THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. (AP) - Brace yourself - just not your putter.
In a proposal that would affect every golfer from major champions to amateurs at their local clubs, the guardians of the 600-year-old sport want to write a new rule that would outlaw a putting stroke they fear is taking too much skill out of the game.
The U.S. Golf Association and the Royal & Ancient Golf Club said Wednesday they are not banning the belly putter or the longer "broom-handle" putters - only the way they are used. The proposed rule would prohibit golfers at all levels from anchoring a club against their bodies while making a stroke.
The rule would not take effect until 2016.
"We believe a player should hold the club away from his body and swing it freely," USGA executive director Mike Davis said. "Golf is a game of skill and challenge, and we think that's an important part of it."
Three of the last five major champions, starting with Keegan Bradley at the 2011 PGA Championship, used a belly putter.
What concerned the governing bodies, however, was an increasing number of players who were turning to the long putters because they saw it as an advantage, not as a last resort to cure their putting woes.
"Anchored strokes have very rapidly become the preferred option for a growing number of players, and this has caused us to review these strokes and their impact on the game," R&A chief executive Peter Dawson said. "Our conclusion is that anchored strokes threaten to supplant traditional strokes, which with all their frailties are integral to the longstanding character of our sport."
Players could still use a broom-handle or belly putter - as long as it not pressed against their body to create the effect of a hinge.
The R&A and USGA now offer a three-month period for open comment on the proposal before they approve it. But this already is shaping up to be a divisive issue, from industry leaders worried about the growth of golf to players who have been using these putters for years.
"Any competitive player likes to have an extra advantage," Matt Kuchar said. "I think you're going find anyone using the short putter is glad, and anyone using the belly putter or long putter is not happy."
Kuchar used a mid-length putter that rested against his left arm when he won The Players Championship. That style is OK.
Fred Couples, the 53-yearold former Masters champion, uses a belly putter, though it rests against his stomach - it is not anchored - and the end of the club moves freely. He was not sure if that would be allowed, and he wasn't sure golf needed such a rule anyway. Couples' argument is that if the anchored stroke was that much of an advantage, everyone would be using it.
None of the top 20 players on the PGA Tour's most reliable putting statistic used an anchored putting stroke.
"In my opinion, they haven't screwed up golf yet, and I don't think this will screw it up," Couples said. "But I feel bad for Keegan Bradley, because I'll tell you what: If they banned it tomorrow and we played a tournament, I think I'll be a better player than Keegan. And I don't think that's fair."
Bradley and U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson, who both use a belly putter, had said they would go along with the new rule, though they weren't happy about it. Simpson already has been working with a conventional putter. Bradley used a regular putter until he got to college.
"That doesn't take away from the last five years of hours of practice I've put in" on the belly putter, he said. "I'm going to really in the next couple of years figure out a way that's best for me to putt."
Carl Pettersson of Sweden and Tim Clark of South Africa have used broom-handle putters all their careers, and they have talked about a possible legal recourse. Neither could be reached for comment. Pettersson was in South Africa for the Nedbank Challenge and did not return a phone call.
Davis said there was no concern about a lawsuit.
"We need to do what we think is right," Davis said. "And shame on us if we are scared of litigation for doing the right thing."
Even some of those who support a ban on the anchored stroke - a group that includes Tiger Woods - wonder what took the governing bodies so long. Such putting strokes date as far back as the 1930s, and they first gained some measure of notoriety when Orville Moody won the 1989 U.S. Senior Open with a long putter held against his chest. Paul Azinger won the 2000 Sony Open with a putter he pressed into his belly.
But the longer putters got serious attention when majors were won last year - by Bradley at the PGA, followed by Simpson at the U.S. Open. Then, Ernie Els won the British Open this year.
The PGA Tour, European Tour and LPGA Tour said it would evaluate the proposed rule with its players.