Belly putters become a major factor

Belly putters become a major factor

Published Jul. 23, 2012 1:00 a.m. ET

One day after Ernie Els won the British Open to become the third major champion using a belly putter, the Royal & Ancient said long putters were ''firmly back on the radar'' and that a decision could come soon on whether players can keep using them.

R&A chief executive Peter Dawson said discussions with the United States Golf Association about longer putters anchored to the body began before Els holed a 15-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole to win the claret jug at age 42.

Keegan Bradley at the PGA Championship and Webb Simpson at the US Open both used belly putters. Adam Scott, who had a four-shot lead with four holes to play in the British Open, was using a long putter that he says helped turn around his game.

''We appreciate that there is much speculation about this and that we need to clarify the position as soon as possible,'' Dawson said Monday. ''And I think you're going to see us saying something about it one way or the other in a few months, rather than years.''


But he made clear that the R&A and USGA, which set the rules for golf around the world, have not decided whether to ban them.

''This decision has not been taken,'' he said. ''Please don't think that it has.''

Tiger Woods was among those this year who recommended that the putter simply be the shortest club in the bag. Els once criticized the long putters, but when he struggled mightily with his putting, he switched to a belly putter late last year.

''As long as it's legal, I'll keep cheating like the rest of them,'' Els said in October.

Dawson said the discussion with the governing bodies has switched from an equipment issue to a rules issue.

''The initial determination has been that we are examining the subject from a method of stroke standpoint rather than length of putter standpoint, and that takes it into the area of the rules of play, the rules of golf, rather than the rules of equipment,'' he said.

The rules committees of the R&A and USGA are conducting the study, and each will make a recommendation.

Because it is being treated as a potential rule change, it would not become effective until 2016. The Rules of Golf are updated every four years.

Jim MacArthur, chairman of the championship committee for the R&A, said there were 27 long putters and 16 belly putters in the 156-man field at the Open. Dawson said the number of golfers using the long putter has dramatically increased from about 5 percent five years ago, although he did not notice an increase at the recent British Amateur.

''It hasn't yet backed its way all the way down the game, although the statistics would show — and I've checked this with the manufacturers — that at the club level or recreational level, they are much more used in the United States than they are anywhere else in the world,'' Dawson said.

Simpson and Bradley both were regarded as good putters before switching to the belly. Padraig Harrington, who always has used a conventional putter, said more players might be tempted to switch if it's clear their competitors have an advantage.

Phil Mickelson experimented with the belly putter last year in the FedEx Cup playoffs.

''Obviously, if the standard of putting goes up, which it clearly does . . . guys wouldn't be using them if they didn't putt better with them, yeah?'' he said. ''If the standard of putting goes up, it puts more pressure on the guys that aren't using one just to compete. So all of a sudden, it's hard for a normal putter. Is he doing the right thing? Should he be using the long putter?

''So it actually has a negative effect on others as much as a positive effect on some.''

Scott made the biggest turnaround. He felt such despair over his putting that he switched at the Match Play Championship in February 2011. His good friend Geoff Ogilvy said that his fellow Australian still was capable of making putts and winning even with a short putter.

''It just makes his bad days better,'' Ogilvy said. ''It doesn't make his good days better.''

The objection Dawson has heard the most is that if players can't putt with a conventional club, why should they have a crutch to compete with those who can.

''That's the general argument one hears,'' Dawson said. ''But we're also seeing now 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 that we've witnessed in the last couple of years.''