There are no uglier offerings on a keyboard for a sports fan than the asterisk. Ambiguously mocking and full of doubt it infects the minds of the faithful like a disease. Just ask Roger Maris and Barry Bonds.
It is the type of distasteful undertone that golf has largely sidestepped for the better part of two centuries. Sure there have been questionable moments in golf’s past, but nothing to rate an asterisk. At least until now.
That the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews and U.S. Golf Association seemed destined to rule on long putters, specifically the act of anchoring the club, seems inevitable at this juncture.
“You're going to see us saying something about it one way or the other in a few months rather than years,” R&A chief Peter Dawson said on Monday, a day after Ernie Els became the first man to lift the claret jug using a long putter. “There are still further meetings to be had, so we're just going to have to be patient I'm afraid and wait and see the outcome. But as you know, it is under active discussion.”
For the record, “under active discussion” is akin to yelling fire in a crowded room. For those who read such tea leaves, it now seems certain that the last player using the long putter should please turn off the lights.
Your correspondent tracked down USGA executive director Mike Davis on Saturday at Royal Lytham & St. Annes and he was even more adamant than Dawson that no decision has been made.
But the small print is on the wall.
Els, who beat Adam Scott, who also uses a long putter, was the third long-putter-using player to win a major in the last four Grand Slam gatherings. As Dawson and Davis pointed out, this review process began long before Keegan Bradley won last year’s PGA Championship, but the success of Webb Simpson (U.S. Open), Bradley and Els certainly hasn’t helped the long putter’s long-term prospects.
Davis & Co. also dismiss the notion that the current move against long putters is reactionary to what is happening at the game’s highest levels. In fact, it’s what is happening at the grassroots level that will likely make the ultimate decision.
“There are a lot more recreational players going to this, there are instructors that are telling golfers this is a better way to putt, there are a lot more juniors using it. This wasn’t happening before,” Davis said. “If 50 years from now, if 50 percent of the golf population is using this are we happy with that? That’s the issue at hand.”
But as the long putter heads the way of the dodo bird the lingering question is less about “why” and more “what now?” Three times in the last three days we’ve heard conversations suggesting that those victories for Els, Bradley and Simpson are somehow tainted and that the cursed asterisks should be applied to their triumphs.
Just ask Davis, who is by all accounts something of a mild-mannered man unless your lot in life is crashing U.S. Open victory ceremonies, but on this he was rather adamant.
“They won playing under the Rules of Golf,” Davis stressed. “Arguably the greatest moment in the history of golf was when Bob Jones won the Grand Slam in 1930. He won with a concave-faced wedge. Shortly thereafter that wedge was ruled non-conforming. Nobody puts an asterisk by Bob Jones winning those Grand Slams.
“Sam Snead with the croquet-style putting (which was later outlawed), nobody puts an asterisk by what Sam Snead did. They played the rules when they were the rules.”
For some reason, however, the long putter debate has struck a nerve. Even Els, whose comeback can be traced directly to his use of a long putter, fueled the inferno last year when he was asked why he converted, “As long as it’s legal, I’ll keep cheating like the rest of them.”
And when it’s not legal – golf’s rules makers plan to act by September – how will this era be remembered? The juiced ball – and player – era in baseball is filled with asterisks. Will golf suffer the same fate, or will cooler heads prevail?
That change is coming seems inevitable. That it’s bringing with it talk of the dreaded asterisk is just foolish and blatantly unfair.