Long putters: Getting to the bottom of the game's hottest debate
As long as it's legal, you know, I'm – I'll keep cheating like the rest of them. – Ernie Els, 2011 Frys.com Open
A month ago, Els cheated his way to a fourth major championship, chasing down another cheater in Adam Scott at the British Open.
In this case, however, cheating is in the eye of the beholder.
Scott doesn't feel it's cheating to have a putter nearly his height, anchored in his sternum. Neither does Tim Clark. Els clearly does.
"I've been outspoken about it. I've been against it," he said back at the Frys.com Open. "Right now I'm glad they haven't banned it. If they ban it, that's also fine with me. It's probably very controversial rule that we have on the Tour and guys that don't use the belly like myself, you know, have been against it.
"And now as I said to you guys, I've got a long-term view on this thing and I'm going to stick with it. Guys can have a laugh at me, that's fine. I've done it too them. It is what it is. And until they ban it, you know, we can use it."
It didn't look like there was much movement on that front at the time of Els' comments, as Keegan Bradley was the first user of a long putter to win a major two months prior at the 2011 PGA Championship.
Flash forward to July, and Els was the third, following Webb Simpson's victory at the U.S. Open.
The result has been a move by golf's governing bodies – the United States Golf Association and the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews – to make a decision on whether the club itself, or the manner of which it is used, is illegal.
It's something Madison native and three-time PGA Tour winner Jerry Kelly can't believe has taken this long to be addressed.
"I just don't think there's a place for it," Kelly said. "It's in the rule book that you can't anchor. I have no idea how this has gone as long as it has. Whether it was the PING lawsuit (in 1990 over wedge grooves) that scared everybody away from making or enforcing the rules that have been on the books, but it has been on the books. Everybody who's doing it knows. They say I'm going to cheat as long as they let me cheat. There's no other rule in golf that is broken like that rule. Why is it broken? Why is it not enforced?"
The way some players – like Kelly and Els – interpret the rules is interesting because a long putter is not illegal. Neither is anchoring it to a body part, like the chin, sternum, belly, or the forearm.
The word "anchor" is not printed anywhere in the USGA Rules of Golf.
"The old rules or the current rules (revised for 2012) do not prohibit either that style of putting or that design of putter. It's perfectly legal right now," said John Morrissett, the Competitions Director at Erin Hills in Erin.
Morrissett came to Erin Hills by way of the USGA, where he worked in the Rules of Golf department for nearly 20 years.
"My guess is that what they really mean is that it should be illegal," he said. "That's what makes it a pretty difficult and somewhat touchy subject. It's fairly subjective. The question really comes down to is making a stroke with the club anchored against part of your body a traditional stroke? And is that a proper stroke per the Rules of Golf and should it continue to be a proper stroke? Obviously everybody has an opinion. Some have stronger opinions than others, which makes it all a very interesting subject."
Rule 14 in the Rules of Golf covers Striking The Ball, and 14-3 states "the player must not use any artificial device or unusual equipment use any equipment in an unusual manner that might assist him in making a stroke or in his play."
The rule also contains the caveat that "a player is not in breach of this Rule if he uses equipment in a traditionally accepted manner."
This is why the USGA and R&A have said the length of the putter is not up for debate or ruling, but rather if anchoring it to make the stroke constitutes using the equipment in an unusual way.
Why now, though?
Long, anchored putters have been around for three decades, but no one had won one of the game's major championships with one until Bradley in 2011. Now, three players have. That – along with the fact that many of the game's top level amateurs are going to it – has caught the attention of the USGA and R&A.
The topic has also gained steam because those who opposed to it are a very, very vocal group.
"If they turned around tomorrow and invented the long putter, there is no way it would be passed in the rules of golf," three-time major champion Padtraig Harrington said. "So if there was no such thing as long putter and somebody came out with it tomorrow, no way would it be let in. There is no way the belly putter would be allowed to start tomorrow.
"It got through years ago because it went under the radar. Players who were using it were generally older players retiring from the game and nobody wanted to be harsh and tell them, Look, that's it. Your career is finishing if you can't go back to the small putter."
The interesting – and overlooked – part of this debate is that no changes can be made to the rule book until 2016 anyway due to a self-imposed measure by the USGA and R&A.
But it is not much ado about nothing. You now have two young major champions who would have to change their games in Simpson and Bradley. Then you'd have older players like Els and Vijay Singh who would have to battle the yips without anchoring. Same with players like Tim Clark and Carl Pettersson, who have used a long putter for over a decade.
Then you'd have manufacturers who have begun producing these putters as demand has increased.
"With a change this big, you want to give people time to prepare," Morrissett said. "So the timing of things would work fairly well in terms of giving everyone three years to get ready for the transition and when 2016 comes around hopefully this won't be that big of a deal – if they do that."
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