don’t understand it or even know it’s in force — there are simply more occasions when you can blissfully, even ignorantly, play on penalty-free.
This new Local Rule provides another advantage as well. When it’s in effect, an opponent or ref (or a TV viewer) won’t have to concern themselves with whether or not the player making the drop actually followed the recommendation of first defining a relief area before making a back-on-the-line drop. If you’re at a distance, and you see a player taking a drop which bounces slightly forward, you can relax. You don’t have to wonder whether or not you should rush up and confirm that the ball didn’t squeak out of the player’s intended relief area in an effort to prevent the player from incurring a penalty. One way or another, everything is more than likely just fine.
With all that in mind, maybe you’d like to see the specific wording of E-12:
“When taking Back-On-the-Line relief, there is no additional penalty if a player plays a ball that was dropped in the relief area required by the relevant Rule (Rule 16.1c(2), 17.1d(2), 19.2b or 19.3b) but came to rest outside the relief area, so long as the ball, when played, is within one club-length of where it first touched the ground when dropped.
“This exemption from penalty applies even if the ball is played from nearer the hole than the reference point (but not if played from nearer the hole than the spot of the original ball or the estimated point where the ball last crossed the edge of the penalty area).
“This Local Rule does not change the procedure for taking Back-On-the-Line relief under a relevant Rule. This means that the reference point and relief area are not changed by this Local Rule and that Rule 14.3c(2) can be applied by a player who drops a ball in the right way and it comes to rest outside the relief area, whether this occurs on the first or second drop.”
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