WINTER GARDEN, Fla. – As best anyone can tell, the PGA Tour’s first players’ meeting of 2013 on Tuesday at Torrey Pines featured plenty of questions about the proposed ban on anchored putters and precious few answers.
As commissioner Tim Finchem figured on Wednesday when asked if the circuit would deviate from either the impending mandate or the timeline for implementation (2016), “damned if you do, damned if you don't to some extent.”
Yet while Tuesday’s confab delivered little by way of facts, comments leading up to the meeting did seem to solidify the U.S. Golf Association and Royal & Ancient Golf Club’s resolve to put an end to anchoring.
With little time left in the 90-day comment period (Feb. 28) before the rule is finalized USGA executive director Mike Davis told the Associated Press that the association has received “very good feedback,” but nothing that has caused the rule makers to feel as though they missed something in writing the rule.
In short, change is afoot, a reality that many manufacturers at the PGA Merchandise Show’s Demo Day on Wednesday found to be an inconvenient truth.
“Tell me what is broken?” implored Jim Grundberg, a managing partner with the SeeMore Putter Company. “I understand coming to the decision 20 or 30 years ago, but there are so many ways that people swing I don’t understand why they would do this now.”
To be clear, Grundberg and the other dozen or so putter manufacturers working the sprawling 360-degree practice tee at Orange County National have a dog in this fight, but not as much as one might think.
Jim Barfield, the vice president of tour operations for Rife, estimated the long-putter portion of their market had grown to about 20 percent before news started to leak last year that the USGA and R&A had the longer-than-standard-length models in their crosshairs.
“Now it’s dropped to about 5 percent,” Barfield said.
Yet the basic tenets of supply and demand would suggest that if Joe Three-putt isn’t buying a belly putter he will just find his putting answers with some new form of technology.
The folks at Odyssey Golf are already preparing for LAA – Life After Anchoring – with the new “Arm Lock” shaft that features a 43-inch shaft and an additional 7 degrees of loft so players can anchor the end of the club into the forearm Matt Kuchar style, a method that would be allowed under the proposed anchoring rule.
“The extra loft allows for 4 degrees of forward press and you end up with the traditional 3 degrees of normal loft,” said Odyssey rep Chuck McCollough, who noted that consumers have already started to shun belly and broom-handle putters at retail.
That, however, will do little to blunt the impact the proposed ban will have in other corners of the game. While some, quite possibly the USGA and R&A, view anchoring as a crutch, Barfield sees the belly and broom-handle putter as more than simply a cure for the yips.
“I played professionally in the 1990s and lost my feel for putting. It wasn’t the yips, just the feel,” said Barfield, who is Rife’s Champions Tour rep. “In ’93 I made a long putter and I was able to play a couple more years. All it did is allow me to practice more which gives you better feel and more confidence.”
Barfield has seen the transition firsthand on the over-50 circuit, from Bernhard Langer to Fred Couples, and without the long putter he fears many of these Champions Tour legends will opt for retirement over irrelevance.
Davis has stressed that the proposed ban is in reaction to the growing popularity of the long putter at the grassroots level and not victories at three of the last five majors by players using longer-than-standard-length putters, but Grundberg contends there is no data that suggests long putters are a magic bullet.
“The guys who have had success with it were because they worked at it, but that happens with guys who use short putters,” Grundberg said. “It wasn’t the anchoring part, it was hope. ‘Hey, this could help.’”
Grundberg, like Finchem, also sees the potential collateral damage the ban could have on some players like Webb Simpson (2012 U.S. Open), Keegan Bradley (2011 PGA Championship) and Ernie Els (2012 British Open). Unlike baseball, golf doesn’t do asterisks, but the inevitable and utterly unfair reaction will be that these players won using equipment that was later deemed nonconforming.
“It’s not steroids, but it’s the same sort of thing,” Grundberg said.
The general feeling among major manufacturers is that the proposed ban wouldn’t be worth fighting. Unlike high-margin items like drivers and golf balls, long putters make up a small portion of the golf market. Yet for those whose life’s work has been building a better putter, the rule closes a crucial door that for many made the game possible.
“You are not only penalizing the guys who are doing it today you are penalizing everyone who may want to use it in the future,” Barfield said.
As Barfield surveys a rack dotted with assorted long putters he shrugs, “Guess we’ll convert them to the Kuchar style (of forearm anchoring),” he shrugs.
The rules may be changing, but the quest has not.