Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 29, 2012

The Success Of Long Putters Only Hastens Their Demise

At Turnberry in southwestern Scotland this past week a host of golfing legends made their way around the Ailsa Course in the Senior Open Championship. There were major championship winners Tom Watson, Greg Norman, Ian Woosnam, and Tom Lehman; all older and grayer of course, but their swings and strides and visages still instantly familiar to golf fans. German Bernhard Langer and American Fred Couples comprised the final pairing on Sunday. Langer, who twice won the Masters and who added two Senior Tour majors in 2010, led with a score of 7-under par through three rounds. Perpetual fan favorite Couples, winner of the 1992 Masters and the Senior Players Championship last year, started the day one behind.

While they were evenly matched through the turn, Langer fell badly off his game after the pairing was put on the clock for falling out of position. Tied at 7-under after a Couples birdie at the 11th, Langer found trouble off the tee at the 12th and eventually made double-bogey. Three consecutive bogeys followed from 14 through 16 as the German tumbled to a back nine score of 40 and into a tie for sixth place. Couples came to the far-5 penultimate hole still at minus seven, tied with Gary Hallberg who had finished his round. The popular American made two of his always silky passes at the ball to easily reach the green, and then two-putted for a birdie to claim the outright lead. One hole later he poured in a 25-foot putt for an exclamation point birdie and a two-shot win.

While Couples and Langer returned quite different scores on Sunday, they do have one thing in common; for both men the shortest club in his golf bag isn’t his putter. For years Langer has used a long putter which he anchors against his sternum with his left hand while guiding the stroke with his right which grips the shaft halfway down its length. Couples in turn has been an adherent of the so-called belly putter for nearly a decade. As the name implies, these putters with shafts about the same length as a conventional driver, are anchored by placing the end of the shaft against one’s stomach, while guiding the stroke with a two-hand grip midway down the shaft.

For years long and belly putters were seen as a crutch for older players whose nerves had become too frayed to withstand the test of a six-footer on Sunday afternoon with a conventional shaft and grip. Certainly among the senior players at Turnberry the clubs were in ample supply. Runner-up Hallberg uses a long putter similar to Langer’s, and ESPN’s coverage on the greens showed belly and long putters being used by players both familiar and unknown.

But curiosity and amusement have been replaced by controversy as the non-conventional putters have appeared in ever-increasing numbers in the bags of regular PGA Tour players, including many who are decades away from Senior Tour eligibility. At the recent Open Championship at Royal Lytham, there were 27 long putters and 16 belly putters used by the starting field of 156 players. Adam Scott, the 32-year old Australian who switched to a long putter early in 2011, had the tournament in his grasp until he bogied each of the last four holes. Scott’s stumble opened the door for South Africa’s Ernie Els to claim his second Open and fourth major. The 42-year old Els switched to a belly putter after poor results on the greens threatened to permanently derail his career. Having been publicly critical of non-conventional putters Els decision to put one in his bag generated more than a little notice. But pointing out that the Rules of Golf do not prohibit the putters, Els said “As long as it’s legal, I’ll keep cheating like the rest of them.”

Much of the controversy is a result not just of the increased use of the putters, but also of their sudden high-profile success. Els’ win at Lytham followed the U.S. Open victory in June by 26-year old Webb Simpson, who also uses a belly putter. Two majors before that, then 25-year old Keegan Bradley used a belly putter while winning the 2011 PGA Championship last August in his first-ever appearance in a major. Three wins in the last four major championships have been more than enough to send the traditionalists into a tizzy and to put long putters “firmly back on the radar” of the USGA and the R&A, as the latter’s chief executive Peter Dawson said after the Open.

Some players, Tiger Woods among them, have suggested a simple rule requiring the putter to be the shortest club in the bag. But Dawson’s comments after the Open suggest that the rule makers are focusing not on the length of the clubs per se, but rather on the fact that they are anchored against the body, and the extent to which that impacts or assists the putting stroke. While Dawson insisted that no decision has been taken, the extent of the controversy and the level of hyperventilating from those who still lament the demise of the gutta-percha golf ball make it seem highly likely that before the year is out the use of long and belly putters will be sharply restricted or effectively banned.

Highly likely, and highly unfortunate. Such a decision will necessarily ignore the fact that Adam Scott and his long putter coughed up four consecutive bogeys under the pressure of Sunday at the Open. It will likewise skip over the reality that Webb Simpson’s belly putter did not cause Jim Furyk to hit perhaps the worst drive of his life at Olympic’s 16th hole, or the fact that Keegan Bradley’s putter had nothing to do with Jason Dufner making bogey on three of Atlanta Athletic Club’s final four holes, without which Bradley’s two late birdies would have been meaningless.

I hold no brief for belly or long putters. I’ve never carried one in my bag, and the few times I’ve stroked a few putts with one at my local golf shop, they’ve seemed cumbersome and unnatural to use. What I do know is that the USGA and the R&A, charged with the joint responsibility of making and interpreting the Rules of Golf while keeping the game competitive and fun for both highly skilled professionals and amateurs who are considerably less so, have been under constant assault for years. Armed with the twin weapons of modern engineering and 21st century materials, club and ball makers constantly turn out ever more advanced and high-tech products.

With a new mega-sized yet ultra lightweight driver and a golf ball with the latest dimple design I can hit it further off the tee today than I did twenty years ago. That’s utterly illogical physically, but it certainly makes my weekend game more fun. But give that same driver and ball to a professional, especially one of the many with a renewed focus on conditioning, and he renders old courses obsolete; turning weekly Tour stops into a series of driver, wedge holes followed by a putting competition. Because the rule makers stubbornly insist on having a single set of rules that apply equally to the weekend duffer and the Tour professional, they have been largely helpless against the wonders of high-tech club and ball development. Surely it is just a matter of time until some tournament is contested on a course measuring 8,000 yards. But give the USGA and the R&A a problem, even if it might well be an imaginary one, caused by the decidedly low-tech matter of how a putter is held and struck; now that’s an issue they can and will address posthaste.

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