Rule 14-1B: "Science" and "Tradition" in Golf

Yesterday, the United States Golf Association (USGA) announced a rule change. Coming into effect in 2016, Rule 14-1B will prohibit the use of so-called "anchored strokes" in sanctioned play. Rather than try to describe what "anchoring" is, here's a helpful graphic provided by the USGA:

As a strategy for putting, "anchoring" has become increasingly popular—and controversial—over the last decade or so. According to ESPN, four out of the last six winners in major championships used "anchored strokes," a rate of success that has fueled speculation about what (if any) competitive advantage such a stroke might confer.

I'm not a golf fan, and I don't have an opinion one way or the other. What I'm interested in is the way this issue has been both contested within the golf community and portrayed in the media. Specifically, I was struck by how the old clash between "science" and "tradition" is playing out in some interesting ways. Here goes:

A central issue in debates over Rule 14–1B is, in the words of USGA President Glen Nager, "whether those who anchor play the same game" as those who don't. Nager's claim rested on the notion of the "traditional stroke" or "traditional free swing," which he and the USGA aim to defend against the rising tide of "anchoring."

Paul Azinger, a golf analyst for ESPN, challenged this claim from two directions. First, he thinks the "same game" argument is a specious one. "Who plays the same game as Tiger Woods?" The distinction between "anchoring" and something like driving distance on this score just doesn't hold up. Second, he thinks Rule 14-1B is an attack on success, and that appeals to "tradition" or the "spirit of the game" are just window-dressing.

Now, one could imagine the USGA countering with scientific evidence: physiological tests about caloric efficiency, say, or anatomical studies of joint wear, or simple physical demonstrations. As one commenter on ESPN put it: "Physics 101: Levers are much easier to control than pendulums." Or what about statistics? Is there evidence that "anchored" putters actually score better?

But the USGA has declined to conduct any experiments or run any regressions. Indeed, they've rejected any appeals to scientific or statistical studies. The 39-page document justifying Rule 14-1B makes the USGA's position on this issue crystal-clear:

Although we understand that people often look for statistical data when engaged in
a factual and policy debate, we believe that these assertions are misplaced in the present context and reflect a misunderstanding of the rationale for the Rule and the principles on which the Rules of Golf are based.
Those principles, the report concludes, rest "on considerations such as tradition, experience and judgment, not on science or statistics." The prohibition on "anchoring" isn't about whether or not it actually confers an advantage (on one player or many, in a career or a single putt), but about the fact that it leads to "reducing variables and alleviating inherent obstacles that otherwise exist in the traditional free swinging method of stroke."

On one level, this makes total sense. As the USGA points out, they never conducted scientific studies to determine the possible advantage of throwing the ball instead of hitting it with a club. And we all recognize the arbitrary distinctions conferred by the rules of something like golf and adhered to out of a sense of tradition.

On another level, though, there are interesting exceptions to the appeal to tradition in the face of science—or, to be more specific, technology. With regard to the material, shape, and size of clubs and balls, the USGA engages in a great deal of technical specificity, including the stipulation of exact protocols for testing things like moment of inertia and initial velocity.

Experimental Set-up for Measuring Moment of Inertia
Remember, clubs like the one pictured above are called "woods" for a reason. And yet, the USGA has allowed driving clubs to go metal (or carbon fiber) – within carefully-defined and scientifically-tested limits of size, weight, and flexibility. That's part of what explains the fact that, in 1980, no one hit the ball more than 280 yards; and today, 90% of male professionals do

So, science and statistics are used to police the advantage conferred by "technology" (the construction of implements necessary for the game) but are rejected outright when it comes to "method" (the use to which those implements are put). Putting, to put it another way, is about the putt, not the putter. 

Does this division make sense? It might help to look at cases in other contexts to see how such matters have been adjudicated elsewhere. In baseball, for example, metal bats are prohibited in the Major Leagues—not (only) because wood is traditional, but because the "trampoline effect" of metal means balls travel faster off the bat and endanger fielders (and especially pitchers). 

Another example of the boundary between "science" and "tradition" is so-called "card counting" or "advantage gambling" in card games. While technically legal, many casinos find ways to discourage players from gaining an advantage through the use of probability theory. There's some sense that the shotgun approach of card-counting is—even when dramatized—somehow not "the same game" as the blackjack the rest of us play. 

The same goes for controversy surrounding the statistical approach to baseball managing popularized as "Moneyball" (and written up on this blog here and here). From Billy Beane to "anchored putting," science and technology serve somewhat tenuous roles in the evolution and policing of some of our oldest pastimes.


This rule change may very well be ignored by the professional tours and, if so, by golf clubs around the world. If the PGA Tour (and therefore the LPGA and Champions Tour) do not ban anchored putting, then the only tour events that would enforce that ban would be the USGA or R&A-run events, like the US Open and British Open. For pro tours, this is one event per year per tour. For high-level amateurs, however, most of their events would have the ban applied. It will be very interesting to see if the PGA Tour hardens its threat to ignore the ban or if it will comply.

This is an interesting debate between science and tradition. I golf for pleasure and watch the professional games but wonder if this type of ban can actually stick.

Hank, I enjoyed this post very much when you put it up. Thought you might want to hear this, if you haven't already. Phil Mickelson on Science Friday:

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