Golf's governing bodies, worried that players will turn to long putters as an advantage instead of a last resort, proposed a new rule Wednesday that would ban the putting stroke used by three of the last five major champions.
The Royal & Ancient Golf Club and the U.S. Golf Association said the rule would not outlaw belly putter or broom-handle putters, only the way they are currently used. The proposed rule would make it illegal for golfers to anchor the club while making a stroke and not take effect until 2016.
"More players are using it, and instructors are saying this is a more efficient way to putt because you don't have to control the whole stroke," USGA executive director Mike Davis said. "The game has been around for 600 years. Fundamentally, we don't think this is the right way to go."
Orville Moody won the 1989 U.S. Senior Open using a long putter that he held against his chest, allowing for a pendulum motion. Paul Azinger won the 2000 Sony Open with a putter that he pressed into his belly. Long putters began getting serious attention last year when Keegan Bradley became the first player to win a major with a belly putter at the PGA Championship. This year, Webb Simpson won the U.S. Open and Ernie Els won the British Open using belly putters.
Davis and R&A chief executive Peter Dawson said the catalyst for the new rule was not who was winning tournaments, but the number of players switching to long putters.
Their research showed no more than 4 percent of golfers used the clubs for several years. It went to 6 percent in 2006, and then to 11 percent in 2011, with some PGA Tour events having as much as 20 percent of the players using the long clubs. There was no empirical data to suggest a long putter made golf easier. Carl Pettersson (No. 21) and Bradley (No. 27) were the only players among the top 30 in putting this year on the PGA Tour who used long putters.
"We don't think putting in an anchored way is easy. You have to learn how to do it," Dawson said. "But it takes one of the potential frailties out of the stroke ... We have to retain the skill and challenge inherent in golf."
The R&A and USGA will take comments for three months on the proposed rule before it is approved. Because the Rules of Golf are updated every four years, any ban on the anchored stroke would not take effect for another four years.
The decision figures to be divisive.
Tim Clark of South Africa and Pettersson have used broom putters their entire careers, and they have suggested a new rule would affect their livelihoods. Els once mocked Vijay Singh for using a long putter, but then Els switched to a belly putter last year when his putting suffered.
"As long as it's legal, I'll cheat like the rest of them," he said.
Tiger Woods is among those who have been outspoken about anchored putters, saying it takes away from the nerves in the hands in trying to make putts.
"I just believe that the art of putting is swinging the club and controlling nerves," Woods said Tuesday. "And having it as a fixed point, as I was saying all year, is something that's not in the traditions of the game. We swing all other 13 clubs. I think the putter should be the same.
"I don't know if there's any statistical data on it ... about whether or not anchoring the putter does help on a certain range of putts, especially the guys who have gotten the twitches a little bit," he said. "But one of the things that I was concerned about going forward is the kids who get started in the game and starting to putt with an anchoring system. There have been some guys who have had success out here, and obviously everyone always copies what we do out here. And that's something that I think for the greater good of the game needs to be adjusted."
That's ultimately what got the attention of golf's governing bodies.
Adding to the attention was Guan Tianlang, the 14-year-old from China who used a belly putter this month when he won the Asia Pacific Amateur, which earned him a spot in the Masters. He will be the youngest player ever at Augusta National. Guan started using the belly putter about six months before his big win.
Davis said there has been a dramatic increase in anchored putting styles in the last 18 months to two years at all levels of the game — tour players, elite amateurs, all the way down to the junior level. Previously, he said such putting was used by players who either "lost their way with conventional putting" or went to a broom putter because it was difficult for them to bend over for long periods of time in practice.
For years, there was a stigma attached to those who used long putters. They were considered poor putters who needed help. Davis said certified instructors began to realize that anchored putting would take some of skill out of putting, and it could lead to the majority of golfers using long putters.
"Throughout the 600-year history of golf, the essence of playing the game has been to grip the club with the hands and swing it freely at the ball," Davis said. "The player's challenge is to control the movement of the entire club in striking the ball, and anchoring the club alters the nature of that challenge."
The proposal is for Rule 14-1(b) which reads, "In making a stroke, the player must not anchor the club, either 'directly' or by use of an 'anchor point.'"
To anchor the club directly is defined by players intentionally holding the club or the hand gripping the club in contact with any part of the body.
Putting styles such as the "claw" or "cross handed" are still allowed. Matt Kuchar uses a belly-length putter that he rests against his arm. That would be permitted. Belly putters are allowed, as long as they don't touch the stomach, such as the style Angel Cabrera used when he won the 2009 Masters. Broom putters, such as used by Clark, Pettersson and Adam Scott, can be used provided it is held away from the chest.
Golf research has shown that golf participation is dwindling, mainly in the United States and Europe through cost and time it takes to play. Davis does not believe outlawing the anchored putting stroke will further decrease the number of golfers.
"We really feel strongly that it's a false premise," he said. "The game has been around for hundreds and hundreds of years. For 570 years, people figured out how to play without anchoring. Now they can't do without it?
"It's not, 'How can we make it harder?' or 'How can we make it easier?' By doing this, we feel this clarifies the game," he said. "This is about the future of the game."