The Putter That Aims Itself
Photo by Ben Walton
Every year about this time, I pore through the Hot List looking for a new putter. I have one in mind this year, but if it's like the past 32 years, I'll stick with the very odd-shape putter pictured on this page that I started using in 1985. I've gone through eight of them, and I have eight more identical ones in a box in my garage, which should get me to the finish line. There's a story here, of course.
In the early 1980s, Dave Pelz was working on a research project with tour pros and serious amateurs who uniformly mis-aimed right or left of their putting line, forcing a correction during the stroke. For example, Lee Trevino aimed left and pushed his putts (pretty successfully). Most golfers aim poorly and can't compensate, which led Pelz to search for a more effective aiming device or design for the putterhead.
A professor at the University of Maryland told Pelz that no lines or square edges or clubhead shapes actually aided in aiming as long as there was a ball on the ground being aimed. Golfers naturally aimed the ball, not the putterhead. Pelz said his testing with Jim Simons, Andy North, Tom Kite and others corroborated this finding.
"If you took the ball away, you'd aim the putter better," Pelz said. "Once the ball is in front, the mind is moving from the ball to the hole, and the putterhead becomes a blob in your subconscious."
This gave Pelz the idea of designing a putter resembling a line of multiple golf balls: the more balls, the easier to line up. Pelz said he mounted six balls in a row, and "wow, did the guys aim it better!" He even mounted 10 and 12 balls in a row with improved results, but they were too unwieldy to swing. He settled back on three plastic balls, which he patented and brought to market in two variations.
One model had a short face of about two inches and a long fin behind the balls; a second model had a long face and a short fin in back (above). D.A. Weibring won the 1985 New Zealand Open using the short-face putter, and several other pros put that model in play.
The USGA moved swiftly. The first model with the short face was judged to violate the rule that a putter must be longer from heel to toe than from front to back. Some argued that the heel-to-toe measurement doesn't necessarily mean the front of the putter, but could apply to the longer back fin. "I had fun cross-examining Weibring and [Lon] Hinkle about where to find the heel and the toe of a golf club," recalls Lee Abrams, the USGA's counsel at the time.
The Pelz Big Face Putter, as it was called when submitted to the USGA, was ruled conforming, with review to come after a 10-year grace period. The late USGA senior executive director Frank Hannigan, whom I had partnered with to win his club's invitational four-ball tournament while using the long-face version, told me that someone on the executive committee said during the review: "Tarde's the only player still using it, and he can't beat anybody, so let's leave it conforming." And the USGA grandfathered it indefinitely in 1995. The heartless Royal and Ancient, which governs outside the United States and Mexico, doesn't generally grandfather equipment, so it ruled both putter models nonconforming in its jurisdiction. But that's not the end of the story.
A few years later, I played in a pro-am with Callaway's chief designer, Dick Helmstetter, and we discussed Pelz's aiming theory. A while after that, I heard Helmstetter had approached Pelz and offered him $80,000 for the patent. Pelz declined, asking for $2.50 per putter. Helmstetter declined, but the two eventually agreed on a flat $250,000.
Pelz's three-ball design became the basis for Callaway's Odyssey 2-Ball putter. It's very likely the person reading this article either uses one or did at one time. More than five million 2-Balls have been sold, ranking it with the Ping Anser (50 years old in 2017) as the all-time best-sellers. Two-Ball models won gold medals in this year's Hot List.
What I won't go into here is that a nasty lawsuit was brought against the USGA in 1986, which ended in Pelz's company going bankrupt and Pelz exiting the club business to focus on instruction. (This lawsuit and a subsequent square-grooves case played a seminal role in affirming the right of sports governing bodies to regulate equipment.) Barney Adams was a top executive in Pelz's company and went on to launch Adams Golf with a successful fairway wood called Tight Lies, which contributed to the development of hybrids. He took his company public and hired a relatively unknown executive named Chip Brewer to run Adams Golf.
In the natural symmetry of the game, Brewer now is the chief executive of Callaway Golf. And the search for a new putter goes on.