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Never in the 70 years that the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews and the United States Golf Association have been the guardians of golf's traditions and the arbiters of the sport's rules, equipment, ethics and etiquette have the two organizations made quite so bold a stroke as they did last week. Backing up their decision with words like "appalled" and "travesty of the game" and "aberrations," the USGA and the R&A outlawed the increasingly popular croquet style of putting, and all kinds of unusual putters as well. To millions of hands that quake over four-footers, this blow for esthetics felt like a karate chop.
The ruling, which takes effect in January 1968, was a venture into new territory, for always in the past the USGA's and the R&A's concern for good form has been a concern for good manners, not for the technical execution of the swing. Now, for the first time in golfing history, the game's ruling bodies were telling a man how he had to hit the ball. The essence of the rule is that not only does a golfer have to try to sink a putt, he has to look good doing it.
"We made the decision with great reluctance," says USGA Executive Director Joseph C. Dey, "but we felt it was the only way to eliminate the unconventional styles that have developed in putting. The game of golf was becoming bizarre. It was some other game, part croquet, part shuffleboard and part the posture of Mohammedan prayer."
Variations of the croquet style are used by Sam Snead—the most notorious of the Mohammedans—Touring Pros Bob Duden and Dean Refram, USGA President Ward Foshay, two former captains of St. Andrews and countless amateurs who have taken to it, instead of drink, to cure their putting wobbles. Snead, who shot a 64 on his 55th birthday last weekend while using his stooping croquet technique, says, "I putt better this cockeyed way. Not too many people can bend over quite as well as I can, but I think it is good for old golfers. They don't have to coordinate two hands, only one."
Dean Refram began putting the croquet way when a doctor told him his eyes did not focus along the same line. Standing astride the ball, he found he could sight his putts better.
But Joe Dey contends that the success of the technique in steadying nerves or curing optical ills does not justify its use. "Should you make allowances in a sport for physical peculiarities or infirmities?" he asks rhetorically. "I think not. The way golf clubs were originally made, with the shaft attached to the heel, indicates that the game was always meant to be played from one side or the other."
There is nothing new about facing the problem of putting head on. A player showed up at the first U.S. Amateur Championship in Newport, R.I. in 1895 with a billiard cue which he used for a putter. Soon thereafter the USGA scratched that idea, ruling that the cue did not conform to golf equipment standards. In 1904, however, the British made the mistake of allowing three-time U.S. Amateur Champion Walter J. Travis to use an unorthodox center-shafted putter in their Amateur tournament. Travis won the tournament. The British had hardly handed Travis his trophy before they banned his club and all similar travesties. But the USGA, perhaps influenced by the fact that an American had finally been able to win a British championship, began allowing some deviations from the traditional design of putters. Finally in 1951 the Royal and Ancient and the USGA met to standardize the Rules of Golf, and the British agreed to allow the use of USGA-approved putters.
Today there are innumerable different types of putters registered with the patent office in Washington, and hundreds of them have USGA approval. But many certified models, including the croquet-style putter, will now be outlawed. Among the stipulations announced last week by the USGA and the R&A, for example, is one that requires club shafts "to be substantially straight and plain in form and generally circular in cross-section." In those cases "where the shaft of a putter is attached to the head at a point other than the heel" a certain angle will be specified.
These radical adjustments in the specifications of putters will have immediate consequences for golf-club manufacturers who find their putters no longer conform to USGA standards. They are not going to please club pros and retail stores who have large stocks of weirdly shaped clubs.
The USGA says its new rule is justified for "the good of the game." Joe Dey has said, in effect, that in the past the USGA approved too many kinds of putters. "Manufacturers are always on the make for money," he says. "They come up with gadgets and gimmicks. The aberrations have grown. Once you start down the primrose path you are in trouble. I feel we were too far down the path."