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Seeing both sides to the long/anchored-putter debate

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Graeme McDowell says the long putter should be banned. Fred Couples is in favor of keeping it around. Gary Player thinks bifurcation should be an option. Ernie Els believes it's cheating – but as long as it's legal cheating, he'll keep using one.

Can't we all just get along?

When it comes to the hottest of golf's hot-button issues, the answer is no. We can't get along on a decision, because we can't even get along on what we're trying to decide.

Officials from both the U.S. Golf Association and Royal & Ancient have intimated that a ruling will be handed down by year's end. But a ruling on what, exactly?

“Well, the initial determination has been that we are examining the subject from a method of stroke standpoint rather than length of putter standpoint, and that takes it into the area of the rules of play, the Rules of Golf, rather than the rules of equipment,” R&A chief executive Peter Dawson said prior to the Open Championship. “Anchoring is what we're looking at – method of stroke – and it's all about putting around a fixed pivot point, whether that fixed pivot point is in your belly or under your chin or on your chest.”

Which means that those blindly wailing, “Ban the long putter!” are in effect sending an army to invade the wrong country.

Every time the topic is broached, it is intimated that long putters and anchoring the club to the body are interchangeable.

They aren’t one and the same, though.

Think about it: A golfer can brandish a long putter without anchoring it, just as he can anchor a club that isn't of non-standard length.

I know we're all supposed to have a strong opinion on the matter, but consider me the flip-floppingest fence-sitter around. I can see both sides from here, which means I can understand the positive and negative emanating from each camp.

If anchoring putters remains legal, it takes away some semblance for the need to have feel and touch – and, most importantly, nerves – on the greens. I get that much. After all, there’s a reason why legions of elite-level professionals have made the switch in recent years – and it’s not because they wanted a little extra challenge.

The term most often employed to condemn anchoring is “inorganic” and it’s more than just a buzzword. At the game’s grassroots, all clubs were meant to be standard length. Men such as Willie Park, Sr. and Old Tom Morris certainly weren’t jabbing the butt ends of putters into their stomachs. The current trend is less evolution than devolution.

That said, the battle cry to ban anchoring feels like a knee-jerk reaction to recent events.

Three of the last four major champions – Keegan Bradley, Webb Simpson and Ernie Els – have anchored long putters against their bodies all the way to the winner’s circle. Despite this forever being legal, proponents of banishment use this fact as the crux of their argument, in effect contending that if something helps players win, then it must be unlawful.

This also may fall under the category of “Don’t Let the Facts Get in the Way of a Good Story.” Two weeks ago at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, Els’ “cheating” method led to 122 putts for the week, good for a share of 71st of the 83 players who made the cut. Adam Scott, who finished one stroke back? He had just two fewer putts.

It’s certainly not a cure-all or else everyone would be doing it, rather than just the 20-30 percent average at most PGA Tour events. The fact is, though, a banishment of anchoring clubs without a limit on their length may not be a cure-anything.

Take Scott, for example. He holds the long putter with his top hand pressed slightly against his chest. If anchoring is outlawed but club length isn't limited, then he can theoretically move his hand a quarter-inch away from his chest and continue going about business as usual. Such a move would obviously alter his stroke, but hardly serve as the career-ender that many observers seem to expect from the long-putter establishment.

The debate over this issue is so contentious because there is no black and white answer.

It can bring into play the initial venture of bifurcation, which is just a really big word for having two sets of rules – one for professionals and one for amateurs. Just because the powers-that-be deem it against the spirit of the game for a player such as Els to anchor a long putter doesn’t mean they want to chase away the 80-year-old with an ailing back for whom the game is already difficult enough.

And then there’s the possibility of local rules, a hardly talked-about topic that could render any USGA and R&A decision and void on any given week during the PGA Tour season.

“It's something that we'll have to discuss,” Jim Furyk, a member of the PGA Tour Player Advisory Council (PAC), said last week. “It's happened before. … The Tour has gone opposite of what the USGA has done or done something different than the USGA, so it wouldn't be the first time.

“But you know, I would be out of line speaking really about what we would do as a board as an individual when we really haven't talked about it. It was mentioned to us. They've been talking about it for years, but it was brought to our attention that, you know, hey, I think this time they're serious, to put it in simple terms. If that's the case, we would need to talk as a Tour what we would do.”

Opinions on anchoring clubs are like swing thoughts: Everybody has a few and they’re all willing to share ‘em with the world without provocation.

Everyone except for me, apparently.

I can see both sides of the issue. You say anchoring the putter is inorganic and against the spirit of the rules? I agree. You contend it doesn’t provide an advantage and shouldn’t be subject to a knee-jerk reaction? I agree with that, too.

What I do know is that anchoring and long putters are two very different things that are being mistaken as interchangeable. And I know that if – OK, when – a ruling is handed down by the USGA and R&A later this year, mass confusion about only one becoming illegal will ensue in the aftermath.