Forget About Anchored Putters…This Is What the USGA Should Really Be Doing

(Photo: Petr & Bara Ruzicka)

Last week, the governing bodies of golf announced a ban on anchored putters.  Historically, when golfers putt (i.e. roll the ball along the green to try to get it into the hole), they swing the putter back and forth freely.  In recent years, a growing number of golfers have used a different technique, wedging the butt end of the putter into their stomach, or resting it against their chin.  For a variety of reasons, the head honchos of golf are against anchoring the putter.  I don’t have a strong opinion pro or con on this decision.  My hunch is that a careful data analysis would show that anchoring the putter doesn’t do much to help or hurt most golfers.  (For instance, I am about equally bad either way.)  Golfers who don’t play in tournaments can continue to use anchored putters if they like.  Tournament golfers will adjust.

In my view, the attention given to anchored putting is a distraction from the real issue that bedevils golf: pros hit the ball too far and everyday golfers hit the ball too short.  Pros hitting the ball too far is a problem because there is a huge stock of old golf courses, the value of which are greatly depreciated by the increases in distance.  Classic old courses aren’t hard enough to challenge the pros.  In response, large investments are made to stretch the distance of these courses to keep up.  And changes in the tournament courses alter the perceptions of golfers.  The course I grew up playing was hard enough when I was a kid, but now is perceived as too easy because it doesn’t compare to the championship courses. 

But regular golfers just don’t hit the ball very far.  Whereas the pros hit their drives around 300 yards, the typical golfer hits his drives much less far – maybe 220 yards on average.  A 7,000 yard course is considered short for the pros, but is impossibly long for a player who hits 220 yards.  The result is that it takes forever to play a round, and it can be extremely frustrating.

The obvious solution to this disparity in distance is to have multiple sets of tees, with the pros playing from the back tees, and the hackers hitting from the front tees.  This happens, to a certain extent, but it is difficult to enforce the bad golfers playing short tees.  At my home course, I regularly play from the “old man” tees because I like to make birdies, but almost no one else does.  It took weeks of argument before I could even convince my 73-year-old playing partner Gene Fama to play the short tees!  When I go to famous courses, however, I usually try to play the back tees to “get my money’s worth.”  Sure, I shoot astronomically high scores, but I want to see what it feels like for the pros.

I wonder, however, whether technology might help prevent existing courses from becoming antiquated, while also helping out the mediocre golfer.  Right now, the limits to how far people hit the ball are not technological, they are regulatory.  There are limits on what clubs are allowed to do and standards to which golf balls must conform.  One approach would be to simply tighten those standards on clubs and balls so that the ball doesn’t travel so far.  This would help with the pros hitting it too far, but would exacerbate the problem faced by amateurs.  A second approach would be to have a different set of standards for pros and amateurs, but the governing bodies of golf have made it clear they are totally against that.

So, I’m wondering (without knowing the answer) if there might be a third approach.  Basically, what we need is a ball that goes about as far as the current ball when a golfer with a slow swing speed hits it, but goes less far than the current ball when a guy like Bubba Watson hits it.  With current technology, every extra mile per hour of clubhead speed translates into an extra three yards of distance. What I’m looking for is an alteration to balls or clubs such that someone who swings the club 100 mph still hits the ball the same distance as now, but someone who swings 130 mph hits it, say, 60 yards farther than the guy who hits it 100 mph, instead of 90 yards farther.

Are there any physicists/engineers among the blog readers who can suggest how to make this happen?

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  1. Seminymous Coward says:

    That sounds like more air resistance (i.e. a higher drag coefficient) and less weight for the golf ball. Drag is proportional to the square of velocity, so that would impede higher speeds disproportionately. The lower weight would scale the power needed for a certain distance back down into the reach of the amateurs.

    You could more simply mandate heavier clubs, though. (Measuring drag coefficients is possible but inconvenient.) They would be harder to accelerate by muscle power but get the same acceleration from gravity; therefore, they would cause the distribution of swing energies to tighten up.

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  2. RGJ says:

    Actually, the ban isn’t on anchored “putters”, it is on the act of “anchoring” under the chin or your pot belly. You can still use extra long putters and use a pendulum stroke. Kinda a judgement call. So, let’s watch the amateur course arguments now that it is a two stroke penalty.

    In terms of your other question, one way I have always thought would be interesting would be to have equipment or at least balls weighted to the handicap system. That way everyone could play straight up without strokes, at least as an alternative.

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    • StanleyPiggins says:

      Have equipment weighted to the handicap system? So replace handicaps by ball weight? Why?
      You have a handicap system already in place so that golf is one of the most competitive sports. A 10 year old can fairly play a 70 year old.

      Not many sports can claim that. But you replace a stroke handicap system with an equipment weighted system – Crazy!

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    • RGJ says:

      He asked for a third approach. I think it would be interesting. I hate it when I birdie and lose a match to my hacker friend who bogied.

      Personally, I think it is nuts that pros get to use different balls than each other in a tournament, and then the makers get to brag about their success in ads like it was equipment that won. The balls should be supplied by the organization, like every other sport. Football, baseball, softball, tennis…they all have different types of balls available based on age groups and safety. No reason it couldn’t be played around with in golf.

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      • StanleyPiggins says:

        RGJ – agree about the birdie/bogie scenario. However, as a better golfer I find you’ll be more consistent than a hacker and that will show over 18 holes.

        I really like the idea of one standard ball as an alternative, what I disagree with in this article is it suggests changing equipment to punish the better player.

        Standardisation affects all those who play equally and I like that approach. However, I’d also argue that there isn’t really a requirement for a third approach. I think if you’re a single figure handicapper and hit 300 yard drives all day off the tee you are either:
        1) Playing a poorly designed course, or
        2) not that far off joining the PGA and good luck to you (although slightly jealous)

        The course should punish big hitters by causing the golfer to think about course strategy.

        Don’t forget there is a real reason why these guys hit it so far – hours of dedicated practice with a correct swing. Are Lee Westwood and Justin Rose better golfers than me? Undoubtedly. Are they much bigger or stronger? No? Have they practised the correct technique hours on end? Yes. That’s why they hit it further.

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      • Cory says:

        The problem is that certain players do better with certain types of clubs/balls. Some players prefer balls that will land softer on the green or spin faster in flight. (Keep in mind tournament players must use the same type of ball throughout the tournament.) Changing balls, clubs, and putters is the equivalent to changing the type of stick in hockey, bat and glove in baseball, or gear in football.

        You’re also a little off about standardized balls — at least in football. The teams supply the footballs. I was once at the laundromat and saw a guy thrown about a dozen balls into a big dryer. When I asked him why, he said he played for the local indoor football league and was getting ready for an upcoming game. Sure, you can’t do this in the NFL, but it’s incorrect to say that all balls are standardized.

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  3. Dave says:

    The beauty of golf, and pros, and pro courses, is that everything is apples to apples. Most courses worth the greens fees enforce many of the same gear rules as tournaments do (x # of clubs in your bag, no fewer than x, etc).

    To me, this apples to apples comparison is refreshing, challenging, and compelling. If I use the same club as Phil M, but only hit it 1/3 as far, “wow is he good! how can I approach his distance?” comes to my mind.

    The other thing to remember is that the TOP tier of PGA hit ridiculous scores. Next time you look however, check out the middle of the pack. And for a really refreshing feeling, check out the guys at the bottom. Your scratch scores on a great round (regardless the course, mind you) may not be too far off.

    To me, the apples to apples comparisons as it relates to me using the same or similar gear to the pros is a positive. However I would not complain if my playing partner were to use “modified” gear to get more distance, accuracy, etc. The romance in that is lost to me though.

    I do like to think about games I love, like golf, in terms of inflation. Great write-up.

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  4. StanleyPiggins says:

    You don’t need a 300 yard drive to be good at golf . There are so many factors that impact the difficulty of a golf course – weather conditions, speed of greens, undulations of the greens, not just length off the tee. Equally if you hit a 300 yard drive and don’t hit the fairway you will be in the sh!t and your score can suffer.

    The answer to all the above is to keep all golf equipment the same and for you to go away and learn how to hit a golf club properly and accurately. I can hit a 300 yard drive and I tell you even playing championship courses I’ll take a 3 wood off the tee as 300 yards is too long for most courses because:
    1) You’re usually hitting into one of the most narrow parts of the fairway so a slight deviation from straight is costly.
    2) You’re leaving a really short shot to go for a pin – again a 1/4 wedge shot from 60 yards is difficult to hit consistently.

    Distance has nothing to do with the equipment(given that you and I can buy the same driver as a pro in the shops right now). Nor is it to do with any special physical characteristics. Look at Rory McIlroy – 5’9″ weighs 160lbs – smashes his drive 310 yards on average. Taller and heavier golfers will get more power behind the ball, so in theory if you’re 6’2″ and weigh 200lbs you can get more power behind the ball and should hit it further. The problem? Too many amateurs can’t be bothered to put the time in to lean how to hit a golf ball properly (i.e being on swing plane increases swing speed, proper angle of impact of club head to the ball as well as smash factor). I agree hitting a wedge in to a green is easier, but the answer is simple – spend time learning to hit all the clubs in the bag.

    410 yard par 4 – easy 220yard drive and 190 yard 3 wood will get you to the green in regulation. If you miss, you need to chip on and one putt for par. This has nothing to do with the equipment and comes down to the skill of the player. Alternatively you could take any lesser club and leave a wedge shot at the flag. Save par with a one putt. Simple.

    Most serious amateurs like the fact they can play the same courses, with exactly the same equipment as the pros and compare their score on a level playing field.

    Why should a player who is able to swing at 130mph be punishe/regulated by the ball they use? Surely this is against a greater economic principle of free market competition? I.e. those that have something desirable will be in demand – ergo becoming a professional golfer.

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    • RGJ says:

      Ya kinda iced over that “190 yard 3 wood to the gree” :-)

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      • StanleyPiggins says:

        My point is that you don’t need length from the tee to score well and it can in fact be a hindrance – drive for show, putt for dough.

        I assume by “iced over” is that you’re not happy with my answer. Feel free to correct if I’ve misunderstood. I think if you can drive 220 yards you can hit a 3 Wood 190+yards. If you can’t it doesn’t matter. You can always get near the pin in GIR + 1. You should be able to hit a hybrid or a 6 iron lay-up leaving you with a simple wedge shot to the pin. This will leave a chance at par. If you can’t then that leads to questions of accuracy with the clubs, nothing to do with how far you can hit it.

        Short courses are not becoming obsolete as they will be narrow and hard to hit a 300 yard drive accurately to land on the fairway. Any advantage you have in length is suddenly taken away. Look at the 15th Hole at Celtic Manor 2010 course; it’s a 377 yard par 4 from the back tees to tempt the big hitters to go for it. Can any amateur par or birdie that hole with a 220 yard drive? Of course – you just don’t tee for the green. Golf is risk and reward.

        The issue I have with the article is that you’re punishing golfers for being “better” which is anti-competitive. Golf is one of the fairest sports due to the handicap system. If you’re not very good you’ll have a higher handicap. Even the pros have a handicap +4 + 6 etc so there is already a system to maintain fairness.

        I see golf being three games in one – Driving, Iron Play and Short game (wedge shots and putting). You have 14 clubs in the bag which you hit different distances. So you can’t just play Driver, Wedge, putter. Limiting drives with a ball just makes it a game to see who can hit an iron closest to the pin. Again, I feel this is anti-competitive.

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    • Seminymous Coward says:

      That’s the longest “learn to play” answer I’ve ever seen. The standard is actually “l2p,” which just show how common this answer is to any suggestion of changing a game, physical or not.

      He proposes that it would be neat if the distribution of drive lengths were tightened up. It has little to do with the reasons for the existing variance. Maybe it would be nice for still-learning players to be able to play the same courses in more reasonable numbers of strokes.

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      • StanleyPiggins says:

        Why would it be neat if the distribution of drive lengths were tightened up? You do know a golf ball doesn’t always go straight?

        Are you seriously suggesting that it is nice for new learners to get a better score? One of the great things about golf is that you play against the course – no one else. Golfers want to see new players do well. The fact is, we’ve all been there and one of the joys of golf is shooting lower scores, seeing your handicap come down and breaking 90, breaking 80 and even for a lucky few breaking 70. Why would you take away that sense of achievement?

        Still-learning players are able to play the same courses as better players and the handicap system means that you can play against a better golfer and still have a competitive game regardless of ability.

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      • Seminymous Coward says:

        He explained his reasons in the article; I won’t presume to offer more on that topic. Personally, I don’t have a strong opinion.

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  5. Seattle Slew says:

    I’m no engineer, but have you ever hit a tennis ball with a golf club? There is a certain club head speed that gets you max distance, where more speed results in a reduction in ball speed and distance. This relates to the “compression” of the tennis ball, so a possible answer to your question could be to limit the compression capability of the golf ball.

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  6. Chad D says:

    I believe you are looking for The Cayman Ball.

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  7. Mike D says:

    The best suggestion I’ve heard for tournament golf was to eliminate the tee.

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  8. Austin says:

    I believe golf has had this issue before. There used to be two types of balls, a “small” ball and a large “ball”. Tournaments banned small balls because of them going so far. Non pros eventually followed suit for the same reason they still hit off back tees.

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