Editor's Note: This post first appeared in July. McDuff will re-visit this issue next week in light of the decision by the USGA and R&A to ban "anchoring."
Following Ernie Els’ victory a couple weeks ago at the Open Championship, the R&A fanned the flames of the “debate” over whether to ban the long putter by announcing they will take up the issue this fall, rather than sometime in the distant future as had been previously indicated. You’ll note I put the word debate in quotes. I did so because, while the topic has been making the rounds ever since Keegan Bradley won the PGA with a belly putter last year, it is not really a debate in the sense that such a term implies reasoned argument on both sides of the issue.
To me, the argument to ban bellies (and broomsticks) is so stupid and counter-productive to the growth of the game as to make me wonder if the R & A hasn’t been infiltrated by Islamic jihadists intent upon taking down another example of western decadence. Seriously, could the R & A be any more reactionary? Unfortunately, the use of the long putter seems to be an emotional issue for some. In researching this piece I came across a number of those in the blogoshere who suggest that the continued use of the long putter threatens everything we hold dear about the game. One guy opined that the continued use of long putters would have an impact of historical proportions, depriving Tiger of taking down Jack’s record 18 Majors. And the sky, it is falling…or not.
Here’s the deal. Because three of the last four Majors have been won by guys wielding belly putters, there is suddenly concern that “anchoring” the putter to the body offers some type of unfair advantage. I say “suddenly” because long putters have been around for, well, a long time. And while there has been heard a bit of sniping among pros from time to time over the years, those complaints have been largely ignored…until Keegan Bradley won the PGA last year. It was then that journalists seemed to take note of the fact that the longer tool that is the belly putter was being used more and more by younger guys. Previously, the long putter was thought to have been the last ditch lifeline of the older generation who, having battled nerves while grinding over three-footers for years, finally succumbed to the yips. When young guys started wielding long putters, and winning, then it became a concern. There is really only one argument against the long putter: by anchoring the putter to the body, the player gains an unfair advantage. Let’s break that down.
First, there is no rule against anchoring the club to the body. I searched the USGA rule book and found no such reference. In fact, under the rule that limits the length of clubs to 48 inches, putters are specifically exempted. Long putters are undeniably, then, within the rules, and so are anchoring them to one’s body. After all, that’s why long putters are long. The USGA does have suitably vague rules that would allow them to ban “unusual equipment” or the “unusual use” of equipment, so I’m not suggesting they can’t decree long putters to be unusual, or simply too long, but I would like to think they would not do so without evidence that such a change in rules that have been in place for years is done on the basis of objective evidence that there is in fact a need for the change. So is there a need to do so?
The answer to that question depends on whether you’re considering the professional game or the amateur game of golf. My personal position is that the ban is not needed at the pro level and is neither needed, nor desirable, on the amateur front. My reasons are, admittedly, contradictory.
A very wise teacher once concluded his thrashing of my argumentative essay by informing me that repeating one’s conclusion over and over again does not constitute argument. It occurs to me that what we have in the case of the outlaw advocates is just that. They state that allowing the golfer to anchor the long putter to the body gives that golfer an unfair advantage over those who swing the putter freely. But there is simply no empirical evidence that such is the case. I know many golfers who overcame the yips via the long putter, and its prevalence amongst club golfers of a certain age everywhere would suggest there is real benefit to anchoring the putter to the body. But is it unfair? I don’t think so. The best putters I know use standard length putters without exception. Furthermore, after decades of legal use, it would seem ridiculous to now decree that long putters be outlawed for use by amateurs. If the USGA and R&A want to ban them in USGA and R&A events, then so be it, but don’t ban it across the board. Doing so could have a devastating impact.
I know a guy who lettered in golf all three years of eligibility (back in the day when freshmen were ineligible) at a Big Ten school. He was one of the finest iron players around and won our club championship seven times, and might’ve won more but for the dreaded yips, which he contracted in his early thirties. His putting became so hideous that people would literally turn their heads, rather than watch him stab at a 2 footer. Out of desperation, he fashioned a belly putter of his own back in the early 80’s before such things were heard of. It saved his game and thirty years later, he’s still playing several times a week. There are countless others like him, I know, and I suspect that some USGA Board Members are among them. Given that the number of people playing the game has been in decline in recent years, why would the governing bodies of our sport tell a significant percentage to quit?
As for the professional game, there is very little to suggest a reason for the ban beyond the recent panic over three of the last four majors being won with a belly putter. Lost in the angst of those advocating death to the belly putter are a few inconvenient facts. First while long putters have been around for a couple of decades, at least, Keegan Bradley was the first to win a major with one. Second, Bubba Watson won the Masters with a traditional length putter, as did the winners of the first three majors in 2011. If we look back to 2000 when Paul Azinger won on Tour using a belly putter at the Sony Open, 47 Majors have been contested, of which 44 were won by guys wielding “standard” putters. That may suggest that while guys who are a little jittery with the flat stick can become better with the long putter, they’ll not be there consistently at the end in a Major, or it may be that the trend toward longer putters is just now bearing the fruit of years in incubation
There are guys on the PGA Tour, such as Webb Simpson, winner of the 2012 US Open, and Bradley, who grew up using the belly putter. They’re comfortable with it. Are the USGA and R&A prepared to tell these young guys, and countless others, that they can no longer use the putter they’ve used, legally, for years? Are they going to interfere with the livelihoods of these younger players? On what basis will they do so; the unfair advantage? Why is it unfair? It’s been perfectly legal for decades. To those who suggest anchoring the putter to the body is unfair because it makes it makes it easier to control the putter head, particularly on shorter putts, I would say…perhaps. But if that’s the case, why isn’t everyone who plays for pay using them? Maybe it’s just that the longer putter makes bad putters better but its not going to make good putters great or great putters greater. Of course you have to go waaay back all of two weeks to find evidence of that. If you watched the Open Championship, you may recall that Adam Scott putted poorly and lost the open to Ernie. A booted 3 footer on 16 and then missed saves on 17 and 18 cost him the Championship. Lost also in the argument is that Ernie Els, even with a belly putter, is nothing like the putter he once was. He is still one of the games great ball strikers, and on slow greens he got the job done, but it wasn’t because of his putting.
Why is it that most pro golfers don’t use the long putter? Long putters have been around for years and while they have been wielded with some success over the last 20 years on tour, they have not been readily adopted by tour players. Why is that? Is it that most who play golf for a living are purists; that they don’t want to use such an unsightly contraption as the long putter because they don’t want to take “unfair advantage” of their competitors? Perhaps they don’t want to take advantage of the opportunity to score better and make more money? Sure, that’s it…or maybe, possibly, the guys on tour not using long putters find no real benefit; that the different feel and motion simply don’t work for them. If only there were some way to determine that so we could settle the dispute.
In the end, if we look at the issue from the only quantifiable bit of information available, we have to conclude that the long putter is not the panacea of putting prowess that critics might suggest. The evidence? It’s called statistics. The “strokes gained” statistic is the means by which PGA Tour players are ranked in putting. Number one in that category through the RBC Canadian Open is Zach Johnson, who uses a 35” putter. In fact, of the top 20, there is only one guy, Carl Pettersen, using a long putter. Those are the objective facts. It is true that more players on all tours are using longer putters, and on the PGA Tour and elsewhere, wins inevitably result from superior putting. So if the PGA Tour should decide that long putters should be banned, that’s their business and their right. As for the rest of us, we’ll the USGA should leave us be.
Long putters are here to stay. If the USGA wants to ban them from use during USGA events, that’s their right, but don’t tell us we can’t use them otherwise. Incidentally, by “us” I mean you. I hate long putters and find no advantage to using them whatsoever. I know many others, however, who would probably quit the game if forced to use a short putter once again. I don’t see them as having an advantage; I just look at it as a way in which they can continue to enjoy the game. For those fussbuckets who sniff that using the long wand violates the spirit of the game, I would suggest you check your self righteousness at the door, and await the arrival of the yips because you’ve obviously never had