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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

(continued from page 1)

The reason that players give for switching to the long-handled putter is more confidence in making short putts. They don’t want to come right out and say they have the “yips” because the mere mention of the word induces the shakes. It’s those “shakes” with the short putter that have been such a bugaboo to so many players. The breaking of the wrists, the rolling of the arms on the short putter strokes can be fatal.

“The way the long putter helps is taking the wrist and hand muscles out of the judgment of speed,” says longtime short game guru Dave Pelz, the teacher of Phil Mickelson and other tour pros. “Speed controls the line. The faster you hit it, the less break. Slower you hit it, more break. The long shaft means a longer stroke, which means length of stroke determines the speed. With the short putter the hands and wrists determine the length of stroke. With the long putter it’s the length of the backswing. That’s where touch comes in. I think it is easier for many golfers to judge the speed by the length of their backstroke. The short putters control with their hands much of the time. Only the most experienced players have their wrist muscles under control under pressure, when they are scared.”

Pelz also says the use of the long putter teaches the proper technique, at least for most players. He’s using long putters at his short game schools around the country. “The belly putter, long putter can teach you that this is the way the putter should swing through impact: No wrist break, no arm rotation, no opening and closing of the club head,” says Pelz. “We give everybody lessons with the long putter, developing the pendulum stroke. Once you get that grooved, especially good players, you can go back and try the short putter again.”

In other words, the long putter can serve as a rehab tool for the regular length one.

The history of the long putter is relatively brief and thinly written. Paul Runyan, winner of two PGA Championships in the 1930s and a renowned short game teacher, wrote a story for Golf Digest in 1966 where he described the technique of belly putting, of anchoring the butt end of the shaft to the waist. It was something he first discovered in the 1930s. He described how he had tested the technique for short putts and how superior he felt the method was. “If and when it is used universally, it would produce a uniformity of putting skill thus far not realized,” Runyan wrote in the article that was rather aptly entitled “New Help for Old Nerves.”

But it wasn’t until the nearly unknown Charlie Owens started using the long-handled putter on the Champions Tour (née Senior Tour) in the 1980s that anyone even realized it existed. Owens used it, he said, because he had a dreadful case of the yips on short putts. He called it his “yip killer,” and he won twice on the Senior Tour in 1986 using it. A few other Senior Tour players took it up, most notably Orville Moody, who won the Senior Open with it in 1989. That same year Mark Lye became the first regular tour player to use the long putter.

But the long putter and its technique were not widely accepted in the tradition-bound world of golf. Tom Watson, an eight-time major winner, said the technique “was not a stroke of golf.” Even when Watson’s putting went sour, he refused to use it, and he still does.

Ernie Els, three times a major winner, also criticized long putters and those who used them, yet became far more flexible on the subject when his putter sputtered. When his fellow countryman Trevor Immelman started using a belly putter at the 2004 Tournament Players Championship of Europe, Els feelings on it were to the point: “I think they should be banned. Nerves and the skill of putting are part of the game. You know, take a tablet if you can’t handle it.”

Then skipping ahead seven years and a thousand missed putts, Els was using the belly putter at the end of last season, and his feelings about it also to the point: “Right now I’m glad they haven’t banned it,” he said. “As long as it’s legal, I’ll keep cheating like the rest of them.”

The United States Golf Association and the Royal and Ancient Golf Society of St Andrews, the self-appointed world-wide makers and keepers of the Rules of Golf, have not banned the long putters or the technique of anchoring the club against the body. When Sam Snead’s croquet method of putting—facing the hole with the ball between his legs and stroking like a croquet mallet—was deemed illegal by the ruling bodies in the late ’60s, Snead shifted to a sidesaddle style where he faced the hole but the ball was to the right of his stance. The croquet style was ruled illegal on rather sketchy aesthetic terms rather than on competitive terms. The sidesaddle technique was considered appropriate by the powers that be, though it was interesting that no other players adopted the method.

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