When the USGA and the R&A jointly decided to outlaw the anchored putting stroke in May 2013, the governing bodies gave the players until January 2016 – when Rule 14-1b took effect – to find another way to putt.
It was thought that Bernhard Langer was playing in as many PGA Tour Champions events as he physically could in the interim in order to make as much money as he could because he just might retire when the ban took effect. Surely, he couldn’t putt with a conventional method after all this time.
The doubters couldn’t have been more wrong. But it hasn’t come without some controversy.
Langer turned up at the first event of 2016 with his long putter, but he wasn’t anchoring it to his body. So he said.
He dove headlong into 2016 and led the money list and won the yearlong Charles Schwab Cup for the third straight time. He also finished second in putts per green in regulation, at 1.715, converting birdies on those holes just over 34 percent of the time.
In 2017, he has putted even better. He leads the PGA Tour Champions with 1.684 putts per green in regulation and converts them into birdies just over 37 percent of the time, which has led to seven victories in 2017. He also is the favorite to win the points race for the fourth consecutive time at the season-ending Charles Schwab Cup Championship, which begins today in Phoenix (standings: http://bit.ly/2AwyKk1).
In the meantime, players started looking sideways at Langer – and Scott McCarron, who also uses a long putter and is second in the major putting statistic behind Langer. Not so coincidentally, McCarron is second on the money list, as well, with four wins this year. (Langer and McCarron are paired today in the final two-ball at Phoenix Country Club: http://bit.ly/2hoJgFy.)
The whispers turned into a loud voice in July at this year’s U.S. Senior Open, mostly from Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee, who joined the group that was looking suspiciously at Langer and McCarron. People wondered, some out loud, how Langer and McCarron could putt better with a sometimes-unwieldy long putter without anchoring. Video evidence also seemed to suggest that the two players had the putter dangerously close to their shirts and, by extension, to their bodies during competition.
"Anybody who sees what Langer and Scott McCarron and Ian Woosnam are doing knows it's questionable," Chamblee said at the time. "The whispers are out there. All of the players look askance, whether they say it openly or not. I've talked to enough of them to know – and many have contacted me – they all look askance at what's going on out there.
"And intent, I think there is apprehension on the governing body's part not to ruffle feathers further. When it's time to dig in, they're reluctant to do so. Their acquiescence is to pass this rule, but the only violation is the intent to break this rule."
What Chamblee is referring to is the concept of “intent.” The way the rule is written, the only way to break the rule is to intentionally anchor the putter against the body (a closer look at Rule 14-1b: http://bit.ly/2hZhvAd). Langer and McCarron insist that not only do they not intend to do it but they are not, in fact, anchoring.
As a result, rules officials Jeff Hall of the USGA and Brian Claar of the PGA Tour Champions approached Langer and McCarron at the U.S. Senior Open and asked the players to demonstrate how they putt.
The officials came away satisfied that the players were not breaking the rule, issuing a statement that the rule does not prohibit the hand or club from touching a player’s clothing. Langer and McCarron also issued statements, insisting they were not in violation. They have even offered to conduct clinics, showing people how to putt with a long putter without anchoring.
But some of the players and Chamblee were left shaking their heads.
"You have to come up with a more definitive way to enforce this rule," Chamblee said. "Basically, what the USGA is saying is, If you can live with cheating, then fine. If you can sleep with yourself, then fine."
It’s a strong statement, to be sure. The worst thing you can call someone in golf is a cheater. You’d better have clear and unmistakable proof before making such a claim. And as far as Langer and McCarron are concerned, there is no such incontrovertible evidence.
That being the case, you’d best tip your cap and congratulate them. Because holding on to that gnawing doubt will end up feeling like carrying an anchor.
Mike Purkey has written about golf for more than 30 years for a number of publications, including Golf Magazine and Global Golf Post. He lives in Charlotte, N.C. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @mikepurkeygolf