AP FILE Photo
In this Sept. 22, 2011 photo, Keegan Bradley putts on the third green during the first round of the Tour Championship golf tournament at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta. Webb Simpson and Keegan Bradley, two of the major faces in the debate over belly putters, said they would not fight a change in the rules if golf’s governing bodies decide to outlaw putters anchored to the body.
THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — Mark Cokewell’s long putters were leaned against a golf bag on the practice green at Sherwood Country Club here like Douglas firs stacked against the fence of a Christmas tree lot on Dec. 26.
At this time last year the Krutch II putters from Rosemark Golf, the company Cokewell founded, were selling briskly. But a ruling Wednesday by golf’s governing bodies has turned the clubs into fool’s gold.
The U.S. Golf Association, acting in concert with the Royal & Ancient, proposed a new rule, Rule 14-1b, which states that in making a stroke, players cannot intentionally anchor a club on any part of their bodies or use their gripping hands to rest against their bodies as an anchor point.
In a Wednesday conference call with reporters, Mike Davis, the executive director of the association, said that this was not an equipment ban but a clarification of what constitutes a stroke.
“This is a playing rule,” he said, “not an equipment rule.”
The proposed rule would allow the continued use of all conforming golf clubs, including belly-length and long putters, as long as they are not anchored during a stroke. The intent, Davis said, is to preserve golfers’ abilities to play a wide variety of strokes in their individual style and the integrity of the game.
“One of the most fundamental things about the game of golf is we believe the player should hold the club away from his body and swing it freely,” Davis said. ‘We think this is integral to the traditions of the game.”
Before making a final decision on the proposed rule, the USGA and the R&A will entertain feedback from those in the golf community.
“We believe we have considered this issue from every angle,” Peter Dawson, chief executive of the R&A, said, “but given the wide-ranging interest in this subject, we would like to give stakeholders in the game the opportunity to put forward any new matters for consideration.”
The rule would take effect in 2016 and comes after three of the past five men’s majors were won with players using long putters, a generic description that covers belly putters and the longer broomstick models.
The sport’s governing bodies were moved to act as the evidence mounted that the club was popular not only with players on the Champions Tour who were struggling with short putts but also with emerging stars on the PGA Tour and rising juniors in emerging golf countries like China.
As an example, Davis cited that 15 percent of the players on the PGA Tour used an anchored putter in 2012, up from 11 percent last year and 6 percent from 2006 to 2010. He also noted that instructors had been increasingly advocating anchored putting as a preferred stroke.
The ban of anchored putting, he said, “is not performance-related,” Davis said. “It’s about defining what is a stroke.”
Steve Stricker, who is considered one of the better putters on tour, said he was for the ban. He said he considered it “a huge advantage” to anchor the putter against one’s body, but he realizes not everybody feels that way.
“There’s going to be a lot of upset people, a lot of guys that have putted with a long putter for a long time, and I have a feeling they’re going to have something to say about that rule.”
Asked about possible litigation, Dawson said: “We believe very strongly that the governing bodies have the authority to make these changes. Once we’ve decided we’ve done the right thing, we’re ready to defend it all the way.”
Keegan Bradley and Webb Simpson, two players who have won majors using an anchored putter, on Tuesday said that they respected any decision made by the game’s governing bodies and were committed to adapting their strokes to follow the proposed rule. Tim Clark, another golfer who uses the long putter, has suggested that he will consider litigation if anchored putting is banned. Clark has a medical condition that does not allow him to rotate his hands, making it a physical struggle to use a conventional putter.
Cokewell, a pilot for Delta Air Lines and an avid golfer, tapped into his engineering background to solve his putting woes. He was shooting regularly in the low 80s while taking 39 to 40 putts, he said. After two years of tinkering and 13 submissions of blueprints to USGA officials for approval, a result was a club that measured 52 inches — 20 inches longer than the longest conventional putter. It had a longer and thicker grip and a mallet style head, and it was designed to be anchored in the armpit and swung like a pendulum.
With his putter finally ready to launch, Cokewell said he went to a rules conference in Vancouver, British Columbia, in November 2010 attended by officials from the USGA, the R&A and clubmakers.
“The issue of the long putters came up,” Cokewell said, “and the USGA and R&A said they didn’t have any plan in the near future to make a rule change.”
He added, “If they had said they were seriously reviewing it, I obviously would have held off on going forward with my putters.”
In 2011, Cokewell introduced his line of long putters. Sales were good, he said, and they picked up after Adam Scott, Bradley and Simpson won PGA Tour events in consecutive weeks in August.
Bradley’s victory came at the PGA Championship, making him the first men’s player to win a major using an anchored putter.
“I thought my timing was perfect,” Cokewell said, adding, “It’s been a tough market even at that with the way the economy’s been.”
In February, two days before making his 2012 PGA Tour debut, Tiger Woods, the former world No. 1 and a 14-time major champion, expressed his disapproval of long putters. Describing himself as a traditionalist, Woods asserted that the putter should be no longer than the shortest club in a player’s bag.
Woods’s declaration was the beginning of the end for his putters, Cokewell believes.
“When Tiger talks, people listen,” he said. “It starts the conversation and picks up steam.”
Dawson described Woods’ opinion as “one factor,” but not the overriding one, in the discussions that led to the proposed anchoring ban.
All Cokewell knows is that from that point forward sales of his putters at golf retail stores like Edwin Watts and Golfsmith began to drop off precipitously.
“I’d say there’s been a 30 to 40 percent decline this year,” he said.
In recent weeks, Cokewell said, he had found two potential investors for his company. They set up a meeting for Wednesday at Sherwood Country Club, site of this week’s World Challenge, hosted by Woods. On Tuesday he said that he was bracing for the worst.
“I’ve got my obsolete clubs,” he said as he stood forlornly on the practice green, “and nobody wants to talk to me except to give me a hard time about why I’m selling these white elephants.”
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