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The long and short of it: a debacle

Mike Clayton

Mike Clayton

Written on Monday, 25 February 2013 20:30

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Tim Finchem, the Commissioner of the American PGA Tour, announced yesterday that his organization would not be supporting the ban, jointly proposed by the USGA and the R&A, on the anchoring of putters.

Presumably he assumes the rest of the world's professional tours will fall in behind America. If they do not we then face the prospect, for example, of Adam Scott not playing here in Australia because whilst his putter would be legal in America he would be forced to adopt a short replacement for the Australian Open and Masters.

Chaotic is word that comes to mind but Finchem has long displayed indifference to the professional game outside of his own shores. It is not his job, however, to care and we should understand that.

Longer than standard putters first infested the game in the 1980s when yippers including Peter Senior, Sam Torrance and 1969 U.S Open champion Orville Moody found the extra long putters, when employed with the hands far apart, quietened their shaking hands.

Their use spread slowly but steadily. Purists were horrified at the look of a putter with the handle end jammed under the users chin but few, including Scott, gravitated to the most extreme exaggeration of the 'long putter.'

No-one won anything major with the longest putters. Scott come the closest with second place finishes at Augusta and Lytham but it was the shorter 'belly putter' that precipitated the proposed ban.

No longer could the administrators charged with controlling the rules look on without taking a stand. Here was a mid-length putter, jammed into the belly, being used, not to control the yips, but to simply putt better.

One less variable is taken away from the stroke. The end of the club does not move or wobble and it is easier to move the putter on the perfect arc.

From having nobody win a major championship with one, we saw Keegan Bradley win the 2011 PGA, followed by Webb Simpson winning last year's US Open and Ernie Els taking advantage of Scott's brutal stumble over Lytham's closing holes in The Open Championship.

Those three wins bought the debate to a head and crushed the previous argument that: 'no one has won anything significant with them so why bother?'

Worse, we saw a fourteen-year-old Chinese boy, Guan Tianlang, use the belly putter and win the Asian qualifying tournament thus earning his place at Augusta.

It is hardly a long bow to draw to suggest that, in China at least, the belly putter will become the weapon of choice for his generation and those who follow.

This is not the most critical issue facing the game. The extraordinary distances modern players are able to achieve with the combination of driver and ball have rendered almost all of the great courses of the world obsolete, if the architectural intent of their designers is the measure.

The problem with the ball and driver is that privately the vast majority of administrators will admit they should have done something long ago to limit and control the arms race led by manufacturers bent only on profit and shareholder return. Those money-oriented goals are reached by selling the promise of more length. It is not the manufacturers' job to protect great courses or, indeed care about the welfare or history of the game.

Nor is it their place to threaten with the law courts those charged with protecting history, tradition, the skills required to play the game and the architecture of the games greatest treasures – the courses.

I digress.

It is not too late to ban the oversized putter. The traditional 35-inch putter still dominates the Tour and the game despite Finchem's ludicrous claim that 20% of golfers use an oversize putter. Surely that was a mistake.

But if in 20 years the Guan Tianlang generation discover the belly putter is indeed easier to use and they adopt it as this generation has adopted the metal wood and two-piece ball it will be too late to ban it. The administrators will be once again crying out privately that, 'we should have done something years ago.' One hopes they stand up to Finchem and do not bow to the pressure of 15 or 20 vocal and influential tour players.

If you care about the short putter and think the traditional swing of the putter is important then you must defend the traditional tool. If you don't, then by all means come down on the side of Simpson, Bradley, Tim Clark and the Commissioner. But understand it is not too late. It will, however, be in 10, 15 and 20 years. We have already made that mistake with the ball and for too long the traditional game has been the loser.

It was the great American novelist, Ernest Hemingway, who presciently argued decades ago that: 'my attitude toward punctuation is that it ought to be as conventional as possible. The game of golf would lose a good deal if croquet mallets and billiard cues were allowed on the putting green. You ought to be able to show that you can do a good deal better that anyone else with the regular tools before you have a license to bring your own improvements.'

Too true.

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