The Belly Becomes A Beast
Is the long putter clutch or crutch? Here's how it became a sensation, how it can help you make more putts, how equipment makes it work... and what to do when all else fails
For more than two decades, it has seemed like tour pros using bellies and broomsticks have had a secret deal with the pooh-bahs of Far Hills and St. Andrews.
After all, for years USGA and R&A types--many of whom regretted their 1989 decision affirming the instruments as conforming--made little fuss after a wielder of a long or belly putter won the odd tournament. It would be difficult to prove, but I suspect that in exchange for assurances that the ruling would never be revisited, the grateful practitioners agreed to the following:
1. Have at it on the Champions Tour, but don't get greedy on the regular tours.
2. Keep those things away from the kids.
3. Whatever you do, don't win a major.
All went well for a long time: your Jim Ferrees, Rocky Thompsons and Mark Wiebes making a haul as seniors, juniors dutifully believing that long putters were for shaky old men, Vijay Singh going conventional to win his three majors, and Stewart Cink abandoning the long putter right before winning the British Open.
Then in 2011, a bunch of whippersnappers went rogue.
The insurrection began at the Masters when Adam Scott--dashing, gifted and chronically terrible on the greens--nearly won after being completely transformed by a switch to the long putter two months earlier. Four months after the Masters, the 31-year-old Aussie made even more putts at Firestone to win the WGC-Bridgestone by four. Over the next two months, 20-somethings using belly putters dominated the PGA Tour. At the PGA, Keegan Bradley became the first to win a major championship by "anchoring" a putter longer than 40 inches. Then Webb Simpson won twice, and Bill Haas took the Tour Championship and the FedEx Cup. It was startling to see relatively unscarred young guys choosing the long sticks.
At the same time, two of the game's stalwarts added credibility to the movement by switching to the belly putter. OK, maybe Phil Mickelson looked like an impulsive kid with the latest toy. But blue-collar Jim Furyk didn't. And they weren't the only ones. At The Barclays, 20 of the PGA Tour's top-125 players were using some form of the long putter. At the same tournament in each of the previous two years, that number was six. It all raised an obvious question: Is the game's new blood proving that the long and belly putters are actually a better way to putt? Respected voices intimate as much. Nick Price, a grudging convert, foresees the clubs sweeping the professional tours in "six or seven years." One of the greatest putters of all time, Brad Faxon, draws an analogy with the revolution in tennis after the two-handed backhand caught on. And Geoff Ogilvy says he expects to see long-putter options in starter sets for juniors.
"The belly and the broomstick are definitely superior methods," says Johnny Miller, who way back in 1980 came to the Los Angeles Open with a homemade 45-inch putter that he braced against the inside of his left arm. "When the axis doesn't move, the shaft angle at impact is always exactly where you started at address--which is a huge thing in putting. I think what the belly putter especially will do is lengthen the period of years that your nerves can stand up to the pressure. And I really don't see any reason why a guy can't be phenomenal with that putter."
This last point rebuts the position of Frank Thomas, the former USGA technical director who opposed approving the long putter. The long stick, Thomas asserts, "can make a bad putter a good putter, but it can't make a good putter a great putter."
That had long seemed true, and still might be. The most common assessment of the long putter is that it helps from short range but allows less feel for distance and less touch on speedy breakers. "I could always be an average putter with that long putter, but if I wanted to be a really good putter, I had to go back to the short putter," says Tom Lehman, whose 10 victories on the regular and Champions tours have all been with a conventional putter.
Still, shaken traditionalists are sounding off. The loudest call for a ban has come from Vinny Giles, a former U.S.
Amateur champion who at 66 won the 2009 USGA Senior Amateur using the long putter. "Nerves are part of the game. Crutches aren't, and these putters are crutches," Giles says. "And that's coming from somebody who uses one. It's time to take a stand."
So far, the ruling bodies say they need to see more. USGA executive director Mike Davis, who has said he "can't stand the look" of the long putter, maintains "there's no evidence it's a game-changer." His counterpart at the R&A, Peter Dawson, adds, "It's certainly not a proven way of putting better. Many people have tried many things over the years to get the ball in the hole, so we're not in a lather about it at this point."
Wise words. Very simply, the stroke made by a long or belly putter does not violate the rules. A legal golf stroke occurs when the ball is "fairly stuck at with the head of the club and must not be pushed, scraped or spooned." That language prohibits using the club as a pool cue, but it says nothing against anchoring the club against the body, which is the main objection traditionalists have to the belly and the broomstick. Billy Casper legally braced his left hand against his left leg while making his distinctive wrist stroke, and players are allowed to ride elongated shafts up their lead arms--the same way Miller experimented with the putter--to fight the chip yips. Anchoring can take place in all sorts of odd address positions that sometimes ensue when hitting escape shots.
The rules are delicate. In 1963, an obscure pro named Bob Duden, putting "face on" and with a shaft affixed to the clubhead at 90 degrees, led after three rounds at the Crosby. Over the next few years, other pros used the method with no repercussions. But when 54-year-old Sam Snead, desperate to make short putts, in 1966 began improvising his version of the croquet method with a conventional putter, it got people's attention. Using his "squat shot," Snead won the 1967 PGA Seniors' Championship by nine strokes and tied for 10th at that year's Masters. It was at Augusta that Bobby Jones reportedly complained to then-USGA executive director Joe Dey about the way Snead looked bending over the ball. Dey, a man of patrician sensibilities, agreed. It wasn't long before the USGA executive committee, hyperbolically claiming the new method "could have changed the nature of golf," ramrodded a new rule prohibiting a player from standing astride the line of his putt or any extension of that line behind the ball.