Golf

Finchem taking a misguided stance

Phil Mickelson (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
The debate on anchoring putts is moving into high gear.
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Robert Lusetich

After more than 20 years of covering everything from election campaigns to the Olympic Games, Robert Lusetich turned his focus to writing about his first love: golf. He is author of Unplayable: An Inside Account of Tiger's Most Tumultuous Season. Follow him on Twitter.

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PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem cut his teeth in politics.

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So maybe it wasn’t surprising that he made a move right out of the Capitol Hill playbook by going on television Sunday to upstage the Accenture World Match Play Championship final and announce the tour’s opposition to the proposed ban on anchoring putters.

Finchem could have mailed a letter to the United States Golf Association and Britain’s Royal and Ancient Golf Club explaining the tour’s (flawed) reasoning.

Instead, his bold play was calculated to win over hearts and minds and blindside golf’s ruling bodies in what’s about to become a public relations war over the ban.

Let’s hope Finchem’s bullying tactics fail, and the ruling bodies hold their ground — because broomstick and belly putters for 40 years have contravened the spirit of the game and should contravene the rules, too.

This seemed to have been the popular opinion at the end of last year, when the ban, proposed to go into effect in 2016, was announced.

Although it was predictably opposed by those who use long putters, they seemed resigned to their fate.

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More significantly, the ban was endorsed by many, including some of the sport’s biggest names, from Arnold Palmer to Tom Watson to Tiger Woods.

“The art of putting is swinging the club and controlling nerves and having it as a fixed point, as I was saying all year, is something that’s not in the traditions of the game,” Woods said in December.

“We swing all other 13 clubs; I think the putter should be the same.”

Steve Stricker, one of the best putters in the game, wholeheartedly supported the outlawing, saying that holding a putter against your body “is an advantage.”

Brandt Snedeker, another great putter, also came close to using a word no one in golf wants to be labeled.

“Let’s be clear about this: The reason guys use belly putters is because they work. If they didn’t work, they wouldn’t use them,” he said.

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“I'm against belly putters. I want guys who have a 5-footer to win a golf tournament to feel as nervous as I do with that putter in my hands and let them deal with that and figure out a way to manage that. The belly putter takes that out of play a little bit.”

Stricker now has changed his mind, as have many of his peers on the tour.

What happened?

Credit the anchoring lobby, led ably by Tim Clark, who did what David Axelrod or Karl Rove would have done: adroitly shifted the debate.

Instead of arguing the merits of anchoring, proponents have twisted the debate, making it more about the USGA and R&A.

They persuaded PGA Tour players by preying on their historic dislike of golf’s ruling bodies; on the idea that amateurs shouldn’t be deciding what professionals can and cannot do.

They said that the USGA has allowed anchoring for 40 years, that’s there’s no data showing a competitive advantage for anchoring — a dubious assertion given many bad putters anchor, thus dragging down performance data — and that it won’t grow the game, as many golfers with the yips would stop playing.

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“The USGA approved it twice,” Finchem noted.

“I think if there's one thing that would prevail across a lot of players and a lot of board members is that it's been around for a generation, and the game of golf has done quite well. So unless you have a compelling reason to change it, you shouldn't.

“We feel strongly that going down that road would be a mistake.”

Of course we can all agree the USGA and R&A have made many blunders over the years, including sitting on their hands for too long on anchoring.

It should have been outlawed long ago, but because the only players using the method were veterans trying to hang on for another few years, the ruling bodies looked the other way.

But now three of the past five major winners have used belly putters — Keegan Bradley, Webb Simpson and Ernie Els — and, more critically, there’s a new generation of golfers who are anchoring because it makes putting more efficient.

Guan Tianglang, a 14-year-old from China, used a belly putter to win the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship, earning a spot into the Masters, where he will be the youngest competitor in the history of the only major not won by a long putter.

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The PGA of America is also against the ban — its members want to sell putters of any length — so Finchem has one ally.

But he’s not likely to get Augusta National to go against the ruling bodies, setting up potential anarchy in the game, where the PGA Tour uses a local rules provision to allow a method banned by three of the four majors.

He’s hoping to scare the USGA and R&A into backing down.

Instead, they should understand that they’re doing the right thing, stay the course and call his bluff.

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