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Are Golf's Governing Bodies Really Working in the Best Interests of the Game?

By: Tony Dear


On Tuesday, pictures of heavy machinery digging up the 11th green on the Old Course at St. Andrews caused golfers around the world to cry out in anguish before choking on their dinner. Some said the changes were inevitable and had been coming for some time - 400 years according to Jack Nicklaus. But the majority it seems did not welcome the renovation and said, almost unanimously, the Royal and Ancient Golf Club (R&A) and St. Andrews Links Trust were guilty of recklessly defacing hallowed ground. A day later, the R&A together with the United States Golf Association (USGA), once again set alarm bells ringing among a sizeable section of the golfing population by proposing a ban on anchoring a putter against the body - a method of putting that has given hope and enjoyment to golfers whose previous struggles on the greens could conceivably have caused them to give the game up.

Twenty years ago, with space for golf-related news limited to a small number of golf-specific publications, or a few column inches five pages inside the back cover elsewhere, stories like these might have caused no more than a blip on golf's monitor. Okay, the Old Course changes might have resulted in a minor uprising among some devotees and course architects, but it likely wouldn't have amounted to anything much. These days, decisions large and small made by the game's governing bodies are analyzed and critiqued by a multitude of writers, reporters and bloggers via an ever-increasing number of sources. And, with the help of these sources, every golfer between the Poles has the opportunity to consider whether or not golf's leaders have indeed been acting for the good of the game lately. These most recent decisions might give them pause before commenting.

Let's start with the Old Course and the R&A which decided to make changes in anticipation of low-scoring at the 2015 Open Championship. The concept of updating great courses is nothing new, of course. Augusta National has seen innumerable changes since it opened in 1932, and the Old Course certainly isn't the first Open Championship venue to be altered. But, and these are the questions so many people were left asking, did the Old course really need updating and, if it did, might it not have been wiser to elicit the opinions of a respected group of Old Course experts prior to barging in with the dozers before anyone had had time to ponder the implications?

Many believe that making what the R&A is calling 'improvements' to the Old Course is completely unnecessary. At the 2010 Open Championship, one player among the 156 that started ended up better than ten-under-par. The magnificent Louis Oosthuizen somehow turned in 16-under while Lee Westwood, in second place, was seven shots back. Of the 77 players that made the cut, 34 failed to finish the four rounds under the par of 288, and the average 72-hole score for those that played the weekend was 287.1. Admittedly, the weather for the second round was ghastly, but for the three others days the course was more or less there for the taking.

There are those that insist tees have to be pushed further and further back to accommodate the skills of today's elite golfers. But if there are 500 top-drawer golfers in the world (an over-estimation?) and 50 million golfers in total (underestimation?), that means courses are being changed, usually at great expense, to satisfy 0.001 percent of the golfing population. In the case of the Old Course, however, it seems the R&A is making changes to accommodate a single golfer - Oosthuizen-proofing the course if you will.

Dawson described the reaction of those voicing their disapproval to the flattening of the 11th green, as well as changes to the second, third, fourth, seventh, ninth, and 17th holes, as "knee-jerk." But surely the R&A's reaction to the potential for low-scoring is no less excessive. The changes to the ninth (fairway bunker 25 yards short and left of the green) and 17th (Road Hole Bunker being widened) might add half a stroke to a player's scoring average per round. But the other amendments will probably have negligible effect. The back of the 11th green is being flattened for the sole purpose of creating another pin position. Seriously? What percentage of golfers would choose to tamper with so revered a patch of ground for the sake of one more hole location?

The fact is, the Old Course with its legion nuances, endless variety, and the extra length that has been added in recent years, needs only a breath of wind every now and again to more than hold its own. And so what if one player does manage to distance himself from the field and shoot an extraordinarily low number? That only demonstrates the winner's enviable skills rather than any flaw the course might have.

The other, equally galling, aspect of the R&A's actions was the speed with which they were carried out. The club made known its intentions last Friday, just two days before consulting-architect Martin Hawtree and his crew began work. Had the R&A copied the process it adopted prior to making changes to the Jubilee Course (highlighted on geoffshackelford.com) in 2009, when head greenkeeper Gordon Moir met with interested parties four times and plans were displayed in the Links Clubhouse for two weeks, then the dissenters' knickers probably wouldn't have gotten quite so twisted.

The R&A hasn't yet given a sound explanation for its haste, but it has given plenty of ammunition to those that contend the changes would never have been sanctioned had people had the opportunity to discuss them.

The crux of the problem, as everyone well knows, is that those in charge of the game have been unable to keep a handle on the distance the golf ball now flies. Professionals capable of hitting par-5s with a driver and a mid-iron (short-iron in some cases) have forced tournament organizers to extend their courses well beyond where they were ever meant to go. The Old Course, for example, now spills over on to parts of the New, Jubilee, and Eden Courses. Augusta National is now 735 yards longer than it was in 1934 - the year the Masters was first played, and one wonders what Hugh Wilson would think if he were able to see what the USGA has done to his design at Merion in preparation for next year's U.S. Open. It's wonderful that the US Open is returning to Ardmore, Penn. for the first time in 32 years, but how different the course will look and play next June compared with 1981.

The decision to ban anchoring the putter wasn't made quite as quickly as the decision to rip up parts of the Old Course (the patent for the first belly putter was actually approved in 1965, and Phil Rodgers won twice on the PGA Tour in '66 with a 39.5-inch model). But, again, those that took issue with the R&A (and USGA) have plenty of legs to stand on.

Why, they ask, did it take the authorities so long to decide anchoring should be illegal? If Keegan Bradley, Webb Simpson, and everyone else that uses belly/chest/long putters today are pushing the envelope further, ultimately, than the blazers can stand, why weren't Rodgers, Orville Moody, Harold Henning, Sam Torrance etc. in the 1960s, '70s, '80s, and '90s? And if anchoring is banned because it 'doesn't look right', shouldn't Jim Furyk and Jeev Milkha Singh be stopped from ever swinging a golf club again?

As for giving those wielding long putters what many have deemed an unfair advantage, why doesn't everyone use them? If they really did give players a genuine advantage surely everyone who plays the game for a living, or cares about their score, would have switched by now. As the ruling bodies made more and more concessions to ball and driver manufacturers in the 1990s and early part of the 21st century, players updated their equipment almost monthly to keep pace with the competition. Yet 75 percent or more of PGA Tour players stick to conventional putters, and the most effective belly putter-user on the PGA Tour this year was Carl Pettersson who ranked 21st in the tour's Stroke Gained - Putting category. In fact, in the last five years, belly putter-users have finished in the top ten of Strokes Gained precisely twice - Pettersson in 2010 (second) and Scott McCarron in 2011 (ninth).

While those that have condemned these and other decisions made by golf's governors clearly have a very strong point, it would be unjust perhaps to suggest these resolutions were entirely indefensible. Even though the timing of the ban is extremely dubious, it's not difficult to see why belly putters weren't popular in the Halls of Power and why anchoring could be interpreted as a violation of Rule 14-1 which begins "The ball must be fairly struck at . . . " The addition of the proposed rule - 14-1b stating that "In making a stroke, the player must not anchor the club, either "directly" or by use of an 'anchor point' " is not unreasonable therefore. And, if you were threatened with a multi, multi, multi-million dollar lawsuit, as the R&A and USGA undoubtedly would be if they were to outlaw the use of certain drivers or rein in the ball in an effort to halt the need for more space in which to play the game, then you might think twice before proceeding too.

But then, it surely wouldn't hurt if golf's rulers could see the bigger picture occasionally (again, Olympic reinstatement notwithstanding). Why ban belly putters at a time when so many people are leaving the game, or choosing not to try it at all, because it's too difficult? Why make so many changes to the game's most revered course when those changes affect so few people? Why do they sit and watch the world's courses become longer and longer and more expensive to build, maintain, and play when a simple change to the equipment rules - i.e. making the ball lighter, slower, or less aerodynamically efficient - would balance the ship? And if they really are worried about losing their savings accounts to the manufacturers, why not ask the world's golfers to donate to a 'Putting Golf Right' Fund. If half the estimated 50million regular golfers in the world each gave five bucks, they would generate roughly $125 million - not enough to cover the R&A and USGA's legal costs were they to lose perhaps, but maybe enough for them to consider taking action.

And why not try bifurcating the Rules, allowing less able/more casual golfers the freedom to use whatever equipment they like, while professionals and top amateurs use clubs and balls that make courses under 7,000 yards long challenging once again?

If these miracles ever did happen, the game's ruling bodies would be in a position to right at least a few of their recent wrongs. They could start by restoring the 11th green on the Old Course.

Tony Dear is an Englishman living in Bellingham, Wash. In the early 1990s he was a member of the Liverpool University golf team which played its home matches at Royal Liverpool GC. Easy access to Hoylake made it extremely difficult for him to focus on Politics, his chosen major. After leaving Liverpool, he worked as a golf instructor at a club just south of London where he also made a futile attempt at becoming a 'player.' He moved into writing when it became abundantly clear he had no business playing the game for a living. A one-time golf correspondent of the New York Sun, Tony is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America, the Pacific Northwest Golf Media Association and the Golf Travel Writers Association. He is a multi-award winning journalist, and edits his own website at www.bellinghamgolfer.com.