Golf Equipment: Long PuttersOctober 24, 2011

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:

  • Have at it on the Champions Tour, but don't get greedy on the regular tours.
    1. Keep those things away from the kids.

    2. 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."

Rocco Mediate

Photo by J.D. Cuban

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.

To Dawson's current point, there was no evidence the croquet style offered a competitive advantage. The ruling was all about aesthetics, and Dey found it necessary to go rhetorically deep to justify the ruling. "The game of golf was becoming bizarre," he said. "It was some other game, part croquet, part shuffleboard and part the posture of Mohammedan prayer."

But it didn't get by Snead that the doyens had ventured into the heretofore sacred area of what constituted a stroke. "I don't think golf is the USGA's personal baby," he said. "I think it's my business how I stroke the ball." It was a simpler world, and rather than sue, Snead quickly adapted a "sidesaddle" style and won three more Senior PGAs.

The rule had other problems. For one thing, it applied only to shots on the green, theoretically allowing presumably unattractive croquet-style shots from everywhere else on the course. Worse, there was the issue of standing astride the line on tap-ins. It resulted in some silly penalties, but probably even more violations that were simply disregarded by playing partners and officials. Finally, an exception to the rule was written in 2006. Players can now be astride their line to avoid standing on the line of a playing partner. But the exception also allows players to stand astride their line as long as it is done "inadvertently." So hypothetically, a player facing the winning putt at the U.S. Open could channel Snead circa 1966 and avoid penalty by saying he didn't mean to. Beware unintended consequences.

banned in 1968.

The USGA proceeded more carefully when the long putter first appeared in the mid-1980s. By the time Charlie Owens had won on the senior tour with his 52-inch Yip Killer, Thomas wanted to outlaw it, primarily on the grounds that it allowed a more efficient and competitively advantageous motion he considered "nontraditional."

Things got complicated when Orville Moody won the 1989 U.S. Senior Open with the long putter, giving the club its first high-profile attention. But Thomas, in his recent book about the evolution of the rules, From Sticks and Stones, writes that the biggest factor was that the Ping grooves lawsuit against the USGA had been filed at about the same time. Thomas surmised the association was afraid Moody would file a lawsuit if it banned the club so soon after his victory, and the USGA affirmed it conformed.

In doing so, the USGA rejected Thomas' proposed solution of establishing a maximum length for a putter at 38 inches but passed a provision to set a minimum length for any club at 18 inches. This was done to eliminate the so-called "kneel and pray" putter, a six-inch-long club that caused users to leave knee prints on the greens. In 2003, in a reaction to distance gains off the tee, the USGA set a maximum length for all clubs except putters at 48 inches.

Twenty-two years after long putters were given a pass, the only thing that matters--at least at the highest level--is whether they provide an undue advantage. It's instructive that no player who has used the belly or the broomstick could be considered a historically great putter. Singh has the most career wins with the long putter on the regular tour, but even when he won nine tournaments in 2004, six were with a conventional putter. Two-time Masters champion Bernhard Langer looked supreme with the long putter on the Champions Tour in 2010, but historically he battled the yips and was a good putter only in spurts.

According to the PGA Tour's new and first truly telling putting statistic--strokes gained on the field--players using long and belly putters are generally found in the bottom half of the rankings. Since 2004, the earliest year the statistic can be retroactively applied, the only three users to consistently crack the upper echelon have been Tim Clark, who ranked second in the category in 2007, Carl Pettersson, who was second in 2010, and Cink, who was third in 2006 and fifth in 2004. And here's the kicker: None of the young players whose recent victories raised the controversy ranked particularly high in 2011. Through the Tour Championship, Simpson ranked 47th, Haas 84th, Bradley 94th and Scott 136th. The highest ranked player using a long putter was Scott McCarron at 17th. The leader? Textbook-orthodox Luke Donald.

"I don't think there is any evidence to prove the belly or the long putter is a superior method," says Marius Filmalter, who has digitally analyzed more than 400 tour players on the SAM PuttLab. "Because it swings from a fixed axis it's easier to produce a pendulum-like motion. But I've never measured anyone using one of those who tested close to Tiger Woods in terms of consistently being square at impact. The longer putter is another tool that the player can practice with and master. But once that is achieved, the separation in who is the better putter comes not from the method, but in the mental approach."

Which is what Ben Crenshaw, arguably the best putter of the past 50 years, considers his key. "Any good putter, no matter what method he uses, is constantly trying to envision speed and line: where to hit that ball, and what it looks like as it arrives at the hole," Crenshaw says. "That's what I've imagined my whole life in putting."

Filmalter, who has studied causes and cures for the yips, says that Scott is the latest example of how change itself is more important than method when it comes to triggering putting improvement. "Adam needed to clean out his brain," he says. "In golf, sometimes the more drastic the change, the better. It creates new neural pathways."

We still don't know for sure what will happen when a bunch of young players who have never used anything but a belly or long putter hit professional golf. If that day proves the putters superior, Davis believes he'll be able to look back at the long view he took without regret. "It's not that we're scared to do something, we're just being very thoughtful," he says. There's no data to show the nature of the game is being changed at the competitive or recreational levels because of these putters. In a perfect world maybe we wouldn't have anchoring, but it existed in various ways before the long putter, and the game got along fine. I think those who are calling for a ban are being myopic. They forget they weren't talking about this a year ago."

Of course, that was before the secret deal got broken.