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Short demand for long putters as vote on ban nears

Golf pro Russ Lipinski demonstrated how the long putter is “anchored” to the body.

Bill Green/Globe Staff

Golf pro Russ Lipinski demonstrated how the long putter is “anchored” to the body.

Every good golfer has a preshot routine. For Russ Lipinski, the first step has been the same on every green since 1999: pressing the handle of his putter against his abdomen. Anchoring the club to his torso, Lipinski believes, promotes steady, consistent strokes.

Despite years of success with a “belly” putter, Lipinski has been practicing lately with a shorter club that does not touch his body, and he has noticed fewer customers taking interest in long putters at Golfer’s Warehouse in Natick, where he is the PGA professional.

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“In the last few months, we haven’t really sold many at all,” Lipinski said.

Any day now, the United States Golf Association and the Royal & Ancient — golf’s most authoritative rulemakers — will vote on whether to ban the anchored putting technique used by Lipinski, prominent PGA Tour members like Hopkinton native Keegan Bradley, and countless weekend golfers. The sport’s governing bodies approved the ban in a preliminary vote last fall but put off a final decision until the close of a 90-day comment period, which ended Feb. 28.

Technically, the ban would not outlaw long putters. Using an extended-length club would remain legal, so long as a golfer did not anchor it to his body. But in practice, the mere prospect of a rule change appears to be driving down demand for long putters at local pro shops.

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“When everybody was talking about long putters, with Keegan Bradley and Webb Simpson winning majors, we saw it as an opportunity,” said Jamie Griffiths, the Greater Boston sales representative for TaylorMade-Adidas Golf Co. “Last year, the sales forecast was four times higher than normal for long putters, and this year we’re not even talking about it.”

Long putters on display at Golfers’ Warehouse in Natick.

Bill Greene/Globe Staff

Long putters on display at Golfers’ Warehouse in Natick.

In December, a month after the preliminary vote to ban anchored putting, nationwide sales of all putters were 21 percent lower than in the same period of 2011, according to Golf Datatech, a retail tracker in Kissimmee, Fla. The drop represented the biggest decline since the firm began monitoring sales in 1997.

“I don’t think that’s a coincidence,” said Golf Datatech cofounder Tom Stine. “People don’t know what to buy, so they don’t buy anything. You don’t want to spend money on something and then be told it’s against the rules.”

On the PGA Tour, long putter use is down 46 percent through the first seven tournaments, according to the Darrell Survey, which tracks player equipment.

Bradley, a former Globe All-Scholastic at Hopkinton High School, became the first golfer to win a major championship with an anchored putter when he used an Odyssey Sabertooth measuring 46¾ inches that he held against his stomach at the 2011 PGA Championship.

Last June, Simpson won the US Open with a belly putter. A month later, Ernie Els, who declared in 2004 that long putters “definitely should be banned,” used one en route to victory at the British Open, beating Adam Scott and the 49-inch “broomstick” putter he pressed to his chest and swept across the green.

One day after Els’s win, Royal & Ancient chief executive Peter Dawson warned that his group and the USGA would review the legality of anchored putting, even though they approved it after lengthy debate in 1989. PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem has said the tour opposes a ban on anchored putting, citing an “absence of data or any basis to conclude that there is a competitive advantage to be gained by using anchoring.”

Though some professional golfers have enjoyed success with long putters, the clubs have not overtaken the sport. Golf shop managers and equipment distributors report that only about 10 percent of putters sold are of the extralong variety.

“If it was such an advantage, why wouldn’t every young golfer be using one?” said Joe Ricci, general manager of Joe & Leigh’s Discount Golf Pro Shop in South Easton. “It takes time to get used to it. It’s not like you’re going to walk out of the pro shop and be good with it, and most amateurs don’t like to practice.”

Still, the long putter market represents a small slice of a large pie. American golfers bought 152.5 million putters in 2012, according to Golf Datatech. Callaway Golf Co., whose Odyssey putters are the game’s most popular, reported this month that it sold $93.3 million worth of putters last year.

At Golfer’s Warehouse, many Odyssey long putters have been marked down by 33 percent. John Simanski, the store’s general manager, said that since the preliminary vote to ban anchored putting, “manufacturers aren’t pushing them as much.”

Erin Henderson, Callaway’s Greater Boston sales representative, stopped short of confirming Simanski’s assessment.

“What I will say is we’re doing some very aggressive things in the putter category in terms of helping golfers with their alignment over the ball this season,” Henderson said.

For now, Simanski said, “everybody is in a holding pattern” until a final vote on anchored putting. Even if the ban is approved, it won’t be effective until Jan. 1, 2016, when the USGA and Royal & Ancient publish their quadrennial update to the official rules of golf.

The gap between adoption and implementation could leave retailers even less certain about what to stock, but Simanski said he will take his cues from the companies that make long putters.

“It’s an item we’ll continue to carry as long as the manufacturers make it,” he said.

Callum Borchers can be reached at callum.borchers@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @callumborchers.
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