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'Intent' the anchoring get-out-of-jail-free card

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When describing the proper way to avoid being in violation of the anchoring ban (Rule 14-1b), USGA executive director Mike Davis said, “All you have to do is this [hold the club away from your body] where you control the whole club with your hands. So, long and belly putters are still legal – so long as you don’t anchor them.”

Anchoring, as we all know (and as the USGA knows, with the exception of one word) is when the club, or the gripping hand, or a part of the forearm is held against the body, relieving the player from making a free swing by restricting the movement of the club as if it were physically attached to the player’s body and thereby providing extra support and stability for the stroke.

Anchoring is NOT deemed to have happened when and if a player holds the club, or the gripping hand, or a part of the forearm against the body, relieving the player from making a free swing by restricting the movement of the club as if it were physically attached to the player’s body and thereby providing extra support and stability for the stroke … if the player, regardless of having done all of the above, merely states that it was not their “intent” to have done so. That it was not their “intent” to have anchored.

Intent is the get-out-of-jail-free card for both the player and those who are meant to police the player.

It appears as if the USGA and the R&A, anticipating a clog of calls about the club or the gripping hand or part of the forearm accidentally or otherwise brushing against or settling upon one’s shirt, added the stipulation that there must be intent for the rule to have been violated. They thereby exempted themselves from all adjudicating, in effect saying that while we wrote the rule, we will not interpret the rule.

It appears that the governing bodies in an attempt to soften the blow of taking the long putters away from the world of bad-back and flinch-afflicted golfers, at the very least provided a loophole and at the very worst abdicated the throne of governance.

The rule should be rewritten to state that there must be a clear separation between the club, the gripping hand and all parts of the forearm, from the body. That in the case of any part of the club, the gripping hand or the forearm brushing against one’s shirt in the course of the stroke, it will be reviewed by the committee, for the randomness of its nature and for the potential benefit of the contact.

The loophole being closed and the message being sent, while accidents may happen from time to time, there will be little leeway.

I’ll assume none of that will happen, and that the rule will stand as written, which does provide a loophole for those – and there is no way to gild this lily – that have the lack of character to take advantage of it.

A few years ago I was practicing in Scottsdale, Ariz., at the TPC and was talking to a couple of past-their-prime touring pros, Gibby Gilbert and Butch Baird. The conversation came around to Arnold Palmer and his legacy, which is a hard thing to quantify – kind of like the spirit of the game or sportsmanship, they are far easier understood in example than they are articulated.

Gibby said that once he and the King were playing in a tournament and Arnold pointed to an imperfection on the green and wanted to know if Gibby thought it was a ball mark, meaning something that could be repaired, or just an imperfection, meaning something that couldn’t be repaired. Gibby said, “I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt." Arnold looked at him as if he had called his honor into question, and then sternly said, “I don’t want the damned benefit of the doubt, I want to know what you think."

Point being, Palmer wasn’t going to settle for anything that wasn’t above reproach. He’d much rather have putted over a hole in the green than have a hole in his reputation. That story exemplifies the spirit of the game and is part of Palmer's legacy.

Sports is about entertainment, but at its best it also communicates values. Palmer, like many others in the game, never lost sight of that fact. Stories like this are a big part of golf, and they are what is meant when one says of someone that they embody the spirit of the game. Which is why I cannot believe what I am seeing on PGA Tour Champions, with regard to the putting strokes of Bernhard Langer and Scott McCarron.

When the anchored-putting ban went into effect in January 2016, putting techniques and lives changed. Adam Scott, Keegan Bradley, Webb Simpson, Carl Pettersson and Tim Clark, much heralded and documented anchored putters on the PGA Tour, all saw their putting statistics fall off significantly, either in 2015 in anticipation of the ban, or in 2016, where they ranked 129th, 183rd, 177th, 135th and 186th, respectively, when the ban went into effect. Their world ranks dropped. The frequency of them contending in tournaments and major tournaments all but stopped.

Meanwhile on the PGA Tour Champions, Langer did not alter his long putter anchored (looking) putting technique, except to say he was moving the butt end away from his body after making practice strokes with it touching his body. While sometimes the move away from the body was noticeable, it was mostly negligible, and mostly appeared to be touching, at the very least his shirt and often, it was suggested, his body. McCarron, similarly, went about his business. While others on the PGA Tour Champions who had anchored, more noticeably changed their styles, McCarron's and Langer's strokes and statistics appeared unaffected.

Unlike Scott, Bradley, Simpson, Pettersson and Clark, whose strokes and statistics changed for the worse, Langer's and MacCarron’s have improved post ban. In 2015 Langer averaged 1.716 strokes per green in regulation (this is the dominant putting stat on the PGA Tour Champions). In 2016 he averaged 1.715 and won four times and in 2017 he is averaging 1.696, is ranked third in putting, has won three times and is first on the money list.

McCarron, who only turned 50 mid-2015, averaged 1.771 strokes per green in regulation in 2016. He is currently ranked fifth in putting, averaging 1.723 strokes per green in regulation and is fourth on the money list. (Click here to listen to McCarron discuss his putting style)

Is it just coincidence that they alone appeared to have, without difficulty, transitioned to non-anchored techniques and that they are also the only two who have not obviously changed their techniques? Perhaps. And if one is to use their unique success as evidence that they are still anchoring, it would be circumstantial at best, if it wasn’t for the video showing Langer’s hand clearly touching his body during the U.S. Senior Open (video above). When questioned later, Langer said that those who would question him clearly do not know what they are talking about and that he had no intent to anchor. (Click here to listen to Langer discuss his putting style)

Both Langer and McCarron not only maintain that they have no intent to anchor, they maintain that they are not anchoring. Both of those claims may very well be true, but anyone who has watched either of them putt and then zoomed into the point where, as the USGA's Davis suggested, there is meant to be some separation between the top grip hand and the body, knows that in most instances that space is hard, if impossible to find.

I have great respect for Langer and McCarron and have enjoyed watching them play over the years, both as a fellow competitor and as a commentator. But for the life of me, I cannot understand why they would risk even the hint of suspicion when it comes to the nature of how they play this game.

Like Palmer, they should consider how what they are doing on the golf course is viewed by others and strive to be above reproach.