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McIlroy stops long putter streak…but the 460cc era streak approaches 40

A collective sigh of relief was issued earlier this month when young gun Rory McIlroy ran away with the PGA Championship on Kiawah Island, and in the process halted the major championship run of players using anchored putters. Keegan Bradley was the first man to win a major using a long putter, at last year’s PGA in Atlanta. Bradley’s win was followed in June by Webb Simpson at the US Open and a month later by veteran Ernie Els, who won the Open at Royal Lytham & St Annes after chin-putter Adam Scott stumbled at the death. Midway through the PGA there were two other belly putters atop the leaderboard, but neither Vijay Singh nor Carl Pettersson were able to match the birdie barrage unleashed by McIlroy over the weekend.

In the days since McIlroy’s win the calls for action to be taken on long putters have grown louder and louder, with some insiders under the impression that both the R&A and the USGA are on the brink of issuing a ban on anchoring. While such a move would be welcome, it’s important to also note that young Rory’s win was at least the 35th in succession by a player in a major championship using a 400+ cubic centimeter driver head. The argument that anchoring a putter is against the spirit and traditions of the game are equally, if not more vigorously, made by those who view enormous driver heads as an abomination on our sport.

Let’s think about the collective damage done to golf by these two unsightly instruments. One makes it easier for players with the yips to take their hands of the putting stroke and, theoretically, to get the ball into the hole. The other allows strong, fit athletes with finely tuned golf swings to pound the ball hundreds of yards in a relatively straight line. During the first three rounds at Firestone earlier this month, for example, there were 24 drives recorded over 400 yards, and more than 300 that flew in excess of 350y. No matter your debating prowess, it’s virtually impossible to mount a serious argument that golfers ought be able to hit their tee shots that far.

The net effect of the 460cc driver limit on golf has been devastating, all around the world. New courses are longer than ever before while older courses have been forced to stretch and redesign their layouts in order to keep pace with the modern game. Modernizing otherwise adequate golf courses has literally cost billions, and made the game longer, harder, more expensive and more time consuming for the average player. In many ways it has also become more dangerous, as sprayed shots, even from amateurs, now head further offline.

Modern debate over the size of the driver really started back in 1991 when Callaway’s Big Bertha was first released. Made entirely of stainless steel, the Big Bertha’s 190cc head was considerably larger than both persimmon woods and the earlier metals. Between 1991 and 2002 driver heads continued to grow, and materials like Titanium and carbon fiber were used to provide added forgiveness and to allow golfers to swing at increased speeds. The governing bodies chose to do nothing to regulate the size of the driver head during this period, nor to restrict the distances golf balls were flying. In their minds there was no need.

That attitude changed when Cleveland released a new Launcher Driver in 2003, the first to measure 460cc in size. The year prior the Launcher had been released as a 330cc model. This sudden jump in size was copied by other manufacturers and suddenly the governing bodies had a problem. As professionals started pounding the ball further and further the USGA and R&A decided enough was enough and limited any further expansion by capping the driver head at 460cc.

There have always been bombers in golf but the scary thing about the 460cc driver was that it enabled ‘shorter’ professionals to sneak ever closer to the longer hitters. The 100th longest hitter on the PGA Tour in 2005, for example, was already hitting the ball as far as Davis Love III did in 2000, when he was the 3rd longest on tour. Love is now 48 years old and not only driving almost 10 yards longer than his prime but down to 43rd on the list of longest hitters.

The only men longer than Love in 2000 were John Daly and Tiger Woods, who dominated world golf that year with his 260cc Titleist 975D driver. While Tiger’s driver seemed enormous at the time, it looks like a fairway wood when compared to the models on the market today. The size and forgiveness of these modern drivers has enabled a generation of golfers to develop extraordinary swing speeds and to pound the ball huge distances without the need, necessarily, for them to find the middle of the clubface. All over the world there are literally thousands of professionals and elite amateurs who can hit the ball as far as Love did in his prime.

Given the inaction of the governing bodies previously, it could be argued that manufacturers shot themselves in the foot back in 2003 by jumping too quickly toward the 460cc driver. Had they progressed more steadily they may have been able to sneak past that number to 500 or beyond. While hardly cause for celebration, it does raise the very relevant question of golfing lawmakers - why is 460 the magic number here and is a driver head this size really appropriate for a game played mostly in suburban fields surrounded by residential homes?

If golf was still confined to ocean links land and we had hundreds of unoccupied acres within which to hit our shots you could possibly argue that length was irrelevant. Every time a mid-handicap amateur launches a golf ball into a neighboring house, however, that argument loses weight. As it does every time a round takes five hours to play, or a well credentialed golf club is ‘forced’ to spend millions changing holes that until 2003 had provided an adequate challenge.

The truth is there are no reasonable arguments for golfers being able to hit tee shots 400 yards, nor that our royal and ancient game should be played with such enormous driving instruments. The view that older or weaker players wouldn’t enjoy the game as much with smaller driver heads is a nonsense. Golf has always been played and enjoyed by older people, and in fact the counter argument would be that longer courses are a far greater turn off for the aging golfer than the loss of a few yards off the tee.

While the focus of the golfing commentariat in recent times has been on long putters, and previously on the golf ball itself, the real scourge on our great game is the enormous driver. My message to the USGA and the R&A when it comes to technology is very simple. By all means go ahead and ban the long putter, or the anchoring of a putter against the body, but if you think for one moment that you have done your job protecting the sanctity of our great game, you are sadly mistaken.