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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.”

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.

But since neither the USGA nor the R&A came down on the use of the long putter when Charlie Owens introduced it or Orville Moody won the USGA’s Senior Open with it, it’s difficult to believe they will rule against the technique, though they are keeping their eyes on it.

Last summer, before Bradley won the PGA with the belly putter, Mike Davis, executive director of the USGA, was questioned about his association’s view on the long putter. Davis, who says he personally can’t stand watching people use it, nonetheless isn’t convinced that it’s a “game-changer.”

But at the USGA’s annual meeting the first weekend of February this year, Davis was singing a different tune. “If you look back at the interest in it, it really never changed for over 20 years,” Davis says. “Then, all of a sudden in 2011, this has become a much bigger topic. So, the R&A and the USGA have been talking about this at length, and we’re looking at it from the perspective of what is good for the game for all golfers long term.”

The USGA and the R&A now seem to have concerns along the lines of Faldo’s, that anchoring the club to the belly or breastplate may not be considered a traditional stroke of golf, and, in fact, anchoring a putter may give an advantage in windy conditions. “We did talk about equipment issues, including anchoring,” says Davis.

For elite players, the appeal can be instant. Nick Price, three times a major winner and now a Champions Tour player, took to it quickly when he first tried it two years ago.

“I’d see Freddie Couples and Bernhard Langer beating us up using it,” says Price. “So I said to my caddie in [February of 2010], I’m going to try that belly putter. I spent a week practicing with it and put it right into play. I immediately putted better with it. I won the Legends tournament with Mark O’Meara and I used it to make the winning putt in the play-off. Your address, alignment, posture are all more consistent. It just simplifies things.

“It still requires a substantial amount of practice. When I practice with it, I feel like I get better. That wasn’t always the case with the short putter.”

For Price, who has seen and done about all in the game over the last three decades, putting is a very personal thing. And using a longer putter is just tailoring the putting stroke to the equipment, not unlike using different shafts in clubs.

“You know, Bobby Locke almost took a divot when he putted; Gary Player jabbed it, Ben Crenshaw is all about a smooth arm and shoulder rock,” says Price. “There have been all sorts of different grips. The claw grip got popular a few years ago. It’s just so personal, putting. There just isn’t one way for everybody.”

The conventional wisdom for the use of long putters is that those players who are having trouble with the short putts, the putts in the “yip zone” of say three to 10 feet, will likely make more of them because those putts are so much more about the correct line than speed, and the users of long putters believe they keep their strokes on the line more consistently.

The wisdom also speaks to the difficulty of developing a feel for long putts, those in the “lag zone” of more than 30 feet. It is this part of the technique that the user of the long putter will tell you takes oodles of practice, and it was apparent in Keegan Bradley’s PGA Championship win, and his earlier victory last season at the Byron Nelson Championship, that he had devoted a goodly part of his life to getting the feel for lag putts.

Tom Lehman, the Champions Tour player of the year last season, went to the broomstick putter in 2005, but for a slightly different reason. The 1996 British Open winner was becoming dissatisfied with his putting. At first he tried to solve the problem by altering his stroke with the short putter. That didn’t work. Then he tried going back to his old method, and he couldn’t find it.

“I was always a blocker,” says Lehman. “I didn’t really release the putter head, at least not like the great putters like Tiger Woods, Ben Crenshaw, Brad Faxon. When I tried to really release it, it didn’t work right, then my old stroke didn’t seem to work right. I went to the long putter just to try to make putts again.”

That was in 2005, but by 2009 at the start of his Champions Tour career he was back to the short putter again, and last season he won three times with it.

“I didn’t think that I was as good a long putter with it, or even as good a short putter,” says Lehman of the broomstick, (he also says he tried the belly putter without any success.) “I was probably making a few more 15-footers. I got sick and tired of feeling awkward with it, feeling awkward over the long putts and short putts. I went back to the conventional putter and started using a putting track that really helped me. So I’ve stayed with the short putter.”

Phil Mickelson has tried the belly putter, as has Jim Furyk. Both haven’t fully committed to it. Bradley, who has become a regular practice partner of Mickelson, gave Lefty a couple of thoughts about it. Bradley is surprised by the hoopla surrounding the long putters at the end of last season.

“I think when Phil started using it, it kind of shot up, everyone noticed,” says Bradley. “I hate it when people think that the belly putter is a crutch for us to putt with. For me, it’s just a better way to putt. I always considered myself a good putter before I had the belly putter. I’ve seen guys grab it and it looks like they’ve never played golf before. It’s not like it’s something you grab and you automatically are one of the best putters on tour, which is a huge myth . . . It takes hours and hours of practice, and I hope people realize that.”

“The ball doesn’t know how long the putter shaft is,” says Pelz. “The long putter, belly putter is not necessarily a panacea for all players. I think players should test it. Give it a try and see what it does for you.”

Pelz was speaking about all players, not just those at the elite level. For Ian Baker Finch, the 1991 British Open winner and current television commentator, what’s good for the common man isn’t necessarily good for the world’s elite players.

“I think anything at all that helps the average player enjoy his game more, I’m 100 percent for it,” says Baker Finch. “It teaches perfect technique. You just put it in your belly and swing on whatever arc the shaft is tilted and there you have it. It’s easier to make repetitive strokes.”

But, when it comes to Tour players standing over knee knockers with a million in cash and a load of exemptions at stake, Baker Finch is a traditionalist. “At the elite level of golf, the world-tour level, we should be making our own rules. I think the long putter takes away a major aspect of the game, being able to hole short putts under pressure. I think the belly putter and the long putter are aids foreign to the way the game has been played for hundreds of years. I’d ban it for players on the elite level.”

Pelz did a study of the use of the long and belly putters that was published in Golf Magazine two years ago. He found that the belly putter helped more players than the broomstick, but both putters were advantageous to amateurs. As for elite players, it’s a different kettle of fish.

“The art and science of putting relies on green reading, break, speed, particularly having a good feel of speed for the line you have chosen,” says Pelz. “These are things that are way more important than shaft length.”

Bradley seems to have figured this all out. With the success he’s achieved, there is no going back. “I’m a lifer,” he says. v

Jeff Williams is a contributing editor for Cigar Aficionado.

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