Ernie Els talks tough on USGA's proposed anchored putting ban

Ernie Els
Harry How/Getty Images
Ernie Els won a major last year using a belly putter.

It was one thing when players such as Tim Clark, Carl Pettersson and even Keegan Bradley spoke out against the USGA's proposal to ban all forms of anchored putting. Golf is similar to baseball in that your opinion carries weight in direct relation to your batting average/earned run average/won-loss record. Clark and Pettersson? The USGA and R&A can dismiss them. They're nice players but not superstars. Bradley? Well, he won a PGA Championship, but he's still pretty much just another new kid on the block.

Ernie Els cannot be dismissed. Sure, he was critical of long putters for years. Then he started using one and changed sides and joked, "As long as it's legal, I'll keep cheating like the rest of them."

Last week, Els called out the USGA and the R&A. He is a Hall of Famer, a two-time winner of both Opens, a player respected throughout the sport and revered as one of the game's nicest guys. He is a superstar of golf. When Ernie talks, people listen. Maybe it's wishful thinking on my part but in the wake of Ernie speaking up, I sense the tide of opinion starting to sway. The PGA Tour is considering not going along with the ban. That would be huge. It would cut the legs out from under the USGA's credibility, not to mention its relevance.

Els said what I've written repeatedly: There is no evidence that anchored putting is an advantage. The USGA and R&A readily admit that.

"If 90 percent of the guys were using it, or if the guys using it were at the top of the putting stats - give me something to really make me believe you have to ban it," Els said. "I saw a quote from Mike Davis - correct me if I'm wrong - saying they don't see that there's any importance in banning the putter. And then Webb [Simpson] wins [the 2012 U.S. Open], and I win, and they want to ban the putter. So I'm not too sure what their reason is behind this whole thing."

It's not sheer numbers, either. The USGA said that only 11 percent of tour players were using anchored putting styles.

The official reason for the ban is that the anchored stroke is not a traditional pendulum stroke. That's true, depending upon how you define tradition. Long putters have been used for nearly 30 years on tour, belly putters for a dozen years. The tradition of belly-putting is twice as long as, say, the tradition of the FedEx Cup.

Belly-putting, first used by Paul Azinger in the 2000 Hawaiian Open, has been around long enough to be considered traditional, in my opinion.

What it's really all about is that the traditionalists - and just about every USGA official falls into this category - don't like the way it looks. It's that simple. If it's really all about having a pendulum-stroking motion, the USGA should re-instate the croquet-style method that Sam Snead briefly used before the rules-mongers promptly outlawed it. It is a stroke in every sense of the word. It should be legalized based on current posturing. It won't be, of course, because traditionalists don't like the way that looks, either.

Hall of Famer Raymond Floyd also came out against the ban. None of which will ultimately make any difference. The USGA's period of discussion on this topic is about to end. That wasn't going to affect anything. The USGA had already made up its collective mind to end anchored putting - better late than never, they think. The discussion period was a sham. The proposed ban was a done deal.

The only thing that will change is if the PGA Tour opts out of the ban. There's something appealing to many tour players about taking control of their own game instead of allowing themselves to be governed by a group of amateurs who have never really understood the professional game and don't have a vested interest in it except for their own U.S. Open, the money machine that funds their operation.

The USGA still seems out of touch with what's happening to golf, which is shrinking in America at an alarming rate. That was obvious when it announced a recent initiative aimed at slow play.

Are these guys trying to be intentionally ironic? The USGA, the folks who don't allow rangefinders to be used in their competitions, want to find ways to speed up play? Duh. Rangefinders allow players to get yardages quicker. That's a fact. Although at a banquet 18 months ago, I sat with a USGA official who argued against that point. I offered to go to any place on the course and have a test. I'd get a yardage by laser, the official could get it the old-fashioned way by pacing off to a sprinkler head, and we'd see which was fastest. That ended our little debate.

The USGA slow-play initiative made it clear that the USGA, like everyone else, has no idea what causes slow play or how to address it.

People play slow because the game is difficult and they're not very good at it. If you're playing 95 shots or more per 18 holes, as most recreational golfers do, it's awfully hard to play fast. What else slows down play? Looking for lost balls. On a course with water hazards or significant rough, the average foursome is probably helping look for at least one ball on every hole.

Want to speed up play? Eliminate all rough. Bunkers, too. Hackers can't get out of them. Two- and three-tiered greens? They induce three-putting, sometimes four-putting. That slows plays. Flatter greens and easier courses would help.

Match play instead of stroke play would speed things up. But Americans just won't give up their beloved 18-hole scores.

Refunding a portion of greens fees for those who play in four hours or less would encourage faster play, which may make a difference.

In professional golf, only a shot-clock will ever accomplish the impossible task of speeding up play. It'll take something black-and-white like that, not a judgment by an official that is completely subjective.

But you're not going to hear the USGA get behind any of those "radical" ideas.

Here's another thing the USGA is on the cutting edge of - drug testing for amateur golfers. That's right, drug testing for U.S. Amateur contestants will start in 2013. That seems extreme if not unnecessary. Drugs in amateur golf is not a hot-button issue. I wasn't aware it was any kind of an issue. Maybe it is in the wake of Vijay Singh and his deer antler spray. I'm sure some amateurs will run afoul of it because they take medication for specific health needs - the way the PGA Tour wrongly hassled Doug Barron and Shaun Micheel. Strength couldn't hurt, so steroids may be a performance enhancer, but is there a problem in amateur golf?

Maybe the USGA, for once, is way ahead of the curve on this one and I'm stupidly naïve. But I don't think so.

The truth is, the USGA has nothing to do with recreational golf. It cares about maybe 500 golfers in the world - the top 300 pros and the top 200 or so elite amateurs.

The rest of us - those who play golf because it's fun - are irrelevant. Unless we'd like to send them money. Then they care.

That's why, even though it's probably a long shot, I hope the PGA Tour has the brass to stand up and call baloney (or another b-word) on the USGA's anchoring ban. Governing bodies are like businesses - they work better and harder and with more motivation when they have competition. The USGA has never had any and it fell asleep on the throne. I remember two USGA "experts" who repeatedly published denials in the late '90s and early 2000s that the new balls weren't really going farther and that tour players weren't hitting shots significantly farther, even though we could clearly see they were. In that era, the USGA completely blew it on technology.

This is the same group that suddenly has to stop anchored putting. Why? It's not traditional. But at one time, neither were metalwoods, wooden or plastic tees (instead of piles of sand), golf carts, 60-degree wedges, yardage markers, or tournament play without stymies.

Els is a voice of reason. He's a biased voice of reason since he wields a belly putter out of necessity, but a voice of reason nonetheless. He sees the anchored putting ban and asks, "Why?"

It's a damn good question.

The Van Cynical Mailbag

How big of a deal is this week's World Match Play Championship, since it's an official World Golf Championship tournament? - Janie, via Twitter
It's not a big deal at all. It's not even important. But it ranks among the most entertaining tournaments in golf. Match play is the best format for spectating. Every hole has an outcome - win, lose or draw. And match play gets personal. Player A doesn't give Player B a short par putt? This is how feuds, big and small, start. That's fun to watch. It's a great show, but match play is a poor way to determine a champion. You don't have to beat the best players in the world - only the six players you happen to face. I'd rank the Match Play as my favorite tournament to watch other than the majors and, of course, the John Deere Classic.

Who's your favorite player? - AtlantaMike, via email
Whichever player I'm interviewing at that specific moment. Golf writers, like golfers, are completely selfish. It's all about what helps me with my story. But enough about me - what do you think of me?

If this long-putter/belly-putter ban goes through, which golfers are most likely to be hurt and which will be able to adjust? - Andrew, via email
Superb question, Drew. I think all of them are screwed come the day of reckoning. Nobody uses a long-putter or a belly-putter because they want to. They use it because they have to. It's the way they putt the best or in some cases, the only way they can putt (and overcome the dreaded Y-word, which shall not be mentioned here in case it's contagious). Whether you're Webb Simpson, Adam Scott or anyone else, just one more missed putt per round means you're finished as a serious contender. I hope these guys can adapt, but I think it's going to be a big, big issue. Look for a new wave of players using The Claw. And look for some semi-stars to quietly fade away.

Send your Van Cynical Mailbag question to @GaryVanSickle on Twitter and try to come up with one that's not super-lame. Thanks in advance.

 

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