The Loop

Stats unclear on the long putter debate

August 30, 2011

With three wins in three weeks, the long/belly/anchored putter buzz is going viral. I recently chatted with one manufacturer who suggested retailers are trying to order belly and long putters "by the thousands."

In other words, what we have here is classic media-induced frenzy. Golf's answer to a flash mob. The belief is that the longer putter is not merely a miracle cure for the deeply afflicted poor putter, but also is quite simply a better idea that every golfer should adopt in much the same way as he switched to Softspikes or metal drivers. Nick Price, who switched to a belly length putter last year and won with it, thinks the trend isn't necessarily a given but the technique does work.

"The belly putter isn't the easy cure that a lot of people think it is. It still requires a lot of practice," Price told John Paul Newport in the Wall Street Journal."But it simplifies the fundamentals of putting so much that increasingly guys who have putting problems or inconsistencies are going to end up turning to it."

But do the stats suggest an overwhelming advantage for players who switch to a putting stroke that anchors the putter to some portion of their thoraxes? Adam Scott has been noteworthy for his switch in February to a "broomstick" long putter. In 2010, he ranked 136th in putting average. This year, he's 81st. Of course, maybe he's just hitting the ball closer to the hole. How's he rank in 3-putt Avoidance, where the longer putter might excel in those nervous, potentially yip-filled situations? A year ago he was 188th, this year, he's 172nd. Hardly alarming. What about those short putts, like say 4-footers? He was 183rd last year, 174th this year. You would think he'd gone from 183rd to 2nd, no?

Certainly it's true that the percentage of long putters being used on tour is higher than it's been, freakishly high, as a matter of fact. According to a source with access to the Darrell Survey, 15 percent of the 125-player field, or THREE times what it was at the same event last year. What those numbers mean depends on which extreme side of the debate over anchored putting strokes you sit on. Some say Keegan Bradley's win in the PGA Championship might be a Malcolm Gladwell-like tipping point to switch the majority of players to a new style of putting. Others say it is the uncontrollable spread of an ebola-like virus that diminishes the game beyond repair.

But do these players tend to have better putting statistics than the tour average in the new putting statistic of Strokes Gained, which many believe shows who the most successful putters are on a week in, week out basis? Well, of the 18 players who use a belly or long putter, more than half (10) have a strokes gained average better than the tour average (0.000).  As a group, their average of .025 would have been a click better than Graeme McDowell, who was 103rd. For perspective, the current leader in Strokes Gained is Steve Stricker at +1.006, and there are four belly- or long-putter users ranked in the top 40 in Strokes Gained, which means 36, or 90 percent, use a conventional length putter. It's also worth noting that one of the statistically better players using a belly-length putter is Matt Kuchar (31st in Strokes Gained, 21st in Total Putting, 9th in 3-putt avoidance) technically doesn't even anchor the putter against his mid-section, using the club much like Angel Cabrera did when he won the 2009 Masters.

PLAYER                   __STROKES GAINED AVG.__Blake Adams                         +.482Keegan Bradley                 +.087Chris Couch                          +.334Ernie Els                                   -.857Jim Furyk                               -.223Retief Goosen                          +.280J.J. Henry                          +.205Charles Howell III                  +.492Matt Kuchar                          +.417Martin Laird                          +.234Spencer Levin                  +.038Troy Matteson                          -.112Nick O'Hern                           -.239Carl Pettersson                 +.457Adam Scott                           -.138Webb Simpson                  +.212Vijay Singh                           -.110Kevin Stadler                           -.513Brendan Steele                   -.115

Rulesmakers suggest the topic of long and particularly "anchored" putters is still a question under consideration, but that banning such a method of putting likely would hurt more players, particularly recreational golfers, than it would help the game. Statistically, it seems difficult to draw conclusions on one side of the debate or other. That would seem to make it doubly difficult for a ban to be instituted by the game's ruling bodies.

There is a school of thought that suggests, "Well, they've done so in the past," and those in that group will quite rightly point to something like Sam Snead's croquet putting method or the paddle group, just like Phil Mickelson did last week when he said, "If it were going to be banned, it should have happened 20-plus years ago. But now that it's been legal, I don't think you can make it retroactive. There have been guys that have been working with that putter for years if not decades. I just don't believe that it should even be a consideration. But, having said that, we've been retroactive on grooves; we've outlawed the paddle grip, for crying out loud, I don't know why; that was legal for three decades. So I don't know what the process is, but I think it's very unfair to let guys play with it competitively for however many years and then try to take it away."

Of course, it's worth remembering that when the USGA's Executive Committee banned croquet-style putting beginning in 1968, it used logic and language that was decidedly non-data driven. The rule changes that stipulated that a putting stroke had to be made with the player standing to one side of the ball came about because the Executive Committee "felt that, on balance, the amendments were necessary to keep golf as golf, and to prevent it from being modified into another kind of game.

"...[R]ecent aberrations in putting styles and clubs have started a trend which, if not stopped, could have changed the nature of golf."

The view has changed some four decades hence, however. Change because you don't like the way something looks is not as likely today. You need proof that it's having a deleterious effect on golf's most vital characteristics, what the infamous USGA/R&A Joint Statement of Principles called "The purpose of the Rules is to protect golf's best traditions, to prevent an over-reliance on technological advances rather than skill, and to ensure that skill is the dominant element of success throughout the game."

The statistical evidence regarding "anchored" putters is cloudy at best, and given recent history of equipment rule changes, cloudy is not reason enough to make a rule change. Then again, a ban on anchoring the putter to your chest or abdomen wouldn't necessarily be an equipment rule change, would it? It didn't take a great deal of evidence to change the rule on videotape disqualifications, for example. Whether belly putters are more like square grooves or signed scorecards is something that we'll only know after something happens. Or nothing at all.

--Mike Stachura

Follow him on Twitter: @MikeStachura