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Ban the Belly: Reactionary Forces at Work at the USGA

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

Longer Off the Deck With New Fairway Tech

You may recall that a few weeks ago I promised (or threatened, depending on your perspective) to discuss the remarkable advancements in fairway woods available this year. The new fairway woods (call them fairway metals if you wish—I won’t) are so truly “new” both in design and distance claims, I thought this would be easy to write, until I began wondering why fairway woods were suddenly stealing some of the driver distance marketing thunder. What’s so new in 2012? Well, I’d heard various theories as to why fairway woods got hot, but most of these theories were idiotic   So, I went to work researching the one rumor that had been given me by a reliable source as the reason fairway woods have taken such a big jump in distance this year: that the USGA restrictions on the permissible spring-like effect of a club face, or the Coefficient of Restitution (COR), do not apply to club heads under 410cc.   Despite the dubiousness of that proposition (i.e. they just figured this out?) I thought I should look into it--since I have billed myself as “The World’s Most Knowledgeable Person in the World.” I read a number of articles and blogs and became frustrated by the dearth of verifiable information out there. I also became irritated by the smugness of a few amateur physicists who seem to delight in the fact that they can make others feel stupid. But that’s a personal issue for me.   What you want to know is what I found out, so after hour upon hour of determined research, I glanced at my watch and realized… I’d only spent minute upon minute. Yeah, researching Coefficient of Restitution is boring. And I still hadn’t come any closer to finding an answer to why fairway tech is so hot this year. So, as is usually the case when I try to research something, as a last resort I turned to the source of information that I should’ve looked to first. In this case, that would be the USGA. Since there is, apparently, a “rule” limiting COR, I had the brilliant idea that I might find that rule in…THE USGA RULES OF GOLF. I tend to avoid reading the Rules of Golf not because of any aversion to rules, per se, but rather because I try to avoid reading anything that makes me embarrassed to be an American. The USGA Rules are so “lawyered up” as to be virtually indecipherable. I will share my opinion of the USGA some other day. For now, let me just say that I did manage to locate and read the rule.   Of course, the USGA doesn’t simply state the rule; they have to convert it to USGA-speak. Let me spare you the less than scintillating details. All club heads are subject to the COR limits which were established by the USGA way back in 1998, as measured by the Pendulum Test Protocol (do not try to read it—trust me), which now measures something called Characteristic Time (CT), more about which you neither want nor need to know. Suffice it to say that the maximum rebound effect for the face of a club, any club, is .830 COR, or 257 CT. So why, then are the new fairway woods so hot this year? Well, I can tell you it’s not just marketing hype.   What apparently happened is that engineers, being engineers, have been tinkering, and looking for ways in which to improve product—that is their job in the world of golf club design. Fairway woods have lagged behind in spring-like effect because of two factors, in my opinion. First, fairway woods are not as sexy as drivers. While we might boast that we’ve found a new fairway wood that really moves it out there, we do so only as an after thought. The second and probably more accurate reason is because of natural limitations imposed both by head composition and face size. Fairway woods are typically made from steel and the faces, being smaller, flex less. Consequently, fairway woods still have some room to grow in spring-like effect.   In 2012 designers have found ways to get closer to max COR without creating a fairway wood that costs as much as a driver. As a result, we have a host of new toys from which to choose. Club makers did this in a variety of ways, but the most significant developments involve thinner faces and the placement of slots or pockets in the club heads.   Nike started the trend toward incorporating “speed slots” behind the face of the fairway clubs a while back with the introduction in 2010 of a sole-positioned channel running parallel to the face.  That channel, or slot, evidently allows more flex from the smaller faced clubs, thus increasing the COR to a number approaching USGA max of .830. Adams golf came out with its Speedline fairways late in 2011 and TaylorMade followed with its RockeBallz (RBZ) line earlier this year. In fact, TaylorMade announced in March that it was buying Adams Golf, so the technology developed between those two companies will now belong exclusively to TaylorMade. And while that is disappointing from the standpoint that it diminishes the likelihood of a nasty patent war (who doesn’t find those entertaining?), it did mean that TM could throw its not inconsiderable marketing might behind the new line of fairway woods. And that’s just what they’ve done.   TaylorMade tells us that “better players” gain 17 yards from their new RBZ fairway woods. That is an extreme distance gain for a fairway wood but one supported by my own experience when I tested a 14.5° RBZ Tour model 3 wood equipped with the stock Matrix® X-CON® 7 shaft. I will tell you that I hit the new RBZ almost as far as my driver. I won’t give you those distances for fear of humiliating you, thus causing you to quit the game and kind of defeating the purpose of this blog. But I can assure you the distance claim from TM is legitimate. That’s the good news.   The better news is that TM is not alone in developing new tech that improves the current crop of fairway woods. By moving weight around in thinner and lighter crowns, refining head aerodynamics, lowering center of gravity and developing ultra-thin faces, there’s some awesome new fairway club technology available from any number of manufacturers. Here are my favorites and a brief summary of the technology behind each.   TaylorMade RocketBallz and RocketBallz Tour Speed pocket in the sole to boost ball speed across the face Low CG for high launch   Callaway RAZR Fit and RAZR X Black Both have VFT technology that increases the size of sweet spot RAZR Fit has adjustable face angles among neutral, open and closed   Nike VR_S and VR Pro limited Edition Pro model has Variable Compression Channel to boost ball speed VR_S boasts ultra-thin and hot face via NexCOR technology   Cobra AMP, AMP Offset, Baffler T-Rail and Long Tom 2 Cobra claims its E9 Face technology enlarges sweet spot by 30% AMP model features 3 face-setting adjustability T-Rail has a tungsten rail sole and low CG for high launch Long Tom 2 has lightweight titanium face and body with 45” shaft   These are just some of the new fairway woods available at DGW. Check out all the new, super long technology available on our Fairway Woods pages today.

Pick Up the Pace

    Slow play is in the golfing news this week, thanks to a ruling on the LPGA Tour over the weekend that, arguably, cost Morgan Pressel a semi-final match and a chance to win the Sybase Match Play Championship. The slow play penalty (loss of hole in match play) came on the 12th hole, which Pressel won to go 3 up in the match. She was then informed that, having been put on the clock previously, and having then taken too much time to play the 12th hole, she was being assessed the penalty. So, instead of being 3 up, she was one up in what was effectively a 2 hole penalty.   How would you react to that? Probably the same way Pressel did, which was to go on to lose the match 2 and 1. I like Morgan Pressel. She yells at her ball. She yells at herself. She seems feisty and emotional, so it wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest that the ruling cost her the match. She had to be steaming. That was a tough way to lose, and of course we’ll never know if the outcome was truly affected, but there’s a huge difference between being 3 up with 6 holes to go and being only 1 up. Azahara Munoz, the other player in the controversy admitted that she had been just as guilty of slow play earlier in the match, and indeed, the earlier warning was for both and not just Pressel. Munoz also acknowledged that the penalty wasn’t fair and she wouldn’t have assessed it were it her choice. She said this right after she grabbed the $375,000.00 winner’s check, making it a little easier, I suppose, to be magnanimous.   This LPGA slow play incident came on the heels of the Kevin Na situation at the Players Championship. You’ll recall that Na was leading The Players after 54 holes, despite being almost physically unable to pull the trigger on virtually any shot. We watched as he fidgeted, backed off, fidgeted some more, backed off again, and then yelled at himself before finally swinging. This happened throughout the round, and it was painful to watch. And since Na acknowledged the problem and confessed to battling swing demons, we felt sorry for him, and forgave him his slow play. The Tour didn’t assess any penalties; even though his slow play had a much more significant effect on the pace of play, and his competitors, than did Pressel’s.   Slow play is epidemic on the professional tours, and I can’t do anything about that, and apparently neither can the officials (But see: Pressel, Morgan above). And I can’t say I have any particular feelings about slow play on the pro tours. These guys and gals are playing for their livelihood and a lot of money, so if they want to play at a pace resembling the Bataan Death March, only less fun, I say let ‘em. TV coverage does a marvelous job of focusing in on the actual shots and not the sometimes interminable decision making process that goes before, except in Sudden Death playoffs where there are no other players to watch. In the event of Sudden Death, you can always do something else for awhile and come back to the TV when the players reach the green, or you reach retirement age, whichever comes first.   I can, however, offer some suggestions to speed up your play, and that of your foursome. We shouldn’t emulate what we see on TV. We play golf for fun. What we see on TV is tournament golf at its highest level. Those folks are working. Don’t do what they do. Do what I say.   Here’s my list of 5 things you can do, and some things you shouldn’t do on the course:   Play “ready golf” everywhere but on the green. If your playing companion is further away than you, but not ready to hit, then go ahead and play. This is easy to do and speeds play dramatically. The same applies to the tee. Forget about who has “honors.” Whoever gets there first and is ready should go ahead and tee off. My golf group has played this way for years, and even walking the course, we get around in 3 hours. If you are driving a cart, do not under any circumstance feel that you need to park by your playing companion’s ball and watch him hit Instead, drop him off at his ball and go to yours, or have him drop you off and take the cart. If your golf balls are in the same vicinity, find a convenient area to both and park. If one of you is in the fairway, or close to it, and the other hit his last shot way left, or right, the guy in the fairway gets out first. Then the other guy can go look for his ball. In the meantime, fairway guy can hit and start walking to the green. Take one and only one practice swing when you are ready to address your ball. If you are “working on something” or you need more than one swing to get the feel for the shot you want to hit, go to the range. When on the green, line up your putt before it’s your turn. When it is your turn, be ready to putt. Do not read putts from both sides. This is ok to do, if you must, when you’re on a foreign course, but you absolutely do not need to do this on the course where you regularly play. Care less. We’re supposed to have fun on the course, yet we are so competitive, and so focused on playing our best, that we expend a lot of energy fretting over the possible outcome of every swing. In the end, it will matter not one bit what you shot today, so quit caring so much about what you might shoot. I guarantee that if you quit caring so much, you’ll play better…and faster.
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