The United States Golf Association and the Royal & Ancient recently announced a flurry of rule changes to the game of golf which stirred up considerable conversation. The ruling bodies normally make news with bans and prohibitions but this time, motivated by a desire for modernization, they have come bearing gifts for golfers. Players are now permitted to use rangefinders in tournament play, leave the flagstick in the hole while putting, and remove loose impediments from hazards. Golfers can even pluck a ball right out of a bunker with their hand and drop it in the grass, all applicable penalties enforced.
The powers that be couldn’t allow themselves to adjourn without enacting at least one ban in the game and so they have done away with the practice of the caddie lining up behind a player on the green to check alignment before putting. The most widely known of the prohibitions from recent years involved the banning of the overly long belly putter and ending all anchoring of a club against one’s body during the putting stroke. The USGA and R&A have long had a fetish about regulating the imaginative ways golfers attempt to get the ball to its final destination. Its history of bans on the putting green goes back to 1895 and the very first United States Amateur golf championship…
The Pool Cue is Banned
When golf first arrived in the United States in the late 1800s it was often referred to by some snarkily as “pasture billiards.” One player took that description to heart and showed up at the first American national tournament in Newport, Rhode Island with a pool cue in his canvas bag. There were still some nuances of the new game the Americans were not totally sure about but the USGA knew kneeling down and using a billiard cue to putt was dirty pool – the cue was quickly scratched from the list of acceptable golfing equipment.
Divide Over the Schenectady Putter Ban
Walter Travis did not start playing golf until 1896 when he was 34 years old. He was a quick study and was the United States Amateur champion in 1900. Travis was an inveterate tinkerer with equipment. He experimented with drivers as long as 52 inches and was the first national champion to use a wound-rubber golf ball. Travis adopted a putter with a shaft in the center of the mallet head invented by A.F. Knight from Schenectady, New York.
Travis sailed to England with his “Schenectady Putter” in 1904 and promptly dispatched the best golfers Great Britain had to offer in becoming the first American to win the British Amateur. The Brits were so certain that Travis’ stellar greens work was attributed solely to his unusual putter that the Royal & Ancient banned the club for almost two decades. The USGA took a more reasonable approach and kept center-shafted putters legal – it was the first time the game’s two ruling bodies ever parted ways on the rules of golf.
Controversial Croquet Style Putting
In 1968, golf instituted its most controversial putting ban ever – croquet-styled putting was outlawed. The idea of putting with the ball between one’s legs and swinging the club croquet style was not a new one. The technique made a great deal of sense since the player could use both eyes to look directly at the line to the cup rather than peek out of the corner of one eye. Many amateur golfers employed the style.
When aging legend Sam Snead adopted the croquet style of putting in an attempt to slay the yips, the golf world erupted. After watching Snead crouch down and bang the ball from between his legs a few times in tournament play, the USGA decided to ban putting the ball between a player’s legs. They had no better explanation for the prohibition than, “It just didn’t look like golf. The game was becoming bizarre.”
The ruling bodies received blow back from all corners of the game. Even the best golfers had sympathy for the average golfer who was just doing whatever was possible to get the ball into the hole. Jack Nicklaus said, “This is ridiculous. Why don’t they just let us tee up the ball and play it?” Gary Player wondered why they were telling golfers how to hit the ball. No less a golf powerbroker than Prescott Bush, former president of the United States Golf Association and father to one United States president and grandfather to another, chimed in that croquet putting made the game more enjoyable for some and took away suffering on the course. Where’s the harm in that?
Removing croquet style putting from golf came down to the same reason that the belly putter was taken away – it threatened to become too popular and was too “untraditional.” Today’s players would be best advised not to get too comfortable with the recent relaxation of the rules; if something starts to make the game easier to play it may just get banned. Such is the golf world we now live in…