PGA Putter Ban Is Bad Business

It is often possible to ruin something in the effort to make it better. This seems to be a regular occurrence in technology where 2.0 is invariably worse than 1.0, and the intended improvements for the consumer do not appear until 2.2 arrives.

This is, in effect, what the PGA Tour has done in adopting the USGA’s and Royal & Ancient’s ban on anchored putters. The PGA has taken a position designed to set a standard for play on tour while making things worse for the majority of its customers.

The regulating bodies have every right to ban whatever equipment or change any rule they believe has a negative impact on the game. But, as mentioned above, shortsighted decisions can have adverse reactions.

Banning anchored putters for elite players is a wise decision. While no empirical evidence has shown using such devices constitutes a competitive advantage, introducing a set pivot point on the club does aid in keeping the putter face square through impact. For most tour players this isn’t a problem, but for the millions of amateurs who struggle to enjoy a difficult game, the ban is a major concern. It’s also not good for business.

According to a 2012 USA Today article citing National Golf Foundation statistics, the number of golfers in the U.S. has dropped 13 percent in the five years prior to the report.

Reasons for the drop have not surprised anyone. Golf is an expensive and time-consuming sport. Add the additional challenge of limited access to clubs that can make the game easier, and the numbers will plummet even further.

The ban, following the timeline set by the USGA and R&A, will begin in 2016 and will not spare amateurs and novices. Anyone using an illegal putter will not qualify for a USGA handicap, making entrance into any sanctioned event more difficult. The ban also will halt production of clubs that are especially popular with mature golfers – including those on the Champions Tour.

This is the same scenario that happened to the Callaway ERC II driver. Though legal everywhere but the United States, the club disappeared from U.S. retailers. Not even Arnold Palmer could save the club. The guy who had done more to popularize the game than anyone believed such clubs were important in making the game more enjoyable.

In this instance it wasn’t good to be The King. The 335CC driver that was a little too bouncy has gone the way of the mashie, replaced by legal bread loaf-sized drivers that make Eli Callaway’s creation look like a rescue club.

PGA commissioner Tim Finchem could have used his influence to help amateurs by pushing for a bifurcation of the rules. Instead, he has just added to the confusion.

“… a ban on anchored strokes would not fundamentally affect a strong presentation of our competitions or the overall success of the PGA Tour,” says Finchem in a statement. “The board also was of the opinion that having a single set of rules on acceptable strokes applicable to all professional competitions worldwide was desirable and would avoid confusion.”

Finchem is asking, however, that the USGA delay the ban on recreational players until 2024, much as it did with clubs that had nonconforming grooves.

For an industry losing market share to other sports, the ban is a big risk.