This past week the body responsible for the rules and regulations of golf, the rather excellently name Royal & Ancient, indicated that it would review the use of long-handled putters in golf. At this stage the smart money seems to be on the R&A deciding to ban them. In this post I will be examining why a governing body might consider banning a piece of equipment. I will examine several examples and apply them to the case of the long-handled putter.
Before I get into the juicy good stuff it’s important for us to know what we’re dealing with. What’s the difference between a long and short-handled putter? As I had lead to believe that putting was all in the hips, I was shocked to learn that the key difference between the two putters was how they affect the arms. With a short-handled putter the club is held away from the body, floating in the void between the player and the green. This means that a golfer has to be in complete control of their arm movements when putting. The slightest variation can send the ball off course. The long-handled putter, on the other hand, is anchored to the players body. What this means is that the top of the club is pushed up against the body of the person holding it (either against the chest or the belly, see the picture below for examples of all three). This means that the club will move around less as it is swung due to the wrists having less control over the putters movement which, in theory, will allow for more accurate putting.
Most debates over whether or not a piece of technology should be banned in a sport come down to whether or not it gives its user an unfair advantage. This view isn’t without it’s problems, for example there are many instances in sport where athletes can be said to have gained an unfair advantage from a practice that is allowed, so there are always questions of consistency that arise when unfair advantage is raised as an argument. Nonetheless, it is the most popular argument amongst journalists, fans, and administrators when looking at technological enhancement (just look at the Oscar Pistorius debate) so I will address it here.
Before we question whether long-handled putters give those who use them an unfair advantage we must first decide whether or not they give them an advantage. As extensive research (a single search on google scholar) has failed to unearth any peer reviewed papers on the subject I was forced to turn to my golf correspondents to resolve the issue. They reliably informed me that taking the hands and wrists out of play in the motion of the swing was the key issue as far improved accuracy goes. To quote Luke O’Sullivan:
People generally change to the long putter when they have serious putting issues, would you believe mainly from inside 6 feet! As the golfer approaches a putt from inside this distance something very bizarre occurs… The player is so shit scared of missing this putt that his whole body will tighten, knees will wobble and of course hands will start to shake, subsequently the golfer will miss most if not all of these putts because he has the so called ‘yips’. Now by moving to the longer alternative the putter is now anchored to the body effectively talking all the hands out of the movement, no more hands shaking, no more missed putts. Of course this player is mad to think he will never miss a short putt again because there are many other variables as to why a putt is missed but by taking the hands out of the putting stroke he gains an advantage from where he once was.
So there may be some advantage gained by using a long-handled putter, but is it an unfair advantage? Philosopher S.D. Edwards offers an excellent definition of what it means to have an unfair advantage:
A has an advantage, compared with B, since A had access to a resource, R, which was unavailable to B, and this resource enhanced A’s capacity to achieve a goal shared by both A and B. This is ‘unfair’ since A had access to R and B did not. Principles of equality of opportunity are violated.
If we apply this definition to long-handled putters, Edwards would argue that long-handled putters only offer an unfair advantage if they are available to some athletes but unavailable to others. This clearly is not the case. As things stand any golfer can go out and purchase a long-handled putter should they desire one. Hell, in the case of professional golfers they don’t even have to buy one, they just need to ask their club supplier to send them one. So unfair advantage clearly is not an issue as far as long-handled putters are concerned.
Changing the Nature of Golf
If the long-handled putter doesn’t provide it’s users with an unfair advantage what other ground might there be for banning it? I believe that the key issue, not just with long-handled putters but with all enhancement technology, is whether or not is alters the nature of the sport in question. Philosopher John William Devine shares similar views to my own, he argues that the key is whether or not the technology upsets the balance of excellences that a sport seeks to promote. Devine uses the example of the switch to fibreglass tennis rackets in tennis to illustrate his point:
[I]n the late 1990s, the men’s singles tennis championships at Wimbledon was criticised as being dominated by powerful serving. While this may partly have been a complaint about the spectacle of tennis losing some its appeal for fans, it can also be understood as a complaint that one type of excellence—powerful serving—assumed too much prominence in the style of tennis that prevailed at the time. That is, while the rules of tennis still allowed for the display of all the excellences valued in tennis, developments in the bio mechanics of serving and advances in racket technology meant that the contribution of different excellences to the outcome of competition shifted in such a way that one excellence came to dominate, and others, such as deftness of touch and patient strategic play, no longer made a significant contribution to the performance of those who were successful in the sport. In response to these criticisms, tennis authorities changed the court surface and pressure of the balls to encourage the longer, more strategic rallies that were seen to be missing from competition. These measures might be best explained as an attempt to redress the internal relationship between the excellences around which the sport is organised
The ability to putt is a key excellence in golf. Championships are won and lost on the green. Even if long-handled putters make putting easier the user still has to make their putts, so the excellence of putting isn’t eliminated in anyway. But an argument can be made that long-handled putters eliminate a key excellence in the act of putting: keeping the wrists and hands steady. Players need nerves of steel to hole key putts at major championships, they need to control every element of their body. Having the putter anchored to the body means that their is less emphasis on controlling the hands and wrists. As Luke mentioned above, having a long-handled putter doesn’t mean that the user will make every putt. Adam Scott proved that over the weekend. But a key excellence is lost, the excellence of controlling the wrists and hands in pressure moments. This has always been a part of golf, and it would be a shame if it were lost. The look like they will ban long-handled putters and that is the correct decision.