The Dumbest Rule in the History of Golf: You Can’t Putt Between Your Legs

The stadium scene.
June 13 2013 6:49 PM

Golf’s Unconscionable Ban on Croquet Putting

Think the new prohibition against anchoring your putter is dumb? In 1968, it was deemed illegal to putt between your legs.

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(Not every golfing powerbroker agreed with Dey. Prescott Bush, the father of George H.W. Bush and the head of the USGA in the 1930s, publicly disavowed his ruling. "It simply makes golf enjoyable and takes away the suffering," Bush told SI. "I mean the real suffering that comes from that lack of confidence, that panic on the backstroke, that thrust called the yip. I believe it is good for the game of golf to have more people enjoy it. We should encourage any grip or stance that will add to the pleasure of the play.")

K.J. Choi of South Korea hits a putt during the first round of the 139th Open Championship on the Old Course.
K.J. Choi of South Korea at St. Andrews, Scotland in 2010

Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images

Refusing to be cowed completely, Snead switched to a side-saddle approach, using the same croquet swing without straddling the line of the putt. But without the added benefit of standing directly behind the ball, the allure of croquet quickly dissipated. In 2010, K.J. Choi (seen to the left) briefly experimented with Snead-esque, side-saddle putting, but abandoned it after a few tournaments. Now it’s promoted by a few lonely converts on the Web who sell specialized equipment and extol the virtues of “face-on putting.”

This is the fate of innovation in golf: Anything interesting is a crime against the game. These affronts to the sport are most often perpetrated on the green, the most frustrating realm in sports. Long before the birth of the croquet putter and the anchored stroke, a player “putted” using a billiard cue at the 1895 U.S. Amateur; the pool hall gambit was quickly deemed illegal. Putting with a cue or a croquet mallet is the equivalent of tossing up a granny-style free throw—an embarrassing surrender to the impossibility of what appears to be a simple task. But while every basketball player this side of Rick Barry is too embarrassed to shoot underhanded, golfers have no shame—they’ll do anything to get the damned ball in the hole.

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That includes anchoring a long putter against the torso, or any other body part that does the trick. Anchored putting isn’t new—as this photo shows, duffers have done it since at least the early 20th century. So why was tradition suddenly invoked in 2013? Because, just as in the case of the croquet stroke, anchored putting was threatening to get too popular. Four of the last six major winners have used anchored strokes, and a bunch of PGA Tour stars, including Webb Simpson and Keegan Bradley, have adopted the approach as youngsters rather than as a yips-defeating concession to old age. This was no longer a novelty—it was a threat.

In most every sport, techniques change as athletes experiment with novel ways to achieve the game’s goals. In basketball, the set shot gradually gave way to the jump shot. After Dick Fosbury leaped to the 1968 gold medal, his fellow high jumpers abandoned the straddle style for the Fosbury flop.

In golf, however, the players don’t control how the game is played. Golf has changed a bit over the last 500 years or so—as Tim Clark, who uses an anchored putter, says to those who believe tradition is important, "Well, why aren't we playing hickory shafts and a feathery golf ball and having a goat carry our golf bag." The goats notwithstanding, the game is still more suspicious of modernity than any other. Casey Martin, who can barely walk on account of a birth defect, had to go to the Supreme Court to get the right to use a cart during PGA Tour events. Now, Clark and others are saying that they, too, see a lawsuit as a potential remedy. (In his Sam Snead biography, Al Barkow argues that the croquet ban “might well have been actionable if a professional had wanted to take it to court.” That was never tested, though, as nobody chose to sue. And sports lawyer Michael McCann counters that anchored putter litigation wouldn’t be likely to succeed, as “courts give pro sports leagues a great deal of autonomy in their rules of competition.”)

I’m sympathetic to Tim Clark and his anchoring compatriots. A small group of men at the USGA and R&A ensure that most anything new and different that happens on a golf course gets stifled and shut down, lest the game ever change. I believe that the men who populate golf’s smoke-filled rooms are suspicious of anything that purports to make golf easier—that any technology or technique that might make you play better (square grooves, for instance) amounts to cheating. Croquet putting and anchored putting might confer an advantage, or they might not—studies have been inconclusive, and the sample sizes have been small. Thanks to the USGA, we’ll never have to find out.

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