When Keegan Bradley was on the 2011 PGA Championship—one of golf’s four major tournaments—he became the first player to win a major using what’s known in the golfing world as a “belly putter.” Since then, three of the past five majors, along with an increasing number of regular tour events, have been won by players using belly putters, and now authorities in the golfing world are stepping in.
After Ernie Els’s victory at the British Open last year with a belly putter, the R&A and the USGA, golf’s two governing bodies, put forth a proposal that would outlaw this style of putting, and they will decide in the coming months whether to implement the new rule (most seem to think that they will). A majority tend to side with the change, but for others the new rule is nothing short of tyrannical, and they have been taking their cases to the public and in townhall-style players meetings.
“Now we’re making rules for the betterment of the game based on zero evidence? Incredible,” said Adam Scott, a professional golfer who uses a long putter, which is similar to a belly putter. “To say they will ban this after we’ve won majors is unbelievable,” he added.
The crux of the argument in favor of the new rule is simple: belly putters make putting too easy. Whereas the length of a conventional putter is about 35 inches, belly and long putters can stem in some cases close to 50 inches, allowing players to “anchor” the butt of the club into their stomach or sternum when making their stroke. Proponents of the new rule say this takes the small, twitchy muscles in the hands and wrists out of play.
Where the controversy lies is the lack of data proving that this style of putting is actually easier. The move also comes in the wake of a series of other rulings enacted by the USGA and the R&A, which in recent years have placed limits on the technology used in drivers and the types of grooves in wedges, lending to its image as an overextended governing body.
“We have repeatedly said that this is not about scientific data,” said Joe Goode, a director at the USGA, “but about whether there is a possibility that anchoring may alter the competitive challenge of making a stroke.” The new rule wouldn’t have any effect on the length of putters, Goode is quick to point out, but would simply outlaw anchoring the putter, and he points to the growing number of professionals employing belly and long putters as a sign of the technique’s benefits.
Andrew Rice, a well-known golf instructor and author, used a long putter himself when he was younger to overcome his dreaded “yips”—a term golfers use to describe a nervous twitch that makes putting all but impossible. He says that while the idea makes sense, a blanket ruling isn’t the way to go, and that exceptions should be made for golfers who want to compete at lower levels but aren’t professional golfers.
“The USGA is being a bit autocratic,” Rice said. “I got the yips when I was in my mid 20s. If I couldn’t use my long putter, I would have quit golf and wouldn’t have been teaching golf, no doubt about it.”
From our March 29, 2013, issue; Gut Putt? Tut-tut!