FAR HILLS, N.J. – Tucked into a corner of the USGA’s Golf House is an exhibit unlike any other in the association’s sprawling museum.
The simple display doesn’t honor a player or tournament or career, but a pivotal moment in time when golf had reached a contentious crossroads, a time when the game was ruled by regional factions with sometimes competing interests.
The display reads, simply, “The 1951 Rules conference.” But what happened over four days in the spring of ’51 unified the game through its rules.
The conference, which began in London before adjourning to St. Andrews, Scotland, included a dozen of the game’s leaders from the USGA, R&A, Royal Canadian Golf Association and Australian Golf Union. Born from those four days and 12 open minds was a unified Rules of Golf for the entire planet.
“For four days those 12 men explored every phase of the rules,” wrote Joe Dey, the executive director of the USGA at the time. “There were no axes to grind, no ultra-nationalistic views. They were just golf lovers and they worked together in complete harmony.”
It seemed strangely apropos that on the same day your scribe stumbled upon the exhibit, R&A chief executive Peter Dawson made the best case to date for a similar détente between golf’s powerbrokers.
“People have taken positions that they will now have to back off from or maintain. The negotiating table is no place for rule-making,” Dawson told The Independent. “Obviously, feelings are strong. We shall have to see where it goes. … The bodies in golf have always been working well together and mutually respectful of each other's position. But this latest incident has set this back.”
This being the USGA and R&A’s proposed plan to ban anchoring, perhaps the most contentious issue golf has faced since that ’51 meeting in the United Kingdom.
Only the players have changed. On one hand there are the established rule makers, the USGA and R&A, and their conclusion “that anchored strokes threaten to supplant traditional strokes.”
It’s not the relatively sudden success of the anchored stroke at the game’s highest level – Adam Scott completed the Anchored Slam at this month’s Masters, giving anchored strokes four wins in the last six majors – that the rule makers say is concerning, but the widespread use of longer-than-standard-length putters at the grassroots level.
On the other side of the philosophical divide are the PGA Tour and PGA of America, which both came out against the proposed ban on anchoring during the 90-day comment period earlier this year.
“We feel strongly that going down that road would be a mistake,” Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said in February.
PGA of America president Ted Bishop was even more pointed, warning that any rule that inhibits the already weak growth of golf simply won’t do.
“Bifurcation seems destined if (the proposed ban) is implemented,” he wrote in a column in March. “It has become one of the most divisive issues that modern-day golf has seen.”
What the ’51 rules-conference dozen built seems in peril if the USGA and R&A move forward with the ban, unless those involved can reach a similar accord. It’s that harsh reality that has likely stalled a final decision on the proposal, which was supposed to be made this spring.
But as the azaleas begin to fade and golf charges into summer, no final announcement seems imminent. Perhaps Mike Davis, the USGA’s thoughtful executive director, is using the extra time to sway Finchem and Bishop’s seemingly rigid stance on the issue.
In some ways, Davis is the modern embodiment of Dey, a pragmatist and consensus builder who is not blind to the realities of the modern game which is driven from the top (the Tour) down. And, at least in Finchem’s case, there seems to be room for an accord, which is not surprising considering that before he took over in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., the commish was a Washington lobbyist.
In February the Tour chief dismissed the growing notion of a “donnybrook” between the Tour and the USGA and R&A, and left the door open for compromise.
The display honoring Dey and the other members of the ’51 conference is less than a 9-iron from Davis’ office in Far Hills. All it would take is a stroll over to Golf House, and the will to pull together the principals in the anchoring debate for an open and honest discussion.
Or, as Dey said more than 60 years ago, commence a gathering where, “There were no axes to grind, no ultra-nationalistic views. They were just golf lovers and they worked together in complete harmony.”