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?


RGJ

I think it would also be interesting if people used tee selection more to equalize handicapping rather then strokes. Like, if I am giving someone 7 strokes, maybe they play from the whites and I play from the blues? It seems it is a ego thing or maybe just the start and stop issue.

StanleyPiggins

RGJ, I'm keen to know your opinion on hitting a long drive.

I agree that if I play further forward than you, this will reduce your length advantage off the tee, but does this help me hit in to a green any better than you if I can't hit it as far anyway? I play further forward than you, we now land roughly the same spot on the fairway (with the very big assumption that as a lesser player I can hit it straight) or I even out drive you now. You reach for your 9iron to go for the flag, I reach for a longer iron as I need the extra distance. What do you think?

I'd also agree that playing a different tee alters how the hole plays which can be a big advantage.

RGJ

Well, as far as the author's knowledge of golf, missing the point that it is anchoring and not putters being banned was a little disconcerting. But the discussion is good!

Chris

Two sets of rules is the cleanest answer. All of the other sports have them. Football has rules on how many feet need to be in bounds for a catch to count. Basketball has a different three point line. Heck...cycling even has weight minimums. Baseball requires professionals to use WOODEN bats.

This is totally analogous to the baseball bat. To keep the baseball parks playable and to keep the traditions that come with them, they restrict the material used for the most important piece of equipment. Let the pros play with wooden woods (that sounds silly) and restrict the irons to forged steel. The "purity" and tradition of the game is even MORE pronounced than in the other sports. It's simple and works.

John Brennan

If you play in any golf league, you will be assessed the two-stroke penalty if you continue to use any of the anchoring techniques. The club is not banned, the technique is and it will be recognized as illegal by most playing the game. It is similar to grounding your club in the sand trap. The formal rule leads to peer pressure against its use. I think it sucks because my father has Parkinson's disease and because he respects the game he will do away with his belly putter. I use a belly putter with a non-anchored broom stick stroke--and it works for me and it is legal.

Nicholas Merriam

When you take part in a mass-participation, distance run, you are at least asked for evidence that you can run under a threshold time before you get to start near the front. Maybe golfers should prove they can drive the ball 300 yards to get access to the back tees?

Allan

I think you're underestimating how much spin plays a part in the distance the ball travels. I believe that the pros do not hit further because they deploy *massively* greater club-head spead, it's because they impart greater spin. This is why their iron shots zip backwards on the green and yours do not. The current limitations as to how far someone may hit the ball are indeed not technological but regulatory, but it is far more to do with the ball than the club. The regulations are essentially "the ball must not travel farther than X when hit with robotic arm Y for Z amount of times". Hence the regulations would be pretty easy to firm up for the pros without hitting the amateurs (at least not the ones that hit 220 yards from the tea).
But of course, part of the attraction of (and hence the money that comes from) watching the pros is to see them do things which are simply beyond the scope of the average golfer. I think it would be watched much less if the pros scored better simply because they were more consistent.

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beuler

This is very simple:
1 - Ban balls with dimples.
2 - Ban any club longer than 42".

Done.

Fun fact: Jack Nicklaus' driver was 43" long.

So what can we accomplish with removing the dimples? The air resistance on the ball will increase. The increase will be geometrically proportional to ball speed, and so longer hitters will be more penalized than shorter hitters with this change.

And what can be achieved with shorter drivers? Obviously the more consistent long hitters won´t be able to hit as far. But there is another benefit. Players who keep hitting their 45" Driver into the woods will start hitting the fairway a lot more often with shorter drivers.

Alan H.

Adding length to older, shorter courses is not required to adjust for length. Course setup can simply be adjusted to penalize any longer hitter that is off-line from the tee. Fairways can be pinched in significantly at around 275 yards from the tee, and the rough grown longer at around that length. You should not penalize a long hitter that is also straight (he is simply superior), but you can very easily penalize a long hitter that is not.

Current setup of courses, including those on tour, does not penalize the long hitter that is not straight. There are only a couple of exceptions, such as the U.S. Open. Only one player in the top 50 longest hitters on tour in 2012 did not keep his card. Most of these long hitters are far from straight. Most are nowhere near average in terms of accuracy. However there is currently no significant penalty for missing the fairway at 300+ yards. The fairway is not narrower, there are no additional hazards, and the rough is not longer. Therefore length without accuracy is not penalized!

Golfers are smart. If there is a significant penalty when you are long and crooked, they will tee off with a shorter club. The rules and course setup should not penalize length, but should penalize length without accuracy.

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Mark

I have long been of the opinion that there should be different balls developed for each course that pro's are required to play with during a tournament. There would be a ball specific to the Masters, a ball specific to St. Andrews, a ball for regular tour stops, etc. This would allow the pro's to play from their regular tee's. It would also allow golf companies to still market the newest and better drivers, irons, etc. to the masses. The idea for this came from NASCAR. Generally speaking, each driver/team sets up their car specific to each track. However, certain tracks require regulators so the cars cannot go too fast. I allows some of the older tracks to still be relevant in spite of increases in technology.

Sinnary Sam

I watched the pros play this past weekend at the World Challenge. We noticed how Tiger struggled with the very narrow, dogleg fairways in a course that didn't look very long. I was lucky enough to be walking half way down the fairway when he shot an errant drive into the trees. We ran to the ball and heard someone run up to ask if we saw Tiger's ball. Score! He pulled his driver out, sliced the ball under the trees where it made a sharp turn right turning along the dog leg landing in the rough not far from the green. WOW. He shot a 71 on that last day. Not what you'd expect from a long hitting pro on a rather short course.

As a non-pro golfer concerned about enjoying the game of golf, you may want to consider getting fitted for your clubs and ball by a neutral fitter such as Cool Clubs. You'll be surprised at what they can do. But as far as courses becoming longer to adjust to pro golfers, I don't know. My children play golf competitively and it's not the long courses that are difficult, it's the difficult courses with the narrow fairways and doglegs that make the game challenging for them.

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Abe Froeman

I'm curious to the Stevens' take on the impact all of these proposed changes to manufacturing rules would have on the industry itself. Golf, like all sports, is aspirational. But golf is something that anyone can pick up at some level. You can't play one-on-one with Kobe Bryant, but you can go play in a pro-am with Rory McIlroy. And everyone who hits that one good shot per round thinks that they can make it on tour.

The equipment manufacturers use this to sell golf clubs and balls, with the understanding that if it's good enough for Really Cool Pro Golfer Du Jour, then you can be that good too if you just play the same ball. Reducing the equipment companies' degrees of freedom to innovate would likely have a detrimental impact on sales, as well as a detrimental impact on the income of the professionals paid by them. Beyond the idealistic "it is good for the game" argument (which is a good one), what about the economic impact of creating rules like these?

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Jim C

I believe the USGA and R&A have already been testing golf balls like this...while not exactly the same distance for hacks and less distance for the pros, it's more like 10% less distance for the pros and 5% less for the average golfer. I could live with this solution. I wouldn't mind hitting the ball 275 yards instead of 300, just as long as I'm still outdriving my buddies.

You bring up a good point about these classic courses becoming obsolete. It's silly what these clubs have to do in order to stay revelant. Part of what makes these classic courses great is the seamless 'walk-in-the-park' where the next tee is very close to the green you just finished. With the lengthening of these courses, the flow isn't quite as good as many times you have to walk back to some previously unused corner of the course.

StanleyPiggins

As well as golf technology being innovative, so should golf courses.

You don't need to extend a course to make it a tough test for a big hitter or any other golfer. Invest in the course - narrower fairways between 280-310 yards, more hazards, quicker greens etc.

Classic courses are not becoming obsolete. Only a handful of the world golf courses are used in tournaments where every pro playing will hit a 280+ yard drive. The amount of money this generates for the course clearly out weights the cost of investing in the course. Furthermore, the opportunity cost of not being considered to host a tournament in the future drives course investment.

The remaining courses are for amateur players who are hitting an average drive of 220-260 yards. Thus these courses are not being impacted by long drives.

David

First, you are spot on that golf's main problem is the ball, specifically those produced after about 2000.

The Ohio Golf Association asked several manufacturers to produce balls to similar specifications as older models in an attempt to limit the distances produced by "scratch handicap" golfers and professionals. These "tournament balls" did not fly as far as current models. Whether any such ball will be required as a condition of play in any noteworthy tournament remains to be seen. One big obstacle would be the reluctance of any state or regional golf association to introduce (on its own) one ball for tournament-caliber players and another for the masses. That would mean a bifurcation of the venerable rules of golf. A roll-back of distances that (legal) golf balls travel would be a bit like putting spilled toothpaste back in its tube but with the possibility of expensive litigation.

The distance the modern ball flies is not without precedent in golf's long history. Each generation of ball flew farther. Still, many golfers wish it wouldn't go quite so far as it does these days. I have been a single-digit handicap all of my adult life. I hit the ball farther today--at age 54 and afflicted with atrial fibrillation and a dodgy knee--than I ever did in my youth. I still remember when the first batch of Titleist Pro V1s arrived and how I had to play my home course differently by allowing for longer distances through my bag.

Secondly, for the past few years, the United States Golf Association has championed a campaign of "play it forward" to encourage average golfers to choose tees appropriate to their skill level and average driving length. Many in the game attribute slow play longer courses, as well as faster green speeds and slavish attempts to imitate tour professional's lengthy "pre-shot routines".

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MK

Forget the equipment. It's all about the course. I'm discouraged that the laziest solution to the distance problem - lengthen every course - is the industry standard. Golf should not be about distance, but accuracy. So you place a hazard on nearly every hole, 300-350 yards out. Problem solved. No more advantage to long hitters. Pros should not be playing on 7500+ yard courses. They should be playing on skinny, punishing holes that reward exact placement (in 3 dimensions, not the 2 dimensions required of a long drive down a straight fairway), with slick, rolling greens.

Instead of driver > wedge > putter, it should be 4 iron > 3 wood > recover > putter.

I don't know why people claim they wanna see pros shoot low. I wanna see them struggle like I do, and make hard decisions like I do.