The PGA Tour Opposes Anchored-Putting Ban: Why It Matters

FILE - This Sept. 3, 2011, file photo shows Phil Mickelson attempts a birdie putt with a belly putter on the 16th hole during
FILE - This Sept. 3, 2011, file photo shows Phil Mickelson attempts a birdie putt with a belly putter on the 16th hole during the second round of the Deutsche Bank Championship golf tournament at TPC Boston, in Norton, Mass. Even more surprising than Mickelson using a belly putter was a tweet last weekend from Brad Faxon, one of the best putters in golf: "I have a belly putter!" (AP Photo/Stew Milne, File)

In a move that is essentially unprecedented, the PGA Tour has announced that it is prepared to go to war with two of the other major governing bodies in golf, the USGA and R & A, over their proposed ban of the anchored putter style. For non-golfers this may seem like much ado about a trivial matter, but in reality this controversy says an enormous amount about the state of sports and even our country as a whole.

For the uninitiated, last year the USGA (which runs the U.S. Open) and the R & A (which runs the British Open), announced their intention to eventually ban the method of putting known as "anchoring," where the butt of the club is held in place by a body part, usually the belly. This method has always been allowed (though some purists argue that the current rules already prohibit it), but is becoming increasingly popular among professionals, with three of the last five majors having been won by players who use this putting technique.

The PGA of America (which is separate from the PGA Tour, and which runs the PGA Championship) was immediately cold to the idea out of fear that the ban would further stunt the growth of a game which has already suffered mightily in recent years. Their members, club pros, are closest to the rank and file golfer and most reliant on their merchandise purchases, so that stance was not a surprise.

However, the PGA Tour coming out formally against the ban is a far more significant matter. The Tour is primarily focused on running the "non major" championships for professionals in North America (though, things do get more complicated thanks to the fact that the major championships are "sanctioned" by the PGA Tour, which, by the way, is the a big part of the reason Augusta National Golf Club finally allowed in female members) and by allowing anchored putting in its events they would dramatically undercut the viability of the proposed ban.

As a competitive amateur golfer who has played in three national championships and won four club championships in three different states (but who has never been a great putter), I am very much in favor of the ban. I strongly believe that anchored putting goes against both the spirit and the letter of the current rules, and I also think that this method provides an unfair advantage to those who use it.

The argument of the other side of this debate goes like this: it has been used for decades and there is no statistical proof that it provides a competitive advantage. This position is based on laughably flawed (though, unfortunately, rather common) "logic."

The point is not that using the anchor method will make you necessarily a better putter than those who use the traditional method (though three major winners in just over a year after never having had one in the history of the game would certainly seem to be more than a statistical anomaly). The reason that the anchoring should be banned is that it allows those who would ordinarily, thanks usually to a loss of nerve, no longer be able to be competitive at all to putt as well as those who are in the prime of their careers.

While somewhat crude, by far the best analogy I can come up with is that the anchored putting style is much like medication for erectile dysfunction. It doesn't make you better than you were before; it just allows you to stay in the game.

As for the idea that the ban is illegitimate because it should have gone into effect (or the current rules banning it should have been enforced) many years ago, I actually see this as a more reasonable argument to make. However, much like with many of our social ills which are allowed to begin because we are supposedly a freedom loving nation only to then get out of control, this would hardly be the first time an act was regulated only after it became a large enough problem to warrant a ban (does anyone believe Congress would be debating "immigration reform" if we didn't have so many people in this country illegally?).

So why is this war about to happen? Because the USGA and R & A are primarily about preserving the game (politically, they would be considered "strict constructionists" of the constitution). Right and wrong actually still somewhat matter to them. Meanwhile, the PGA Tour and PGA of America are structured more as businesses and are largely motivated by money.

The club manufacturers and golf courses themselves stand to lose a lot of cash if the ban goes into effect and people give up the game because they can't make a four foot putt. Many members of the PGA Tour stand to lose their careers if they can no longer rely on their "medication" to prop up their putting weaknesses.

So once again, popularity and profitability seem poised to win out over what is right. This is happening routinely now in our politics, our media, and our sports. But when it is even happening in golf, a game run by people who claim to adhere more to rules and tradition than just about any other endeavor, it takes on special significance.

As for how it will all turn out, the tie-breaking "vote" here will likely be cast by the Augusta National Golf Club, which runs The Masters.

If they back the ban, they we will likely see a chaotic situation where the majors are fundamentally competitively different from every "normal" event (an outcome the PGA Tour may regret). But if the Lords of Augusta side with the PGA Tour against the ban, then yet another nail will be pounded into the coffin of the quickly dying notion that anything is more important than popularity and profitability.