Let us, for a moment, discuss the intricacies of golf. Putting is perhaps the most difficult aspect of the game. One inch to the left, you win; one more to the right, you lose. Good putting requires an incredibly smooth stroke. In recent years, some players have started to use long putters—which they press to their stomach or chest—to provide a steadier stroke. But if golf's powers get their way, players won't be doing that for much longer.
The USGA and the R&A (Britain's governing body of golf) announced a proposed rule change today that would effectively ban the use of long putters. The proposed rule places no restrictions on the actual length of the putter; rather, it bans "anchoring" the club to the player's body during the stroke (a long putter's value comes exclusively from anchoring's added stability). This infographic from the USGA shows what would and would not be legal under the new rule.
The USGA and R&A will take comments on the issue before making a final decision sometime in early 2013. Then, after allowing for a transitional period, the new rule would go into effect on Jan. 1, 2016. At this point, the rule's adoption seems like a foregone conclusion, since the only people opposed to a ban on long putters are the players that use them.
The push to ban belly putters began in earnest after Keegan Bradley became the first player to win a major using one, when he won the 2011 PGA Championship. The following year, Ernie Els started using a belly putter and beat Adam Scott (who also uses a belly putter) in the British Open. "As long as it's legal I'll keep cheating like the rest of them," Els said when he made the switch. Webb Simpson won the 2012 U.S. Open with a belly putter. Three of the last five major winners have used belly putters.
Back in August, Simpson tried to downplay the advantage of using an anchored stroke:
"Last year, the strokes-gained putting (a statistical category), nobody in the top 20 used a belly putter or a long putter. If anybody says it's an advantage, I think you've got to look at the stats and the facts."
Graeme McDowell, who uses a conventional putter, disagrees. He thinks it can provide an advantage, though it won't automatically save a player strokes:
"When you can anchor the putter to a part of your body, that just takes one extraneous movement out of the putting stroke; that putting under pressure with that type of putter is easier. It's just kind of a physical fact that if you can just take one element of movement and motion out of the stroke that holing putts will become easier.
"But having said that, if it was so easy, everyone would be using one. They have their advantages and their disadvantages. It just so happens that a lot of very good players in the world now are using long putters and it's tough to ignore the timing of the decision, if one gets made, that the major champions in the last 12 to 18 months have wielded the long putter.
If successful, this rule change would be huge for the PGA (which uses USGA rules to govern all play). Until quite recently, belly putters were only used by old dudes looking to extend their careers. But now younger guys like Scott, Bradley and Simpson are starting to get in on the trend. Considering how the number of players using long putters has risen rapidly in just the past few years (and given how successful they've been), it's likely that, without a ban on anchored strokes, more and more players would turn to long putters to pick up strokes on the greens. It's unclear whether that's a good or a bad thing. The USGA said that its motivation for the rule change was "to ensure that the Rules of Golf continue to preserve the fundamental characteristics of the game" and "based on a strong desire to reverse this trend and to preserve the traditional golf stroke." Essentially, the USGA wants golf to be played the same way it was 100 years ago, even though lower scores could spark the interest in the game that it so desperately needs.