Golf’s governing bodies approved a rule Tuesday that outlaws the putting stroke used by four of the last six major champions, a move opposed by two major golf organizations that contend long putters are not hurting the game.
The Royal & Ancient Golf Club and U.S. Golf Association said Rule 14-1b will take effect in 2016.
“We recognize this has been a divisive issue, but after thorough consideration, we remain convinced that this is the right decision for golf,” R&A chief executive Peter Dawson said.
The new rule does not ban the long putters, only the way they commonly are used. Golfers no longer will be able to anchor the club against their bodies to create the effect of a hinge. Masters champion Adam Scott used a long putter he pressed against his chest. British Open champion Ernie Els and U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson used a belly putter, as did Keegan Bradley in the 2011 PGA Championship.
“We strongly believe that this rule is for the betterment of the game,” USGA President Glen Nager said. “Rule 14-1b protects one of the important challenges in the game — the free swing of the entire club.”
The announcement followed six months of contentious debate, and it might not be over.
The next step is for the PGA Tour to follow the new rule or decide to establish its own condition of competition that would allow players to anchor the long putters. PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem said in February the USGA and R&A would be “making a mistake” to adopt the rule, though he also has stressed the importance of golf playing under one set of rules.
“I think it’s really important that the PGA Tour — and all the professional tours — continue to follow one set of rules,” USGA executive director Mike Davis said. “We have gotten very positive feedback from the tours around the world saying that they like one set of rules, they like the R&A and USGA governing those. So if there was some type of schism, we don’t think that would be good for golf.
“And we are doing what we think is right for the long-term benefit of the game for all golfers, and we just can’t write them for one group of elite players.”
The tour said in a statement it would consult with its Player Advisory Council and policy board to determine “whether various provisions of Rule 14-1b will be implemented in our competitions, and if so, examine the process for implementation.”
PGA of America President Ted Bishop, who had some of the sharpest comments over the last few months, also said his group would discuss the new rule — and confer with the PGA Tour — before deciding how to proceed.
“We are disappointed with this outcome,” Bishop said. “As we have said publicly and repeatedly during the comment period, we do not believe 14-1b is in the best interest of recreational golfers and we are concerned about the negative impact it may have on both the enjoyment and growth of the game.”
Some forms of anchoring have been around at least 40 years, and old photographs suggest it has been used even longer. It wasn’t until after Bradley became the first major champion to use a belly putter that the USGA and R&A said it would take a new look at the putting style.
“It can never be too late to do the right thing,” Nager said.
Those in favor of anchored putting argued that none of the top 20 players in the PGA Tour’s most reliable putting statistic used a long putter, and if it was such an advantage, why wasn’t everyone using it?
“Intentionally securing one end of the club against the body, and creating a point of physical attachment around which the club is swung, is a substantial departure from that traditional free swing,” Nager said. “Anchoring creates potential advantages, such as making the stroke simpler and more repeatable, restricting the movement and rotation of the hands, arms and clubface, creating a fixed pivot point, and creating extra support and stability that may diminish the effects of nerves and pressure.”
The governing bodies announced the proposed rule on Nov. 28, even though they had no data to show an advantage. What concerned them more was a spike in usage on the PGA Tour, more junior golfers using the long putters and comments from instructors that it was a better way to putt. There was concern the conventional putter would become obsolete over time.
The purpose of the new rule was simply to define what a putting stroke should be.
“The playing rules are not based on statistical studies,” Nager said. “They are based on judgments that define the game and its intended challenge. One of those challenges is to control the entire club, and anchoring alters that challenge.”
The topic was so sensitive that the USGA and R&A allowed for a 90-day comment period, an unprecedented move for the groups that set the rules of golf. The USGA said about 2,200 people offered feedback through its website, while the R&A said it had about 450 people from 17 countries go through its website.
Among those who spoke in favor of the ban were Tiger Woods, Brandt Snedeker and Steve Stricker.
“I’ve always felt that in golf you should have to swing the club, control your nerves and swing all 14 clubs, not just 13,” Woods said Monday.
Tim Clark and Carl Pettersson have used the long putter as long as they have been on the PGA Tour. Scott switched to the broom-handle putter only in 2011, and he began contending in majors for the first time — tied for third in 2011 Masters, runner-up at the 2012 British Open, his first major victory in the Masters last month.
“It was inevitable that big tournaments would be won with this equipment because these are the best players in the world, and they practice thousands of hours,” Scott said after winning the Masters. “They are going to get good with whatever they are using.”
It was Clark’s dignified speech to a players-only meeting — with Davis from the USGA in the room — that helped sway the tour’s opinion to oppose the ban.
Davis and Dawson said their research indicated the opposition to the new rule was mainly in America. The European Tour and other tours around the world all backed the ban.
Players can still use the putter, but it would have to be held away from the body to allow free swing. Mark Newell, head of the USGA’s rules committee, said the rule would be enforced like so many others in golf — players would have to call the penalty on themselves.