You might say that golf’s governing bodies have entered the belly of the beast.
The U.S. Golf Association and the Royal & Ancient Golf Club set off a worldwide debate this week by proposing to ban golfers from anchoring a putter against their stomachs, chests or chins during a stroke.
Even in Western New York – not exactly a golfing mecca in late November – golfers were taking aim at whether the new restrictions on so-called belly putters and long putters are warranted or not.
“Everyone’s got their opinion. This is going to be a can of worms,” said Bobby Hogan, a teaching professional at the Paddock Golf Dome in the Town of Tonawanda. “There’s not going to be an easy finish with this.”
The lengthier putters have been around for many years, largely as a curiosity. But their use has grown more recently, and they became especially noticeable after professional golfers used them in winning three of the past five major championships.
The proposed ban is scheduled to take effect in 2016. It doesn’t limit the length of putters, so golfers would not necessarily have to stop using a putter for which they shelled out hundreds of dollars.
But golfers at all levels would be prohibited from bracing the club against their bodies while putting – a technique that the governing bodies said was not within the “traditional character of the golf swing.”
The world’s most recognizable golfer, Tiger Woods, already has expressed support for the ban against anchoring, while another major championship winner, Bernhard Langer, suggested Thursday that users of long putters would mount a legal challenge to the new restriction, according to a report on PGA.com
Hogan, the local teaching pro, agrees with the anchoring ban – to a point.
At the PGA Tour level, players should face the same conditions as everyone else, said Hogan, who believes that anchoring largely takes out of play any twitching in the hands associated with nerves.
Steadying oneself under pressure during a swing or stroke always has been a key element to golf success at the highest level, he said.
“The whole talent of the game is to overcome that [nervousness]. That’s why the great ones become great,” said Hogan. “This is an athletic sport. This is a hard sport. These guys are the best in the world. You’ve got to be able to adapt.”
But Hogan is somewhat conflicted about the restrictions when it comes to amateur and recreational golfers – and even senior professionals who rely on longer putters due to balky backs.
“We’re playing a different game than they do,” said Hogan, who has competed in senior tour qualifying events. “I guess that’s OK for the older guys.”
Ted Bishop, president of PGA of America, issued a statement urging the USGA and R&A Golf Club to consider the impact of the proposed rule on the enjoyment of the game.
“There is a lot of concern about the rule,” said Jeff Meitus, director of player development at Transit Valley Country Club in East Amherst and vice president of the Western New York PGA. “We want people to have fun playing golf. With the long putter, people have extended their golf careers. If they now feel like they’re cheating, they may just quit. We’re not gaining any new players by creating this rule. We will lose players.”
The putter dust-up is just the latest in a string of flaps involving golf equipment, which has been evolving so rapidly that golf’s governing bodies have struggled to keep pace.
Tom Sprague, executive director of the Buffalo District Golf Association, said there is a larger debate looming in the golf world – whether different rules and standards should apply for professionals and amateurs.
“There are obviously quite a few people who would be for bifurcation. That is an enormous argument yet to come. Now that gets hot," said Sprague.
The long putters don’t seem to have caught on much in Western New York. Sprague noticed maybe five golfers using them at 49 BDGA events this year.
Local broadcaster Kevin Sylvester, author of “The Married Man’s Guide to Golf” and a frequent participant in charitable golf outings, said he rarely sees the longer putters on area courses.
“I tried using it a few times,” said Sylvester, who also hosts the television show “Tee2Green” on WGRZ-TV, Channel 2. “I can see what the advantages are for players that use it, particularly on shorter putts.”
But Sylvester couldn’t bring himself to stick with the longer putter. “I never had complete comfort with it,” he said.
At Golf Headquarters of Western New York in Lancaster, belly and long putters account for about 20 percent of all putter sales, said Kevin Hoffstetter, a club fitter at the store.
“Some people have switched and have been really happy with it and others have tried it and gone back [to a regular putter],” he said.
One customer who had been using a belly putter already came to the store to purchase a new standard putter because of the proposed rule change, Hoffstetter said.
“It may slow down sales [of belly putters] because people will think twice about it,” said Rick Zurak, who owns Rick Zurak’s Golf Warehouse in Lancaster.
Ultimately, though, it will become a non-issue by the time the new rule is scheduled to take effect, Zurak predicted.
“There will be some other issue in golf that will come up,” he said.
The average recreational golfer will continue to use the long putter after the restrictions are in place, he added. “He’s not going to be bothered by [the rule],” said Zurak. “Very few recreational golfers are going to call another recreational golfer out on that.”