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Bellying Up

The long putter has more ardent defenders, and generates more controversy, than any club in the bag today
Jeff Williams
From the Print Edition:
Brad Paisley, March/April 2012

PGA Tour players aren’t just going long off the tee anymore. They’re going long with their putters, in a big way.

Keegan Bradley became the first player to win a  major tournament using a belly putter when he won the PGA Championship last August. Webb Simpson won two tournaments and almost captured the 2011 money title using a belly putter. Bill Haas was victorious at the Tour Championship and seized the 2011 FedExCup title using the long-handled putter. Adam Scott, who had shown much promise but had not consistently delivered on results, switched to the long-handled putter and nearly stole the Masters, then picked up a win at the Bridgestone Invitational.

Whether the long putter can make every player a better putter is open to debate. Whether the technique (anchoring the putter to the belly or the breast plate) will remain legal under the rules of golf is also open to debate.

But the stigmas that once surrounded the long putter­—that it was an old man’s crutch, or that it was goofy and ungraceful—no longer seem open to debate. Now that players in their 20s are winning with it, the smirks are fast being stifled.

“At first the guys gave me looks, a lot of them, a lot of flak about it, but now, no,” says Bradley, who took to using the belly putter about three years ago when he was playing on the Nationwide Tour. “There was a huge stigma in the beginning, but now, no. Every week someone new is trying it.”

When Bradley rolled in a 40-footer on the 17th hole for birdie at the PGA Championship, then nestled a long, lag putt close for a par on the 18th hole that would put him in a play-off with Jason Dufner, the effectiveness of the belly putter was  never in a brighter spotlight. Angel Cabrera won the Masters and the U.S. Open using a belly putter, but he did not anchor it to his body. Paul Azinger was the first player to win using a belly putter when he took the 2000 Sony Open, using what six-time major winner, television commentator and long-handled putter critic Nick Faldo calls the hinge technique. “It’s called a golf swing, not a golf hinge,” says Faldo.

Tiger Woods agrees with Faldo, saying that he’s never been a fan of long putters. At the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am in February, Woods said: “I believe it’s the art of controlling the body and club and swinging the pendulum motion. I believe that’s how it should be played. I’m a traditionalist when it comes to that.”

If Bradley had been the only player to win so visibly using the belly putter, perhaps not as much would be made of it. But there was Webb Simpson, who adopted the belly putter in 2004, winning twice in 2011 with it, including the Deutsche Bank Championship, one of the Tour’s play-off events.

Adam Scott had been so frustrated putting with the short putter that his confidence in his whole game had waned until he switched to the “broomstick” and crucial putts, under pressure, started to fall, especially at the Masters where he eventually lost to Charl Schwartzel’s four-birdie finish (with the conventional putter, it must be said). As many as 20 players were using a long-handled putter during the FedExCup play-offs.

“I tried it at Thanksgiving 2004 at Pinehurst,” says Simpson, who used it while in college at Wake Forest. “I was playing golf with my dad and wasn’t putting well at all. I was more consistent with it and felt I could stroke with more similar strokes. I started with the belly, not the broomstick. I’ve never tried that. At first there was some peer pressure, particularly from my teammates. They razzed me a bit, but it didn’t get to me too much . . . I didn’t feel a stigma for me. I only care about getting better and will use whatever I need to do that. Now with 30 guys under 30 playing it on Tour, I don’t feel anything.”

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