x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

The gut feeling is this standoff will run and run

The Royal & Ancient and US Golf Association announced in November that the anchoring of putters to any part of the body would be forbidden starting in 2016, but now the US PGA Tour has announced its opposition to the rule change.

Ernie Els of South Africa reacts to a missed putt on the 8th hole during the first round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championships at Abu Dhabi Golf Club in Abu Dhabi in January 17. Christopher Pike / The National
Ernie Els of South Africa reacts to a missed putt on the 8th hole during the first round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championships at Abu Dhabi Golf Club in Abu Dhabi in January 17. Christopher Pike / The National

It goes by different names in different cultures. In many Western nations, an old-fashioned standoff with figurative swords drawn is called a game of chicken, which by way of explanation means, the first one to blink is deemed a coward.

Bawk, bawk, bawk.

A different weapon is being brandished in what could fast become one of the sporting world's most interesting, if esoteric, staredowns.

The US PGA Tour on Sunday formally announced its opposition to a rule change designed for the betterment of the global game and propelled by popular opinion, representing a mutiny of the most public kind.

As Golf Channel analyst Frank Nobilo put it, "We are playing Russian Roulette with the game."

The game's two governing bodies, the Royal & Ancient and US Golf Association, announced in November that the anchoring of putters to any part of the body would be forbidden starting in 2016, and established a three-month window for interested parties to provide comment. Sunday at the Accenture Match Play Championship outside Tucson, feedback came in the form of heavy ordnance.

The tournament site near Tucson, Arizona, is located about 160 kilometres from the United States's southern border, and this could fast devolve into a Mexican standoff.

Long eviscerated by aficionados for being slow-moving on key issues involving the game, the USGA and R&A took a proactive step by banning the anchoring of putters to the body, which means those using belly and broom models on the greens had three years to adjust before the styles were abolished.

Public sentiment was strongly in the rule-makers' corner, though longer putters had been used for decades, mostly with mixed results.

However, the past few seasons have seen a comparative tectonic shift — three of the past five winners at major championships have used belly putters — and the number of winners using anchored putters in the States quintupled in two seasons.

Acting as stewards, the governing bodies listened and acted with nothing but the best interests of the game in mind, reasoning that a golf stroke should involve two hands and no anchoring of a club like a hinge. Imagine that. No dollars or dirhams were involved in the decision, either.

PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem blew holes in the proposal, giving it a resounding thumbs down, like a little Caesar.

He claimed that players generally supported his view, though Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell and Luke Donald — four of the most important figures in the game — have backed the anchoring abolition.

"On this issue, we think if they were to move forward, they would be making a mistake," Finchem said.

Finchem said he isn't forcing a territorial "donnybrook," but by nuking the proposal out of hand, he's set the stage for a potentially uncomfortable fight.

If the USGA/R&A back down, they will be characterised as the disconnected, impotent old men that many already perceive them to be.

If they stick to their guns, then the tour must decide whether to ignore the rule change entirely, enact some sort of set-aside or exemption, or eat crow.

Taking to the offensive on an NBC Sports telecast, Finchem said no hard data suggests that using a belly or broom putter has helped players on the greens.

That's a convenient position, but if Woods is right when he says "it's all about the W's," then that's all the maths that most fans have needed. After all, the players aren't using the longer putters because they are a hindrance, are they?

Aussie star Adam Scott hadn't sniffed a major title in a decade, yet he almost won the Masters and British Open over the past two seasons. He uses a broom model and it has been credited with saving his career. Same for Ernie Els, who won the British Open last year at age 42. His putting had become cringe-inducing, but his belly model has made it passably decent in stretches.

As the rule makers noted, more young players are using the anchored putter for reasons other than desperation.

The game doesn't need any rule-chasm spasms.

If the USGA and R&A elect to enact the ban, those entered in the US and British opens would play by their rule book — none of the majors are run by the PGA or European tours. Amateurs and collegians would abide by USGA/R&A rules.

Just what the game needs, right? Finchem, who has shown precious little concern for the state of the game beyond his tour membership, was quick to note that the PGA of America, the thousands-strong organisation of teaching professionals, is against the new rule, as is a national organisation of golf-course owners in the States, who fear some fans might quit if anchoring is outlawed. Convenient ballast. His altruism extends as far as the reach to his own wallet, and the potential diminution of players such as major winners Webb Simpson and Keegan Bradley, popular belly putter devotees in their mid-20s, was almost certainly the root cause of concern for his market-driven tour.

The professional tours, of course, can autonomously ignore whatever rules they see fit, though they historically have followed the lead of the governing bodies. Finchem, who has a law degree, insisted that he'd not considered what will transpire if the USGA/R&A enact the rule anyway, a stunning statement on its face. Maybe even preposterous.

"That would be speculation, and I haven't really thought about it," Finchem said, raising eyebrows on several continents. "I've thought more about [two sets of rules], whether it would work or not. But I think that the focus here ought to be, if possible, to go down the same road — everybody go down the same road on anchoring, and that's certainly where we are right now.

"We just hope they take our view on it. We'll see."

The European Tour yesterday declined to comment. The USGA and R&A have no financial stake in the affair. The organisations were doing what was believed best for the game, a development that should be applauded, not derided. Who runs the game, anyway? A group of 250 professionals who cannot see past their own self-interest, apparently.

In addition to majors won by Simpson, Els and Bradley, Tim Clark won the so-called fifth major two years ago, the Players Championship, with a broom model. Bill Haas won the FedEx Cup title in 2011 with a belly model.

Said Finchem, in another jaw-dropping assertion: "You can't point to one negative effect of anchoring."

Except that many intelligent people believe it's cheating. Including Els, who in 2011 issued one of the most crystalline contextual comments ever: "As long as it's legal, I'll keep cheating like the rest of them."

He smiled and drew big laughs when he said it. But there's the hook, eh? If the rule is enacted as written, anchoring clearly won't be legal going forward. So, unless the tour blinks first, at that point, Els and his ilk will be cheating by very definition.

It's a game of chicken, all right. Who will be first to balk, balk, balk?

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