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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?