Since the USGA and the R&A issued the proposed rule banning anchored putting strokes last November, the issue of whether the ban is in the best interests of the game of golf (both at the professional and amateur levels) has been fiercely debated in the court of public opinion. Now it appears that, if the PGA Tour decides to adopt Rule 14-1b (which was finalized recently after a comment period on the proposed rule), the issue could end up in a court of law.
It was reported last week that nine PGA Tour players, including Adam Scott, Tim Clark, and Carl Pettersson, have retained Boston attorney Harry L. Manion III to represent them in the matter. So far, Manion and his clients are taking a “wait and see” approach as the Tour considers what action to take. The Tour’s 16-member Player Advisory Council held a preliminary meeting last week, during which mixed opinions reportedly were expressed. “There’s no rational basis for this ruling,” said Manion. “I am optimistic that the Tour will not follow this rule.”
Manion’s optimism does not square with the predictions of many golf observers that the Tour, despite its opposition to the ban earlier this year, ultimately will adopt the rule in part to avoid an undesirable “bifurcation” of the rules of golf. Davis Love III, a prominent member of the PAC, said that the issue is “a tough one because there’s a lot of passion. There is a sentiment to either agree with it and move on, which is what we ought to do, or let’s start making our own rules. That’s the big decision here now.”
During the press conference that accompanied the announcement of the adoption of Rule 14-1b, USGA President Glenn Nager was asked about the potential for a legal challenge. “Let me start by saying that we’re going to do whatever we have to do for the good of the game because that’s our mission,” said Nager, who is no stranger to the world of litigation having argued thirteen cases before the Supreme Court. “Our mission is not to avoid legal challenges. Our mission is to determine the appropriate Rules for the game that make the game strong for the long term.” Nager added that the USGA has examined the legal issues and feels confident of its position.
Some legal experts think Scott and company would face an uphill battle if they challenge the anchoring ban in court. Matthew Mitten, a professor of sports law at Marquette University, told Golf Digest that the law sides heavily with the right of sports organizations to make their own rules. “Historically, courts have been very deferential to sports governing bodies to regulate what they determine to be the rules of the game and to regulate playing equipment,” said Mitten. “There’s a recognition that sports are unique and you’ve got to have uniform rules and that there needs to be an independent governing body that has to take the necessary steps to preserve the integrity of the game and its competitive balance.”
Manion, however, pointed to Bob Gilder’s lawsuit against the PGA Tour in the early 1990s as a favorable precedent. Gilder and Karsten Manufacturing Corporation (which makes Ping clubs) sued the Tour over its decision to ban clubs with U-shaped grooves, which the Tour had determined imparted excessive spin on the ball. The case was ultimately settled, and Ping Eye 2 irons were grandfathered when the USGA issued its revised groove specifications. However, Gilder and Karsten succeeded in obtaining a preliminary injunction against the Tour’s rule based on a finding that the players would have suffered irreparable harm had they been forced to change clubs because they would have experienced a competitive disadvantage. The PGA Tour players currently using an anchored putting stroke could make a similar argument.
Because Rule 14-1b was adopted by the USGA, an independent rulemaking body, the Tour possibly would be on stronger ground than it was in the Gilder case if the rule is challenged in court. In any event, few people believe litigation would be in the best interest of golf. “Nobody wants to litigate,” said Manion, “so you hope for the best and prepare for the worst.” The problem is, what may be best for the “good of the game” in the eyes of the USGA may not be best for Adam Scott, Tim Clark, and the other players on the Tour who have relied on anchoring for years.