Congratulations to the USGA and the Royal & Ancient Golf Club. After years of hand wringing over the use of the belly putter, they finally made a decision Tuesday and got it right, sort of.
They banned the use of putters anchored to the body — but not until 2016. Here's hoping the PGA Tour adopts the rule, too.
It’s about time. Who’s running this show, Bud Selig? Congress?
The belly putter, if you haven’t noticed, has a long shaft that is usually anchored against the chest or belly. Thus secured, the golfer doesn’t have to maintain as much control in his hands, arms and shoulders, not to mention his nerves. It is easier to follow a straight line in stroking the ball.
For purists, the use of the belly putter is like adding the DH to baseball. Some golfers said it felt like cheating; others saw no harm in utilizing the next step in technology; equipment manufacturers undoubtedly saw it as a gold mine, and maybe that explains golf’s strange reluctance to act sooner.
Golf had to be taken to court to allow Casey Martin, who suffers from Klippel-Trenaunay syndrome, to use a cart on the course, and then it was over howls of protests from the purists. But for some reason, they refused to do anything about the proliferation of the belly putter, a much bigger threat to the game.
According to research done by the Golf Channel, the first patent for the belly putter was submitted as long ago as 1961, and five years later Phil Rodgers claimed two PGA Tour wins with a 39-inch putter anchored against his stomach. In 1983 Charlie Owens used a 51-inch putter anchored to his sternum, and three years later he claimed two Champions Tour wins. In 1987 Johnny Miller, who suffered from the yips, used a 46-inch putter to win a Tour event but anchored it to his left arm rather than his body. In 1989 Orville Moody, a famously bad putter, became one of the top putters overnight by switching to a long putter, and thus the debate began about the belly putter.
A month later, the USGA announced that long putters would be allowed.
In 1991, Rocco Mediate became the first player to win a PGA Tour event using a putter anchored to his chest rather than his stomach, and in 2003 eight PGA Tour events were won by players using the long putters, and so it went. The use of — and success with — the long, anchored putters grew.
USGA executive director Mike Davis sounded like Selig on the eve of the steroid era when he was asked about the belly putter in August 2011: "We don't see this as a big trend No one's even won a major using one of these things anchored to themselves. So we don't see this as something that is really detrimental to the game."
Huh? He had to wait for a win in a major to act? Well, a month later Keegan Bradley won the PGA Championship to become the first to win a major while anchoring a putter to his body. It began a streak that has seen four of the last six majors won by players using long, anchored putters — Adam Scott (2013 Masters), Ernie Els (2012 British Open), Webb Simpson (2012 U.S. Open) and Bradley (2011 PGA Championship). In the 2012 British Open 43 of 156 players used a long putter or a belly putter.
Many of the game’s top golfers, including Tiger Woods, have spoken out against the club. "I just believe that the art of putting is swinging the club and controlling nerves," Woods said. "And having it as a fixed point, as I was saying all year, is something that's not in the traditions of the game. We swing all other 13 clubs. I think the putter should be the same.”
If golf had acted decisively 25 years ago, it wouldn’t be in this mess. But then golf has been slow to act on other issues, much to the game’s detriment. The development and use of oversized club heads and, perhaps more importantly, longer-hitting balls, has turned golf into an arms race. Almost everyone can hit a 300-yard drive now, including Saturday hacks. No one has done anything about it even though it has dramatically altered the game and not for the better. It has placed a premium on the long ball and big hitters. Finesse and shot making aren’t as important.
Players hit the ball so long these days that courses have had to be lengthened and reconfigured, including the legendary course at Augusta. Some traditional courses have simply become relics and are no longer useable for PGA Tour events. During golf’s arms race, the people who run golf fell asleep at the wheel, like Selig during the steroid era. Either that or the companies that make clubs and balls posed too strong of a lobby. New equipment means new sales revenues.
The evolvement and acceptance of bigger, metal clubs and livelier balls has changed golf the same way the addition of aluminum bats would change Major League Baseball and the same way the big composite racquets have already changed tennis. Tennis has suffered from the same malady that has afflicted golf — it’s a game of power, and finesse is pretty much a lost art. The men’s game, with its average serves of about 120 miles per hour, has become a power game, and the shorter rallies make it less entertaining than the women’s game.
Golf needed to wake up a long time ago. They opened a Pandora’s box when they allowed changes to come to the game unchecked.
Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. EMAIL: firstname.lastname@example.org.