This week, PGA Commissioner Tim Finchem threw a new ingredient into the potboiler that is the anchored putter debate. Just when it looked like the USGA and the R&A had a clear path to send the broomstick the way of the dinosaur, the PGA Tour stated its opposition to such a ban in its formal comments to golf’s governing bodies.
Finchem is saying the position is based on three things: statistical evidence that long putters don’t make a difference, the unfairness to players on Tour who have grown up using an anchored putter of some sort and the fact that the amateur player would be harmed by a long putter ban. Since Finchem is an attorney, I’m sure that he would appreciate a critical examination of his evidence. Let’s begin.
Finchem said in an interview there there was an “absence of data or any basis to conclude that there is a competitive advantage to be gained by using anchoring.” In one sense, he is correct. Of the top 20 percent of the Tour’s leading putters, none used an anchored putter. But the point is not if the long putter makes a given player statistically better than everyone else; the only meaningful statistic is if it makes the player better than he or she might have been using an unanchored putter with a conventional stroke. While the Tour has no way to compile such statistics, you can bet the players and their putting gurus do. If the putter works by the numbers on the practice green, then you can bet they are going to bring it to the course.
Then there’s the issue of players growing up using the longer putters. Finchem points to players like Webb Simpson and Keegan Bradley, saying, “given the amount of time that anchoring has been in the game, that there is no overriding reason to go down that road.” It is true that the long putter has been around for a full generation, and until now there has not been a serious move to shut it down, partially because the broomstick was seen as the last resort for old men and basket cases to maintain a vestige of dignity on the greens. But in recent times, talented young players have begun to see obvious advantage of the method to make themselves competition-ready in a facet of the game that might have taken many more years for them to become proficient with the unanchored putter. Again, it doesn’t make them ready to compete for the title of best putter, but it does put them a position to challenge for best player. Also, if something is inherently wrong, is the “we’ve always done it this way” argument a valid one?
Lastly, Finchem noted the he and the 12-member Player Advisory Council (Jim Furyk, Ken Duke, Harrison Frazar, Carl Pettersson, Patrick Sheehan, Chris Stroud, Bo Van Pelt, Joe Ogilvie, Stewart Cink, Ben Crane, Jason Day, Charley Hoffman, Matt Kuchar, Justin Rose, Webb Simpson, Scott Verplank and Mark Wilson) were concerned about the welfare of the amateur player. If the long putter is banned, they reason, then thousands of amateur players would be robbed of a tool that makes them more effective and the game is more fun. Here’s where it gets tricky for the Tour. On the one hand they say that we should keep the anchor because there is no evidence that it makes anybody any better, but on the other hand they assert that it definitely makes people better, so we should keep it. It can be one or the other, but it can’t be both.
On the Tour, there are no bigger prizes than the major championships. A single win at one of these exalted contests bring generational wealth and a lifetime of honor to the victor. Again, one of the reasons that a rule change was slow walked in the past was that no one had won a major using an anchored putter. All that changed with Keegan Bradley’s victory at the 2011 PGA Championship. And just in case anyone thought it was a fluke, Webb Simpson and Ernie Els used anchored putters to garner major wins in 2012. Bradley and Simpson are young bucks who broke through under the searing pressure of major championship competition. On the back nine on Sunday when you can’t feel your hands, isn’t it an advantage that when they are standing over a 6-footer for par, they don’t need to feel their hands? Isn’t it the same advantage for Els, a guy whose putter had recently stood between him and victory like a palace guard?
There are other rules that need to be addressed by the game’s guardians to ensure that the integrity of the game is maintained. I agree with Jack Nicklaus’ position that it is more important to address the physics of the golf ball than the anchored putter. I also have sympathy for Arnold Palmer’s view that there should be different equipment rules for amateurs playing in an unsanctioned environment purely for fun. But whether the anchored putter is kept or sent packing, golf must be honest and consistent about its reasons for doing so.