By Mark Lamport-Stokes
(Reuters) - The royal and ancient game of golf, renowned for its etiquette and self-imposed penalties, has undergone many changes to the rules over its 600-year history but few issues have triggered as much debate as the proposal to outlaw the anchoring of putters.
In a genteel sport where an inadvertent cough on a downswing can create controversy, the announcement by golf's rule-makers on Tuesday that anchoring would be banned from 2016 has sparked fiery, impassioned division.
Bottom line, the awkward looking practice of anchoring 'belly' or 'broomstick' putters to the body should never have been permitted by the Royal and Ancient (R&A) and the United States Golf Association (USGA), and a ban is long overdue.
However, the fact that it has taken more than 40 years to reach this decision is unfortunate. Generations have benefited from anchoring, and given a new lease of golfing life to many ageing players suffering from the 'yips'.
For many critics, the horse has long bolted the stable and golf's governing bodies should not now be introducing a rule which could have been implemented almost a half-century ago.
"This thing has been around way too long," twice former Masters champion Bernhard Langer told Reuters.
"If it was an advantage or illegal, then they should have made it illegal a long time ago. That's a cop-out. It doesn't make sense," added the German, who uses the technique.
American Ryder Cup player Zach Johnson, a nine-times winner on the PGA Tour, does not anchor his putter but he agreed with Langer.
"I don't see the need for it, I don't understand the rationale," he told reporters on Wednesday while preparing for his title defense at this week's Crowne Plaza Invitational in Fort Worth, Texas.
"I think in the long run it hurts the game and if it was going to be done it should have been done a long time ago. We are so far into it now that it just doesn't need to be touched."
The controversial ban was first proposed by the R&A and USGA in November, and the global golfing community was then given 90 days in which to discuss the idea.
The European Tour expressed its support for the idea but both the U.S. PGA Tour and PGA of America voiced emphatic opposition, raising the ugly specter of a possible split in the game once the dust has settled.
Neither the PGA Tour nor the PGA of America believes that anchored putting hurts golf. With no perceived advantage to the technique based on all the available evidence, it could be argued that banning the practice will damage the game's growth.
"We are disappointed with this outcome," said PGA of America President Ted Bishop, who was one of the most outspoken critics of the proposed ban, termed '14-1b', during the 90-day discussion phase.
"We do not believe 14-1b is in the best interest of recreational golfers and we are concerned about the negative impact it may have on both the enjoyment and growth of the game."
Opponents of the anchoring style have said it is not a genuine golf stroke and that hinging the putter against the body can give users an advantage to combat nervous hands, what golfers often describe as the yips.
Tiger Woods, a 14-times major champion and a brilliant exponent of the short game, has long been opposed to anchored putting.
"Anchoring should not be a part of the game," the American world number one said earlier this week. "I've always felt that in golf you should have to swing the club, control your nerves and swing all 14 clubs, not just 13."
The new rule does not ban belly or broomstick putters, only the practice of anchoring them against a player's body for the putting stroke.
Consequently, players such as American Matt Kuchar, who uses a mid-length putter hinged against his left arm and not against his chest, stomach or chin, would be permitted to continue with that technique from January 1, 2016 onwards.
Four of the last six major champions have employed the anchoring method for putting but golf's governing bodies said they were prompted to change the rule mainly because of the increasing number of youngsters swiftly adopting the style.
"The trend over the last two decades is toward remarkably increased use of anchoring, a trend that's particularly worrisome given that beginners and juniors are now being taught anchored strokes," said USGA President Glen Nager.
"The bottom line is that anchoring has generated serious division within the game and among players about whether those who anchor play the same game and face the same challenges."
Nager refuted the argument that the ban on anchored putters was being introduced far too late, saying: "We respectfully disagree.
"The notion that a rules change must be made soon after an issue is identified or else be considered forever foreclosed, regardless of negative effects on the game, is contrary to the history and the needs of the game.
"Many rules revisions have occurred only long after an issue was first identified, such as the changes related to croquet-style putting, the 14-club maximum and the stymie.
"The passage of time cannot bar us from addressing these issues if the game is to thrive, for it often takes time to refine the issues, assess potential solutions and build a consensus needed for change."
While golf's rule-makers have the game's best interests at heart, the issue of anchored putting probably comes way down the list when it comes to the biggest problems facing modern golf.
A proposal to eradicate slow play, both at professional and amateur level, would undoubtedly find universal support.
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)