To be(lly putt) or not to be(lly putt), that is the question

To be(lly putt) or not to be(lly putt), that is the question
Published 22 April 2013 | Authored by: Richard Berry, Alexander Milner-Smith

Are the R&A and USGA about to run in to an unexpected legal play-off?  Adam Scott’s victory in the Masters last weekend signified a landmark moment in more ways than one. Not only was it the first victory for an Australian in what is arguably golf’s most prestigious tournament, it also marked the completion of a career grand slam for the anchored putter following victories for Keegan Bradley (2011 PGA Championship), Webb Simpson (2012 US Open) and Ernie Els (2012 Open). Scott’s triumph at Augusta has now served to fan the flames of golf’s hottest debate.

The two ruling bodies of golf, the US Golf Association (USGA) in the USA and the Royal and Ancient (R&A) everywhere else, had already announced prior to last week’s tournament that they propose to ban players anchoring putters to their bodies from the beginning of 2016. This is primarily a result of concerns that anchored strokes could soon replace traditional, “swinging”, putting strokes to the detriment of the game (the argument is that the anchored stoke offers an unfair advantage over the more traditional stroke with the short putter). 

Although the longer clubs themselves will still be “legal”, players will not be allowed to anchor them to any part of their body.  This will effectively render such clubs useless (it is difficult to swing a 6ft long putter if you cannot anchor it to your chin or wedge it into your belly).

The European Tour announced at the end of February that it would support the proposed ban.

However, in contrast, the PGA Tour (the “US Tour”) and the PGA of America (the Professional Golfers Association of America) have released a number of statements suggesting they oppose the ban, although they have not explicitly made clear what they will actually do if the USGA and R&A go ahead with the ban.  The spectre of the PGA Tour not following its own governing body’s rules, or of having different rules for tournaments outside the USA (or even within the US – what will The Masters (an “independent” authority itself) decide to do?) is therefore raised.  The absurdity of Ernie Els not being allowed to anchor his long putter at the British Open in 2016, but then two weeks later being allowed to do so at the PGA Championship 2016 is very much a possible reality. 

There are also questions around the potential legality of the ban.  Are there restraint of trade challenges in the wings?

Some professional golfers come to the belly putter as a result of frustration with the more traditional techniques.  This ban should not therefore affect their careers.  Ernie Els for instance has won the bulk of his 70 plus tournaments with a traditional short putter and it may be hard for him to argue that he is being restrained from plying his trade because of the ban. 

However, other players (most notably relative youngsters (including 14 year old Chinese prodigy Tianlang Guan who belly putted his way to the Silver Cup for the highest placed amateur at the Masters), and the aforementioned Keegan Bradley and Webb Simpson) have used the long putter for most of their professional and amateur careers.  They have known nothing else as professional golfers.  Carl Pettersson from Sweden, not such a relative youngster, has apparently spent 10-15,000 hours practising with the long putter and his career earnings on the US Tour stand at a not inconsiderable $19 million. Similarly some players (most notably Fred Couples) can only use the long putter owing to injury.

As such, are the careers, the very livelihoods, of these players in danger and will the governing bodies face legal challenges as a result? Bradley has already mentioned he will consider a potential "restraint of trade" law suit and that the same may already be in the pipeline. 

Els too has added that the R&A and USGA, "are going to have a couple of legal issues coming their way... we are talking about people's livelihoods” whilst somewhat perversely being happy to admit at the same time, after his 2012 British Open triumph, that he considers long putters "a form of cheating ... Nothing should be anchored to your body and I still believe that ... But as long as it's legal, I will keep cheating like the rest of them."

But for all the hyperbole surrounding the debate, the traditionalist outrage over the desecration of the “royal and ancient” game and the youngsters who say that golf must embrace this change as it embraced the metal driver and the plastic spike; questions remain over whether the alleged advantages that the anchored stroke provides are backed up by statistics.

Take Adam Scott, who many point to as an example of the revolutionary effect the long putter can have.  The anchored stroke made Scott into a champion.  Or did it?  In 2010 (prior to his adoption of the anchored stroke) Scott ranked 186th in strokes gained (the PGA Tour’s statistic which measures a player's putting performance relative to his fellow competitors in a given tournament and has been hailed as offering the most accurate portrayal of a player's overall putting performance).  In 2011 Scott had elevated his performance to a lofty 143rd with the long putter in his bag.  In the 2012 season he dropped slightly to 145th.  A slight improvement but hardly a world beater.

In 2011, 9 of the top 10 putters on tour used the traditional short club.  In 2012 this figure was still 8/10.  Similarly, the stats on putting between 5-10’ feet (that shaky length where uncertainty and the dreaded “yips” can lead to missed putts and dropped strokes) are dominated by users of the traditional blade.

What can we take from this?  Putting is an art and not a science and the best putters still tend to use the short club. So much is about reading the green and judging distance and breaks – and that most elusive of all attributes - confidence.  This may be where the ban on the anchored stroke has its greatest effect.  It may be the fear of returning to (or introducing for those who have never used it) the short putter that leads a professional to take up a legal challenge.

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About the Author

Richard Berry

Richard Berry

Richard is an associate in the Sports Group at City law firm Lewis Silkin LLP. An employment lawyer with particular expertise in contractual issues, disciplinary proceedings and regulatory matters.

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Alexander Milner-Smith

Alexander Milner-Smith

As well as acting for a number of rugby clubs in the Guinness Premiership, Alexander represents a number of high-profile sportspeople. He also works with sports agents in both dispute resolution and contractual matters. He has considerable experience of a number of different dispute resolution forums and has personally undertaken advocacy on behalf of clients at hearings.

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