NORTON — What started as a cry for help eventually turned into a fad, which quickly has mushroomed into a full-blown revolution.
Every week, it seems, more and more PGA Tour players are using long putters or belly putters, with their popularity and success forcing golf’s governing bodies to weigh in on whether putters of unconventional length should remain legal.
At the recent PGA Championship, more than 50 of the 156 players in the field used either a long putter or a belly putter. And while the champion of that tournament, Rory McIlroy, used a putter of standard length, longer models are being used to win golf’s biggest tournaments. Ernie Els captured this year’s British Open with a belly putter, and Webb Simpson used one when he won the US Open.
Simpson also won last year’s Deutsche Bank Championship with a belly putter, and he will have it back in the bag when he defends his title this week at TPC Boston.
For some, such as Simpson, Keegan Bradley, and Carl Pettersson, a longer putter is all they’ve known on the PGA Tour. The thought of switching to something else has left them — and others — conflicted.
“I’ve used one for 15 years now,” said Pettersson, a five-time tour winner. “I don’t see why they should change it.
“I don’t like the way they say it’s easier to putt with a long putter, an anchored putter. It isn’t easier. If it was easier, everybody on tour would use a long putter or a belly putter.
“You have to practice and develop a stroke with the long putter just like you do with the short putter. There’s no guarantees of making it easier.
“If you’re going to ban the long putter, you might as well ban the hybrids, the big drivers, the ball that goes 300 miles. I think it falls under the same umbrella as some of the other equipment. This is the way the game has gone.”
The anchoring that Pettersson referred to is the crux of the debate. Players typically stick the handle of a belly putter into their midsection; long putters usually make contact with a golfer’s sternum. There are some who feel, rather passionately, that anchoring the club takes away from the pure putting stroke, with arms free-flowing and hands possibly reacting to nerves. An anchored approach reduces pressure, or so the implication goes.
Put Graeme McDowell, the 2010 US Open winner, firmly in the against-longer-putters camp.
“When you can anchor the putter to a part of your body, that just takes one extraneous movement out of the putting stroke,” McDowell said. “It’s just kind of a physical fact that if you can just take one element of movement and motion out of the stroke, that holing putts will become easier.
“It just so happens that a lot of very good players in the world now are using long putters. It wasn’t such a big issue two, three, four years ago, when they weren’t in the spotlight and winning major events.
“Putting is such a big part of the game that, you know, let’s level the playing field again. Let’s get everyone with a short putter back in the bag, as the game is meant to be played.”
The abundance of players using the longer putters — and the success and tournament victories that have come with it — has brought the issue to the two organizations that confer periodically and decide the rules of golf. The US Golf Association and the R&A have the power to ban the club, a decision that wouldn’t take effect until 2016. They have insinuated recently that a decision could be forthcoming.
“The situation is that the R&A and the USGA have this subject firmly back on the radar,” Peter Dawson, chief executive of the R&A, said the day after this year’s British Open, when Els and runner-up Adam Scott both used longer putters. “We appreciate that there is much speculation about this and that we need to clarify the position as soon as possible.
“I think you’re going to see us saying something about it one way or the other in a few months, rather than years. It is under active discussion.”
Dawson confirmed that the debate lies in the stroke, not the equipment.
“Anchoring is what we’re looking at, method of stroke,” Dawson said. “It’s all about putting around a fixed pivot point, whether that fixed pivot point is in your belly or under your chin or on your chest.
“The objections I find are . . . if people have become failed putters in the conventional way, why should they have a crutch to come back and compete against me when I haven’t failed in the conventional way? That’s the general argument one hears.
“But we’re also now seeing people who can putt perfectly well in the conventional way thinking that an anchored stroke gives them an advantage. I think that’s the fundamental change we’ve witnessed.”
Until a decision has been made, more converts no doubt will be found. Els used a conventional putter for years before making the switch, and has said, “As long as it’s legal, I’ll keep cheating like the rest of them.”
Those who have been longtime supporters of longer putters might bristle at such an assertion, but they might not have a say in the matter for too much longer. Simpson said he’s been practicing at home with two conventional-length putters, just to be ready.
Pettersson estimates he’s spent “10,000 hours, 15,000 hours” practicing with a club he’s used for 15 years. If the club is banned, could he adapt?
“Would I adapt? Well, I’d have to,” Pettersson said. “I’ve got a high school diploma. What else am I going to do?”