This anchored putting debate, in its own weird way, is probably the most important issue the PGA has faced since the breakaway, not counting the 1990 Shoal Creek debacle. That was rooted in social progressiveness. This one gets to the heart of how the game is played, administered and governed. It would have been a big issue without Bishop, but he has made it much bigger and he has been comfortable through it all. He looks as if he has stood in front of rolling cameras all his life. "He's comfortable because he's prepared," Love says.
The real issue in the debate goes much deeper than whether the butt end of the putter depresses human flesh. Bishop believes that if the ban goes through without a major hitch, it will empower and embolden the USGA. "I think their next step will be to try to slow down the golf ball," Bishop said last month in his pro shop at Legends. A lot of people, of course, think that would be a good thing, but Bishop is not among them.
Asked if the USGA has any plans to try to slow down the ball, Davis declined to talk about it, and a USGA spokesman, Joe Goode, issued this statement: "Distance remains a subject the USGA continues to monitor as part of our joint governance of the game worldwide. While distance at the elite professional and amateur levels has stabilized, we continue to review the relevant science, data and research that are available to us, and engage the broader golf community on the subject. The USGA continues to study the golf course footprint beyond the playing of the game, exploring a wide range of factors to determine how reducing distance and modifying course size could impact the long-term economic and environmental sustainability of the game." Take a minute to parse that statement if you feel the urge. It did use the phrase "reducing distance."
Based on his comments last week, both in San Diego and Orlando, Finchem indicated that even if the USGA bans anchored putting, the PGA Tour could decide not to abide by the ruling. If that happened, the balance of power in the game would change markedly. Bishop thinks it already has. He believes the PGA Tour is the real power base for golf in the U.S. The Tour, he says, sets the tone for how American golf is played. If Tour players anchor, why wouldn't the rest of us? Tour players plumb-bob and so do we, even though we don't know what we're doing.
As for the USGA and the PGA of America, they govern differently. "We govern from the bottom up," Bishop says, meaning that the PGA takes its cues from its 27,000 men and women professionals, and those professionals take their cues from the golfing needs of what Bishop calls their "amateur customers."
The few dozen key volunteer USGA committee members as well as the organization's professional staff members are a group of men and women steeped in the game who make decisions about rules, equipment and the handicap system by which millions of us play. In other words, they govern from the top even though they were never elected. Still, their motives are pure. That can't be overstated. Resort owners, Tour players, teaching pros, publishers of golf magazines, they're all trying to make money from the game. There's nothing wrong with that, but the chase for money has a long history of clouding judgment. The PGA Tour is a nonprofit outfit in name only. All sorts of people are getting rich through it. The USGA is a true nonprofit. It's a think tank and a university. It's a church. To be relevant, it needs believers.
Which leads to this question, the same one the PGA Tour will ask itself: If the ban goes through, will the 27,000 men and women PGA professionals support it? The answer to that is partly dependent on what the PGA Tour does, and partly dependent on what Bishop and the PGA leadership encourage them to do. Bishop knows what we all know, that golf without a codified system of rules would be bedlam. But in these tense and interesting times can the USGA continue to be the beacon on the hill for how we play? At the very least, Bishop is urging 27,000 men and women professionals to question authority. Damn rabble-rouser. Along the way, he'll either help make the USGA stronger or be part of its demise. If that happens, then say hello to Joe Ogilvie, the first chairman of the PGA Tour Rules Committee for Lost Amateurs, sponsored by Verizon. Slogan: Joe O. rules the game; Verizon rules the air.
For the PGA, and maybe for everybody, the secret weapon in this whole thing is Bevacqua, who joined the PGA of America in November, hired by a committee on which Bishop sat. (Bishop also was instrumental in recruiting Dottie Pepper to the PGA board of directors; eliminating the catchphrase "Glory's Last Shot" from the PGA Championship marketing playbook; and initiating a thorough examination of the PGA's TV contracts.) Bevacqua knows the culture of the USGA, and he also knows the sensibilities of regular-Joe golfers who get up in the dark to play the better public courses, because he and his dentist father were among those people. Bevacqua is a legit break-80 golfer who was a club caddie in New York through high school, college (Notre Dame) and law school (Georgetown). He likes the lively debate on the subject of anchored putting, but he also knows that golf thrives on consensus. At the PGA Merchandise Show he convened a Friday morning state-of-the-game panel that was unusually interesting. He expects it will be an annual event.
Outside the Orange County Convention Center there was nothing but bright sunshine, but inside, in the extreme dark of a backstage area, enclosed by black curtains, various movers and shakers in golf were preparing to step on the stage. Country rap was playing, if such a category exists, and Sir Nick Faldo, in a black T-shirt, was hanging around. So were the various panelists, including Finchem, Pepper and Mark King, the TaylorMade CEO. Bishop was on stage, and Bevacqua sat with the spectators, a lot of them club pros and teaching pros and others with intense interest in golf's welfare. Can such a forum produce news? Not usually. Depends, of course, on the participants and what they say. Can it make you see things in a new way? A good panel discussion can, and this one proved to be a good one. Is it a way of bringing people together? Of course it is.
Bishop is a planner and a worrier and a man of considerable ambition. He has been basking in the positive response to the naming of Watson as Ryder Cup captain, and why wouldn't he? It was his idea, it was original (Watson, 63, will be the oldest Ryder Cup captain ever), and he pulled it off. Could the bright lights blind Bishop? He will have to be careful—he's kind of a show-off. In the meantime Bishop and Bevacqua were eager to have a representative from the USGA on the panel, since anchored putting would surely be discussed. (It was, extensively.) They hoped for Davis or Nager. The USGA passed, to Bishop's frustration. He wondered what would be the appropriate response should someone ask why the USGA did not have a representative. Bishop is nothing if not a planner.