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Survey says ... Long putter use down on Tour

Keegan Bradley
Getty Images

It remains to be seen whether the joint proposal of the U.S. Golf Association and R&A to ban anchored putting will go into effect or whether PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem will get his wish based on a recent recommendation that the proposal be overturned – or whether the game devolves into some sort of bifurcated anarchy with neither party slowing down in their high-stakes game of chicken.

What we have learned is that professionals at the most elite level have already started policing themselves. recently obtained data from the Darrell Survey, which tracks equipment use at every PGA Tour event. While the data only allows for “belly/mid-size” or “long” putters rather than showing exactly how competitors are using these clubs – essentially, whether they are anchoring – it provides enough of a sample size that we can glean some pretty useful information.

And so far the data is telling us that the number of these putters being used on a weekly basis is down from last year. Overwhelmingly down.

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Through the first seven events on this year’s PGA Tour schedule, longer putters were put into play 94 times. That represents a 46 percent decline from 2012, when 175 long putters were implemented during those same seven events.

Broken down, the data shows a decrease at each event: Hyundai Tournament of Champions (from seven to five); Sony Open (24 to 21); Humana Challenge (30 to 18); Farmers Insurance Open (31 to 13); Waste Management Phoenix Open (25 to 11); AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am (25 to 10); and Northern Trust Open (33 to 16).

Though the numbers remained largely the same at the Hawaii-based events, there was a dramatic change once the PGA Tour reached California, with double-digit differentials between each of the last two years.

To what do we owe the monumental contrast? It wouldn’t be a reach to draw the conclusion that enough players were simply scared off by the impending ban that they have switched to a more standard putter since last season’s West Coast swing. Whether burdened by the notion of not being able to finish what they started with these clubs or unnerved by the assertion of those, such as Keegan Bradley, who say they’ve been referred to as “cheaters,” there’s been a massive statistical shift that goes beyond any public perception.

Of course, it is also due in part to the fact that many of the players who were competing with the long putters previously – from Mark Anderson to Michael Bradley to Kyle Reifers – are no longer competing full-time on the PGA Tour, which should add further fuel to the already blazing fire that contends the equipment in question doesn’t offer any sort of competitive advantage.

Since this anchored putting debate reared its ugly head – or perhaps more appropriately, its ugly butt end – arguments in places as varied as the ivory towers of the game’s caretakers to local 19th hole establishments have centered on whether the maneuver makes it easier to get the ball into the hole.

The USGA and R&A have maintained that their proposal is about defining the stroke rather than reacting to it providing any advantage, even though three major champions in the past two years have anchored. Meanwhile, that hasn’t stopped important figures on either side of the fence from maintaining that there’s data to enhance their respective arguments.

Finchem, who with the blessings of the policy board and player advisory council recently recommended that the proposal be discontinued, says, “We do not have any data that indicates there is a competitive advantage among players to an anchoring method.”

Conversely, 2010 U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell, citing a conversation with USGA executive director Mike Davis, claims, “They're convinced the research has shown that under pressure on a Sunday afternoon the long putter just kind of takes one extraneous movement out of the putting stroke.”

Then there’s many like Tiger Woods, who represents the majority when he admits, “I don't know if there's any statistical data on it.”

Using the survey numbers, we can uncover some data to shine a light on this.

According to the company’s putter statistics, only two players in the top 20 in this year’s strokes gained – putting category, the most relevant way of tracking proficient putting, have used longer putters. One is Brian Stuard, who anchors his belly putter. The other is Matt Kuchar, who uses a longer model, but only places the grip against his forearm, a style which will remain legal even if the current proposal holds form.

Let’s further extrapolate the numbers over this season’s first seven tournaments. Of those 94 players who used longer putters, 58 made the cut (61.7 percent, which is slightly higher than the average of those who employed standard putters) and they accounted for nine top-10 finishes (9.6 percent, which is again slightly higher than average).

However, much of that success occurred in Hawaii, which includes one no-cut event. Of the five West Coast stroke-play events in the Lower 48, the 68 instances of longer putters tallied just three top-10s.

In fact, in some events those using a longer putter almost appeared at a disadvantage, at least according to their final results. At Torrey Pines, of the 13 players none finished better than T-27; two weeks later at Pebble Beach, only four of 10 made the cut and only one was inside the top 25.

What does it all mean? When we analyze the data over the first two months of this season, it feels like the rage and ire toward the anchored putting debate is much ado about nothing.

Yes, the game’s governing bodies still must determine whether an anchored putt should be defined as a legal stroke, but any notion that this is greatly affecting the game at its uppermost level has so far been summarily dismissed by the statistics.