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No Time To Bellyache

Bradley Keegan lining up a putt

Belly to belly: PGA champ Keegan Bradley gave Phil Mickelson advice.

December 2011

Over my golf lifetime, I've heard three grand prognostications: Back in the 1980s, when woods were made of wood, Gary Adams of TaylorMade said one day everybody would play metal woods. In the 1970s, when balls had soft covers stuffed with rubber bands, Frank Thomas of the USGA said one day everybody would play solid-core balls that didn't cut. And in the 1960s, when putters putted like putt-ers had for 500 years, Paul Runyan said one day everybody would use a belly putter.

OK, not everybody has switched to the longish putter you anchor in your belly -- some attach a longer version to their sternum or even their chin -- but the movement is gaining momentum if not legitimacy when we see the 20-something pros doing it.

A caveat is necessary: This anchored stroke is not golf as we know it and should be banned, as a major champion told me recently, "if the USGA had any guts." But we know that's not happening based on its benign neglect of rules limiting metal woods and solid-core balls, so we have to deal with it. Either we can be purists, avert our eyes and struggle gallantly with our multi-levered strokes, or we can give it a shot and accept better scores through physics. For the seriously afflicted, the same major winner estimates that the belly or broom-handle putter can save you three or four strokes a round.

Short-game wiz Phil Mickelson switched to a belly putter during the playoffs and was telling everybody about a lesson he took from Keegan Bradley, age 25. Phil said, "You can't miss. I mean, you really can't miss from six feet." So it sounded like we had to talk to Bradley before putting this issue to bed.

Keegan's version hyperventilated a little less than Mickelson's: "Phil says I gave him a lesson, but it wasn't really a lesson. Still, I thought it was cool to have Phil come and talk to me about what I do with a belly putter. I spoke to him every day that week he started using one.

"The two things I remember telling him were that your hands should be at least halfway down the shaft, and you shouldn't get too technical. The stroke has to be free. You almost have to go brain-dead. The minute people get technical, they'll putt worse than ever."

Webb Simpson, 26, demonstrates his winning technique, but I'm just as fascinated by the 1966 story in Golf Digest authored by Runyan, who might be described as the father of belly putting.

"In seeking a method to stabilize myself, I tried a very wide, crouching stance," Runyan wrote. "I then anchored the butt end of the shaft against my waist and gripped very tightly with my left hand at the top. I partially extended my right hand down the backside of the shaft. I powered my stroke with my right hand and arm, with the left wrist hinging and the left hand remaining in place."

Runyan tested it thoroughly for several days, hitting 100 straight, three-foot putts with his orthodox style and 100 with the new method. "Not once did my conventional style beat the innovation," he wrote. "Later, I moved around the hole to try various breaking putts, again using 100-putt increments. The same results occurred." He then tried two-footers and made 400 straight with his new style, and 143 with the old method. When he tested it on longer putts, Runyan's belly putting appeared to be less reliable until he lengthened the shaft.

"If and when it is used universally," Runyan wrote, "it would produce a uniformity of putting skill thus far not realized."

Through the years, others have made similar prognostications awaiting the moment when the anchored stroke would not be merely a crutch for the geezers and yippers but embraced as a more mechanically sound stroke by a young generation who would start out as good putters and only get better. Is this that moment?

The USGA slept while metal woods and solid-core balls changed the nature of the game, and by the time the governing body realized what had happened, it was too late to do anything about it. The same is probably true with the anchored putter. There's a 6-year-old somewhere taking up golf with a belly putter, so watch out.

tarde

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