Anchor ban presents opportunity

On the morning of Nov. 28, Austie Rollinson, the 44-year-old principal designer for Odyssey Golf, the maker of the belly putter that Keegan Bradley famously used to win the 2011 PGA Championship, waited anxiously with the rest of the golfing world to learn the fate of the controversial anchoring technique.

Since April, when Rollinson's Carlsbad, Calif., based team first heard rumblings about a ban on anchoring, they had been working on alternative methods that would theoretically conform under the new rules.

Odyssey, a subsidiary of the Callaway Golf Company, was confident that long and belly putters would not be banned. This was a matter for the Rules of Golf and what constituted a stroke.

So Rollinson and his team went ahead over the summer with plans to build a putter that they hoped would pass muster with the governing bodies. What they came up with is the Metal-X arm lock putter. With the arm lock concept, instead of anchoring the butt end of the putter to your belly or chest, you lock it against your forearm.

The Odyssey team was relieved to learn on that nerve-wracking Wednesday morning that under the proposed changes to Rule 14-1 of the Rules of Golf, the forearm lock is a permitted stroke.

"We were sitting there watching the press conference with our fingers crossed because we had heard that maybe the arm lock was going to be allowed, but we weren't sure," Rollinson said. "It would have been a lot of work for naught if the USGA had come down and said that it wasn't a valid method.

"But we were pretty confident and we knew that we wanted to be there as soon as the ruling came out to bring out a product for those golfers that want to get a head start on a new putting method that will be conforming to the new proposed rule when it comes down in 2016."

Like Odyssey, most putter makers, if they are smart, will use the new ruling as an opportunity to break new ground in putter technology, and to take advantage of the time left before the rule goes into effect to sell as many belly putters as possible.

It's not a time to pout.

At behemoths such as Callaway and TaylorMade, bellies have never accounted for more than 20 percent of their total putter sales. These putters, industry leaders say, never had a chance of supplanting conventional wands. Yet the anchored belly putter has helped players solve the yips and become more consistent putters, undoubtedly making the game more enjoyable for legions of players.

It was destined to be something more than just a passing fad, but something far short of a referendum on putting.

After selling only 8,000 belly putters in 2010, Odyssey sold 32,000 in 2011, with 70 percent of those sales coming after Bradley won the PGA with the Odyssey White Hot XG Sabertooth putter. At Odyssey, bellies make up about 12 percent of the brand's sales, but it projects that with the proposed ban, sales could drop back to around 6 percent, where they were before Bradley won the PGA.

"We were disappointed with the ruling," Rollinson said. "We didn't see the need for it because millions of average golfers that have trouble with putting are staying in the game because of these putters.

"But we play by the rules. So instead of being disappointed and sulking about it, we have used it as an opportunity to innovate within these guidelines. We're past being upset about it."

Sean Toulon, the executive vice president of product and brand creation at TaylorMade, said his company is also moving forward with new conforming products aimed at those same players who used the anchored style, but he is still annoyed by the ruling.

"I think it's one thing for the USGA to take a stance on what we can or can't do on golf club specs," Toulon said. "But I think it becomes something quite different when they begin to govern how you can actually use a club. It's a little funky to say the least."

Toulon doesn't believe, though, that putter sales will be impacted once the ban becomes official.

"The really good thing about golfers is that when they start putting terribly, and almost everybody does at some point, they buy a new putter," Toulon said.

"Golfers will find ways of putting better and we'll dig deep to find better methods to help them."

Toulon trusts that there will be a market for long putters because you can use them without anchoring them against your chest. He is also confident that anchoring will endure because most recreational golfers don't exactly follow the rules to the letter.

Stephen Boccieri, the maker of the Heavy Putter and the president and CEO of Boccieri Golf, is a small manufacturer. So the ban could have a much greater impact on his bottom line than it would for larger companies such as Odyssey and TaylorMade. Earlier this year, Boccieri told GolfWeek that if it weren't for the belly putter, he would be losing money.

Yet last month, after the announcement was made on anchoring, Boccieri was optimistic about the future of the putters.

"We have four years to make money on what is perceived to be an unfair advantage," he said. "Golfers are not going to steer away until they have to."