THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. (AP) — Brace yourself — just not your putter.
In a proposal that would affect major champions as well as amateurs at their local clubs, the guardians of the 600-year-old sport want to write a new rule that would outlaw a putting stroke they fear is taking too much skill out of the game.
The U.S. Golf Association and the Royal & Ancient Golf Club said Wednesday they are not banning the belly putter or the longer "broom-handle" putters — only the way they are used. The proposed rule would prohibit golfers at all levels from anchoring a club against their bodies while making a stroke.
The rule would not take effect until 2016.
"We believe a player should hold the club away from his body and swing it freely," USGA executive director Mike Davis said. "Golf is a game of skill and challenge, and we think that's an important part of it."
Three of the last five major champions, starting with Keegan Bradley at the 2011 PGA Championship, used a belly putter.
What concerned the governing bodies, however, was an increasing number of players who were turning to the long putters because they saw it as an advantage, not as a last resort to cure their putting woes.
"Anchored strokes have very rapidly become the preferred option for a growing number of players, and this has caused us to review these strokes and their impact on the game," R&A chief executive Peter Dawson said. "Our conclusion is that anchored strokes threaten to supplant traditional strokes, which with all their frailties are integral to the longstanding character of our sport."
Players could still use a broom-handle or belly putter — as long as it not pressed against their body to create the effect of a hinge.
The R&A and USGA now offer a three-month period for open comment on the proposal before they approve it. But this already is shaping up to be a divisive issue, from industry leaders worried about the growth of golf to players who have been using these putters for years.
"Any competitive player likes to have an extra advantage," Matt Kuchar said. "I think you're going find anyone using the short putter is glad, and anyone using the belly putter or long putter is not happy."
Kuchar used a mid-length putter that rested against his left arm when he won The Players Championship. That style is OK.
Fred Couples, the 53-year-old former Masters champion, uses a belly putter, though it rests against his stomach — it is not anchored — and the end of the club moves freely. He was not sure if that would be allowed, and he wasn't sure golf needed such a rule anyway. Couples' argument is that if the anchored stroke was that much of an advantage, everyone would be using it.
None of the top 20 players on the PGA Tour's most reliable putting statistic used an anchored putting stroke.
"In my opinion, they haven't screwed up golf yet, and I don't think this will screw it up," Couples said. "But I feel bad for Keegan Bradley, because I'll tell you what: If they banned it tomorrow and we played a tournament, I think I'll be a better player than Keegan. And I don't think that's fair."
Bradley and U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson, who both use a belly putter, had said they would go along with the new rule, though they weren't happy about it. Simpson already has been working with a conventional putter. Bradley used a regular putter until he got to college.
"That doesn't take away from the last five years of hours of practice I've put in" on the belly putter, he said. "I'm going to really in the next couple of years figure out a way that's best for me to putt."
Carl Pettersson of Sweden and Tim Clark of South Africa have used broom-handle putters all their careers, and they have talked about a possible legal recourse. Neither could be reached for comment. Pettersson was in South Africa for the Nedbank Challenge and did not return a phone call.
Davis said there was no concern about a lawsuit.
"We need to do what we think is right," Davis said. "And shame on us if we are scared of litigation for doing the right thing."
Even some of those who support a ban on the anchored stroke — a group that includes Tiger Woods — wonder what took the governing bodies so long. Such putting strokes date as far back as the 1930s, and they first gained some measure of notoriety when Orville Moody won the 1989 U.S. Senior Open with a long putter held against his chest. Paul Azinger won the 2000 Sony Open with a putter he pressed into his belly.
But the longer putters got serious attention when majors were won last year — by Bradley at the PGA, followed by Simpson at the U.S. Open. Then, Ernie Els won the British Open this year.
Adding to the attention was Guan Tianlang, the 14-year-old from China who used a belly putter this month when he won the Asia Pacific Amateur, which earned him a spot in the Masters. He will be the youngest player ever at Augusta National. Guan started using the belly putter about six months before his big win.
Even so, Dawson and Davis said the catalyst for a new rule was not who was winning tournaments, but the number of players switching to that style of putting.
Their research showed no more than 4 percent of players on the PGA Tour used the clubs for several years. It went to 6 percent in 2006, and then to 11 percent in 2011 and to 15 percent this year, with some events having as much as 25 percent of the players using the long clubs.
There was no empirical data to suggest a long putter made golf easier, and they made it clear that the proposed rule was not about performance.
"This is about defining the game and defining what is a stroke in golf," Dawson said.
Davis said it was one thing for a few players who use a long putter because they struggled on the greens or had health issues. What changed was the spike in number of players using the putters, as well as instructors believing it was a better way to putt.
"It was this recent increase, it was this recent advocacy of players, instructors, to move toward the anchored stroke that really got us to the point where we said, 'We need to act in the best interests of the game moving forward,'" Davis said. "This is all about the future of the game. It's about us defining the game, defining a stroke, clarifying a very controversial and divisive situation."
The penalty for anchoring the club would be loss of hole in match play and a two-stroke penalty in stroke play.
The PGA Tour, European Tour and LPGA Tour said it would evaluate the proposed rule with its players. The PGA Tour has a mandatory players' meeting in San Diego at the end of January, which former U.S. Amateur champion Colt Knost tweeted would be a lively session. Knost uses a belly putter.
The PGA of America said it was concerned that such a ban would drive people from the game.
"As our mission is to grow the game ... we are asking them to seriously consider the impact this proposed ban may have on people's enjoyment of the game and the overall growth of the game," PGA president Ted Bishop said.
Woods walked quickly by reporters after his pro-am round at the World Challenge, saying only, "I think it's a good one," when asked about the new rule. On Tuesday, he said using an anchored stroke takes away from nerves in the hands.
"I just believe that the art of putting is swinging the club and controlling nerves," Woods said Tuesday. "And having it as a fixed point, as I was saying all year, is something that's not in the traditions of the game. We swing all other 13 clubs. I think the putter should be the same."
Jack Nicklaus recalls that croquet-style putting was banned decades ago and golf moved on. Even though far more golfers use long putters, he expects the same outcome.
"They'll all learn to adjust," Nicklaus told the Golf Channel. "Like anything else, they'll get used to it and get over it. ... We've had changes with balls, wood heads, grooves, all kinds of changes. Players have adjusted to those and they'll adjust to this."
Davis, meanwhile, did not accept the premise that golf would lose even greater participation by taking away the anchored putting stroke. He even cited a PGA of America program that showed fewer people were playing because of the expense and time.
"Difficulty is way down the list," he said. "And anchoring would only be a very, very small part of that."