Is the ‘broom handled’ putter about to be brushed out of the door?
Published 24 September 2012 By: Kevin Carpenter
With the 39th Ryder Cup matches almost upon us, and being a keen golfer myself, I thought it was appropriate to look at what has been described as a "complex and emotive issue" in the golfing world dividing opinion, the long putter. To prove that we are a broad and diverse church here at LawInSport at the heart of this post will be the hallowed Rules of Golf ('ROG') as a 'law in sport', which is jointly administered by the two principal governing bodies in golf the Royal & Ancient ('R&A') and the United States Golf Association ('USGA').
Three of the last five Major champions (Keegan Bradley, Webb Simpson and Ernie Els) have used the long putter, be it either a broom-handled or belly putter, with many more who use one having been in contention (including Open Championship choker Adam Scott). In fact it was at this year’s Open Championship at Royal Lytham & St Anne’s that the R&A gave the most open address on the issue indicating that it is firmly on the agenda for itself and the USGA in the immediate future, R&A Chief Executive Peter Dawson saying, “We need to clarify the position as soon as possible”. But what is exactly is the problem? Especially as long putters were declared legal by golf’s rule makers back in 1989.
When looking at the ROG the most obvious way to tackle the long putter issue would be under Rule 5 ‘The Club’. However the R&A have said the issue is more complex than that and is really about Rule 14 ‘Striking the Ball’ and this is where any change would be made. Rule 14-1 ‘Ball to be Fairly Struck At’ says, “The ball must be fairly struck at with the head of the club and must not be pushed, scraped or spooned.” More specifically the legality of the long putter comes down to the definition of the word “anchoring”. Long putters are ‘anchored’ against the body, be it the belly, chest or chin, to provide additional stability to the stroke when putting. No other club in the bag is usually ‘anchored’. The true skill in golf is in being able to consistently ‘swing’ the club with your arms freed away from your body. This is why golfers at all levels are vocally turning on the long putter, which although around in some form or other for nearly 75 years, has become increasingly prevalent in the past 20 years with around 20% of the field in regular professional tour events now using one. Professional golfers who have spoken out against the long putter, calling for it to be banned, include Major winners Padraig Harrington, Tiger Woods and the great Jack Nicklaus.
The crux of the complexity of the issue has been highlighted by Mike Davis, Dawson’s contemporary at the USGA, “If you want to ban something, what do you want to ban? Because you just say the word ‘anchoring‘, it can mean a lot of different things. And it’s not just putting, either. There are clubs now where you can anchor a club underneath your armpit and pitch that way. The point is, there’s a lot more to this than just somebody with a belly putter.” Those who do use long putters argue reasonably that if long putters were that effective then almost everyone would be using them. Both Phil Mickleson and Graeme McDowell have admitted previously that long putters improve putting for some players and yet make others worse.
However the prevailing feeling within the golfing fraternity is that by the end of the year the R&A and USGA will announce amendments to the ROG effectively outlawing long putters. Indeed this years US Open champion Webb Simpson has begun practicing with a ‘normal/conventional’ length putter at home in preparation for a change in the ROG. It is unlikely this change would be made until the ROG are next due to be updated in 2016, appeasing players who already use long putters allowing them sufficient notice and time to adjust to conventional putters. However should the swathe of opinion becoming overwhelming against the long putter then they could force through the change earlier by issuing a ‘Decision’.
For what it’s worth my view is that, having experimented with a long putter myself in the past to improve my woeful touch on the greens (needless to say it didn’t work), given the myriad of methods (what about the recent advent of the ‘claw/saw’ putting grip?) and clubs allowed in golf morally I don’t feel as though the long putter should be banned until there is compelling research that suggests that “anchoring” the putter gives an unfair advantage in terms of consistency of stroke, especially under pressure. Of greater urgency for the R&A and USGA should be the ball which, in combination with club technology, has meant courses (especially for the Majors) becoming ludicrous in length with power becoming more important than skill. Many classic courses around the world have regrettably become toothless as a consequence and are no longer used for professional tournaments denying the enjoyment of those courses for players and spectators alike.
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Kevin is a advisor and member of the editorial board for LawInSport, having previously acted as editor. In his day-to-day work he has two roles: as the Principal for his own consultancy business Captivate Legal & Sports Solutions, and Special Counsel for Sports Integrity at leading global sports technology and data company Genius Sports.