FAR HILLS, N.J. – His chin is out there like the prow of a ship carving through rough seas.
USGA executive director Mike Davis is undaunted in his determination to navigate through the storm his organization faces in trying to get the game to a better place.
USGA president Glen Nager, too.
They know exactly where they want the game to go, but the journey is proving difficult with waves of hard dissent aiming to shipwreck them.
These aren’t rogue dissidents hammering away at their decision to ban anchored strokes, either.
They are top industry leaders, Hall of Famers, major championship winners, world-class players, respected teachers and manufacturers.
A sampling of the criticism:
Paul Azinger, 1993 PGA Championship winner – “Slowest knee-jerk reaction ever.”
LPGA Hall of Famer Beth Daniel – “Anchoring is not the problem with the game. How about the art of ball striking, slow play, the ball, driving distance, lining up players?”
Tim Clark, 2010 Players Championship winner: “We do have legal counsel. We’re not just going to roll over and accept this.”
Tom Lehman, 1996 British Open winner – “I think the USGA and the R&A are setting themselves up for a situation where people don’t follow their lead, which will diminish their credibility as ruling bodies.”
Butch Harmon, Golf Digest’s No. 1 ranked teacher: “Pro golf is the only sport in the U.S. that has an amateur body making its rules. Time to change.”
David Feherty, Golf Channel and CBS announcer: “Professional golfers need to make the rules for professional golf.”
PGA of America president Ted Bishop: “Maybe we are at a point where we need to consider what impact bifurcation would have.”
Taylor-Made CEO Mark King: “The USGA within 10 years will be a nonentity.”
While all those folks may not like the decision Davis and Nager made joining with the Royal & Ancient Golf Club in implementing Rule 14-1b, they ought to respect the purity of their motives. They ought to admire the commitment of Davis and Nager to do what they believe is right without any of the over-riding self interests that consumes so many of their critics.
Davis and Nager aren’t trying to win a trophy or turn a profit or prolong a career.
They’re trying to serve the greater good of a game embattled in conflicting self interests.
Davis, Nager and their R&A counterpart Peter Dawson have something else going for them. They’re right.
Anchoring isn’t a stroke, but proving it is a bit like trying to prove something is obscene.
Davis is bright, talented and admirably civil in the way he’s leading this cause. Nager is formidably intelligent and an articulate litigator. The 40-page package the USGA released Tuesday supporting Rule 14-1b was thorough enough to hold up as one of those briefs Nager submitted in his 13 appearances before the Supreme Court. These guys have thoroughly thought through this new rule.
Here’s the thing, though. They’re making their case without test results, studies or hard data to cite. That’s because defining anchoring as an improper stroke is a little bit like the challenge the land’s highest court faced trying to define obscenity. In the end, it’s the Justice Potter Stewart standard: “I know it when I see it.” The USGA and R&A are basically arguing they know wrong when they see it, and they see anchoring as fundamentally wrong.
“It’s important to understand that the Rules of Golf are not based on statistical studies,” Nager said. “They’re based upon judgments that define the game and its intended challenges. One of those challenges is to control the entire club and the swing, and anchoring alters that challenge. Moreover, the issue here is not whether anchoring provides a statistical demonstrable advantage to the average golfer, or on every stroke, or in every circumstance. What matters here is whether, by diminishing obstacles inherent in the traditional stroke, anchoring may advantage some players at some times. Statistics are not necessary to resolve that issue.”
As Davis points out, how do you statistically defend the rule that sets a basketball hoop at 10 feet or bases set 90 feet apart in baseball?
As persuasive as Davis and Nager can be, the most eloquent case against anchoring might have been made by Tiger Woods.
Yeah, the guy we complain never says anything really meaningful in news conferences boiled this all down in powerfully simple language.
“Anchoring should not be part of the game,” Woods said last week. “It should be mandatory to have to swing all 14 clubs. I’ve always felt that in golf you should have to control your nerves and swing all 14 clubs, not just 13.”
OK, maybe long and belly putters were allowed to become too vital to too many players for too long. That’s the major complaint I had with the new anchoring ban. While I believe major championships are a test of nerves as much as skill, and that the hands are the great transmitters of nervous tension, it felt like the USGA and R&A left the barn door open too long.
Really, how long do you get to correct an incorrect scorecard before the nobility in doing so is lost? That’s what I thought, but Davis and Nager didn’t fudge a scorecard, and they weren’t in control when long putters began growing in popularity. They’re plowing through rough seas convinced it’s never too late to do what’s right.
Notably, there has been discomfort over the use of the long putter for a long time within the USGA ranks. The problem in addressing it always came back to a greater discomfort over banning equipment.
When Davis took over two years ago, he led a different approach, a different way to look at the problem of long putters. Under Davis, the USGA began looking at “anchoring” instead of the equipment.
“The powers that be didn’t like what they were seeing, but they only looked at it in terms of the length of club,” Davis said. “The heart of this is the stroke itself. The thing we never wanted to do is mandate that the putter has to be shortest club in the bag. We saw a lot of reasons why that would never work and wouldn’t be fair to players.”
Davis said there were complications in trying to standardize the length of a putter.
“It wasn't the right thing for the game of golf to restrict the length of a putter,” Davis said. “We stand by that today. And for some that would question –`Why don't you just limit the length of the putter, or deal with it that way?’ – it's really the anchoring that has bothered us. We want to protect the tradition of holding the club in two hands and swinging it freely away from the body.
“If you do it by length of putter, you're going to negatively affect some people that we didn't want to negatively affect. There are people who want to stand tall because of back issues. There are people who want to use a longer putter because they want to spread their hands out. Maybe that helps with some of the nerve problems that were brought up. Ultimately, if we went to a shorter putter, you could have some shorter people who have larger midsections who could still anchor. So we've never thought this was an equipment issue. We were always bothered by the anchoring.”
One USGA insider said former executive director David Fay confided after retirement that he wished he would have thought of anchoring as the answer to the long putter problem.
“People say we were really bothered by the look of this thing,” Davis said. “That was never the issue. We really don’t like the fact that you aren’t controlling the whole club.”
You may not like their conclusion about anchoring, but you can’t fault the purity of intent driving Davis and Nager.
“We have a mission to serve, and our mission is to protect and preserve the game, including writing the rules, for those who want to play under them,” Nager said. “We’ve done that for a hundred years, and the worldwide golf community came out in the [Rule 14-1b] comment period and said they want us to continue to do that.”
If they aren’t shipwrecked by dissent, that’s just what Davis and Nager intend to do.