Like that, the U.S. Golf Association’s Halloween was suddenly filled with more tricks and less treats, thanks to an unmistakable salvo from Keegan Bradley, who told Golf Channel contributor Alex Miceli this week in China, “I’m going to do whatever I have to do to protect myself and the other players on Tour.”
Bradley’s challenge, interpreted in some circles as a precursor to legal action, was directed at an impending announcement from the USGA and Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews that, according to various sources, will ban the act of anchoring during a stroke and, effectively, the long putter.
Both ruling bodies have been publicly silent on the ruling, which would likely outlaw anchoring beginning with the next rules cycle in 2016, but last month at Sea Island (Ga.) Resort, USGA executive director Mike Davis met with the PGA Tour Policy Board to discuss the issue.
“It seems like they’ve made up their mind (to ban anchoring) and they are just trying to get people on their side,” said one policy board player director.
Davis & Co. made the same pitch this week to players at the WGC-HSBC Champions which likely prompted Bradley’s bold stand, but the cloud of legal action has been hanging low over the issue for months.
It has been widely assumed that some players might challenge the move in court, but until Bradley no one had been so definitive. In theory, the case to save anchoring is straightforward enough.
Carl Pettersson, for example, hasn’t used a conventional-length putter since 1997 and it stretches the boundaries of fair play to change the rules mid-round, so to speak.
“It’s unfortunate I’ve had 15 years of practice with the long putter,” he said earlier this year at TPC Boston. “I would definitely feel like I’m 15 years behind in practice.”
But in practical terms there doesn’t seem to be a lot of case law when it comes to these types of issues. Specifically, under what legal premise would Bradley challenge a potential ban?
“They can always sue, whether they will be successful is the question,” said Ron Quillin, a Wisconsin-based personal injury attorney with the firm Lawyers at Work.
We may live in a litigious society but that doesn’t mean the courts would rush to intervene on Bradley & Co.’s behalf.
According to Quillin, the legal concept of “laches” may apply given how long the ruling bodies have allowed the act of anchoring.
“The USGA has let this happen for some 25 years,” he said. “You can make that legal argument that they’ve allowed it to happen for so long they should be barred from changing the rule. You do have these concepts in the law, but I’m not sure it applies to this situation.”
Tim Clark, who uses a belly putter, may be the exception to the legal dilemma. Clark was born with a condition that doesn’t allow the South African to pronate his wrists outward, making putting with a traditional-length putter difficult, if not impossible.
Under that limited scope Clark could have a case under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the same law used by Casey Martin to successfully challenge the PGA Tour’s ban on the use of golf carts during tournaments.
“The definition is pretty loose and they are liberal about defining it,” Quillin said. “You have to have a recognizable problem. It would make for a court action, but I don’t know if you’d be able to win under those grounds.”
Even if the courts were to rule in Clark’s favor in such a situation it would be limited to only those who could prove a physical inability to putt without anchoring, and there seems little chance the U.S. Supreme Court would fancy the notion that the yips are a physical ailment.
Nor does there seem to be much of a chance the USGA and R&A would create a grandfather clause that would allow longtime users of long putters, like Pettersson, to finish their careers the way they started them.
“It’s like in baseball you can outlaw the (spit ball) and then say this guy has been throwing a spitter his whole life we should let him use it, but everyone knows it’s just out and out cheating,” Quillin said.
A potential legal challenge from an equipment manufacturer of a new rule on anchoring would seem to have a better chance, but even that may be mitigated by how the ruling bodies seem to be crafting the ban.
Manufacturers have in the past successfully challenged new rules, most notably the 1990 lawsuit involving Ping’s square grooves, but by making it a rules of the game issue (anchoring) and not an equipment issue the ruling bodies seem to have limited their exposure.
Davis seemed to suggest as much in July when asked if the new rule could be as simple as making the putter the shortest club in a player’s bag. “I can give you 50 reasons why that wouldn’t work,” he said.
Which brings us back to Bradley, Pettersson and Clark who will certainly be aggrieved by a potential ban, but proving it in court may end up being more difficult than a downhill 6-footer.