FAR HILLS, N.J. – Gray, low-hanging clouds shrouded the red-brick headquarters of the USGA with news about the official ban of anchored strokes coming down on a gloomy Tuesday morning.
While the sun would break through here later in the day, the gloom over the state of the game wouldn’t lift.
There’s fog shrouding the future of rules making, and it won’t clear until we hear whether the PGA Tour will accept the USGA and R&A's ban against anchoring (Rule 14-1b) when it goes into effect on Jan. 1, 2016.
The PGA Tour and the PGA of America are both opposed to the ban, and when Monday’s news came down, each left uncertain whether it will follow the USGA and R&A’s lead. They announced they’re taking time to review the decision.
The fact their support isn’t automatic tells you about the changing dynamics of the game.
It means this is about a lot more than anchoring now.
It’s about leadership. It’s about who makes the rules and whether recreational players, elite amateurs and pros ought to continue to play by the same set of rules, a long-standing tradition cherished in the USGA and R&A ranks.
It’s about the possibility of bifurcation, the possibility the PGA Tour and the PGA of America could decide to make their own rules and allow anchoring to continue in their events.
While that doesn’t seem likely, there will be a fog over rules making until the Tour says otherwise.
Bifurcation is an ugly word in the USGA ranks. It’s a divisive possibility that threatens to make a mess of the game.
“It would be really bad for golf,” USGA president Glen Nager said. “If a tour goes its own separate way, that is going to create confusion and impede efforts in which the PGA Tour has been an instrumental part in [growing the game globally].”
USGA executive director Mike Davis believes bifurcation will create chaos.
“When the PGA Tour came back with their opinion, they never said ‘We aren’t going to follow the rule,’” Davis said. “They never said that.”
The PGA Tour is the only major tour in the world on record opposing the anchoring ban. They’re the only major tour still holding on to the possibility they won’t follow the new ban.
“It would only be speculating what the PGA Tour will do, but what would be the effect of that?” Davis said. “Would there be some effects on the USGA and R&A? Sure. Would there be effects on their own players? You better believe it.”
If the PGA Tour creates its own rule allowing anchoring, there would be chaos in the professional ranks with European Tour and PGA Tour pros playing by different rules. There would be issues in World Golf Championship events governed by the International Federation of PGA Tours. There would be issues in major championships with the possibility anchoring would be banned in every major but the PGA Championship.
“I think it's really important that the PGA Tour, and all the professional tours, the LPGA and so on, continue to follow one set of rules,” Davis said. “We have gotten very positive feedback from tours around the world, saying that they like one set of rules. They like the R&A and USGA governing those rules. So, if there was some type of schism, we don't think that would be good for golf.
“We are doing what we think is right for the long-term benefit of the game, for all golfers, and we just can't write them for one group of small elite players.”
Davis and Nager have accepted their mission, and they’re boldly leading. We won’t know whether they’re leading the game to a more chaotic future until the PGA Tour announces whether it’s going to follow the USGA and R&A’s lead.
“We certainly hope the PGA Tour continues to play by the same set of rules, but, regardless of their decision, we are going to move forward with it,” Davis said. “The amateur game is going to follow it and other tours are going to follow it.”
Davis and Nager stood in the organization’s executive board room after Monday morning’s announcement with some heavy eyes upon them. History is palpable in these offices. Dozens and dozens of portraits and photographs of past USGA presidents hang on the cherry wood walls of the offices. From the forbidding countenance of Theodore Havemeyer, the first USGA president, to Prescott Bush, the father of the 41st and grandfather of the 43rd presidents of the United States, there’s an impressive legacy of leadership.
This anchoring rule is about the USGA trying to fulfill that legacy.
Really, if the PGA Tour can’t accept the USGA and R&A’s leadership in defining the fundamental definition of a stroke, there will be more than a fracture in their relationships.
The USGA’s leadership has come under fire over the rapid technological advances of the last 15 years. From trampoline effect to space-age aerodynamic balls to antiquated golf courses, there are questions about whether there has been a failure to protect the game on the USGA’s watch.
Earlier this year, Taylor-Made CEO Mark King proposed an outright rebellion against the governing body over his displeasure with the proposed ban of anchoring.
“The industry needs to come together without the USGA,” King told the Telegraph newspaper in England in February. “Leave them out of it ... The industry is going to move away from them and pass them. They’re obsolete.”
Davis and Nager are stepping up to show otherwise, and their bold actions lead to larger questions of what else they may have in store to re-shape the game.
“We are doing this because we think it is the right thing to do,” Davis said of outlawing anchoring. “The easy thing would have been to do nothing, but we don’t think that’s the right thing to do. If you’re in governance and you do nothing because you’re scared of the ramifications, you shouldn’t be in governance.”
Davis and Nager are leading, and now they’re waiting to see if the PGA Tour will follow. Their legacy may depend upon that.