Apr
21
2011
Long Putters: No Longer Just for Geezers!
By Stephanie Wei under PGA Tour

Adam Scott and his broomstick drain a clutch putt on Sunday at the Masters

Damn you, Adam Scott. You and your broom just had to drain every 20-footer on the back nine at Augusta to nearly win the Masters. Which means you almost became the first player to capture a major wielding a long putter. Now look what you’ve done — just about every player who has a twitchy wrist thinks a long putter may solve his putting woes. But to be fair, it’s not only Adam’s fault. Martin Laird and Brendan Steele deserve some of the blame, too — they recently won the Bay Hill Invitational and Texas Valero Open, respectively, playing with belly putters.

(To clarify, Scott uses a long, broomstick putter that he anchors just below his chin against his sternum, which is different from a belly putter, but both are considered “long putters.” A belly putter is wedged into the stomach for support, helping stabilize the hands through the stroke.)

This week at The Heritage, there were more guys than usual tinkering with belly putters. I mean, it was impossible not to notice the increase. When I walked out to the practice green on Tuesday afternoon, I almost thought I was at the Champions Tour event just 30 miles down the road. I was blown away by the number of players toying with belly putters or showing them to their peers who were inspecting them with acute curiosity.

While chatting with Mick Doran, Camilo Villegas’ caddie, about this phenomenon, Camilo suddenly swooped in to grab something from his bag. With an almost nervous laugh, he said, “I’m going to try a belly.” Huh? Mick and I both looked at him confused. Wait, are you really? He said yes. I still wasn’t sure if he was joking or not, but I should have known that Camilo isn’t exactly a comedian. Sure enough, on Wednesday Camilo played the back nine at Harbour Town with a belly putter and experienced really good results. He plans to practice with it before the round — many guys use the belly as a training aid for rhythm — and then he’ll play with his usual conventional putter.

Apparently just seeing loads of guys playing with them and hearing about how good they felt was what inspired Camilo, who says he has practiced with a belly in the past, to try it for himself. Which is how these trends start on Tour. Everywhere I turned on Tuesday, I (unfortunately) saw another player working with a belly putter.

Kevin Na, golf’s latest folk hero, had his usual conventional putter, along with a belly, with him on the practice green Tuesday afternoon. “I like to mess around with the belly putter sometimes during practice,” said Na, who has experienced some success playing with it during tournament rounds.

He also noticed their growing popularity and pointed to Adam’s great results (well, actually, just one tournament). “Adam’s been putting really well with that long putter,” said Na. “He’s obviously a good player and he can putt with anything, but it’s been really working for him.

“You know how it goes, when people start winning tournaments and they’re doing something different, then everyone’s going to try it.”

DJ Trahan started playing with a belly four weeks ago to “try and make more putts.” He added, “That’s the only reason anybody goes to a belly putter.” While he isn’t sure if his putting stats have improved, he likes the way it feels and plans to stick with it…for now.

For the players jumping on the bandwagon this week, none of them seem completely sold on it yet — it’s viewed more as a practice tool and a potential back-up plan, so they say.

As I mentioned yesterday, Ernie Els is seriously considering playing with it today (he hadn’t made a decision yet at the time this was written, but I can’t wait to look in his bag on the practice green/first tee). Els, who called for the ban of belly putters in 2004, is understandably battling with some angst over the potential switch, describing it as “a big deal, mentally to get around it.” In his mind and many others’, when you see a guy go to the long putter, it means he has the yips. Which might be the case if you look at his dreary stats and compare them to last year’s when he’d already won twice by April.

“To me, it’s always been a pride thing because a long putter says, ‘Hey, I’ve got a weakness,’” Els said.

And for some — not all — that’s the case. Why do guys tinker in the first place? It’s simple: They’re putting poorly. They’ve tried and gone through conventional putters in all different shapes and models, but they’re still not satisfied. What’s left? Well, more and more guys seem to be turning to the belly putter for an answer.

Bill Haas, who admittedly has struggled on the greens recently, is considering playing with a belly putter for the first time. “Earlier in the year, I was really putting nice,” he said. “Lately, it’s like, ‘what have you done for me lately?’ I don’t know, maybe find a little something to give me some confidence on the greens because that confidence is all that matters.

“I started messing around with (the belly) for practice, but then you see other guys, like Martin Laird who just won with it, Brendan Steele just won with it, and Adam Scott’s (putting better). Maybe there’s something to it.”

For others, the belly putter is a last resort, a Hail Mary of sorts, to revive their stroke.

Nathan Green, who only has one top-ten finish since he won the ’09 Canadian Open, tried the long putter for the first time on Tuesday. In his practice round, he experimented with the belly and a cross-handed grip with a normal putter, but he intends to go with the latter this week.

“Hopefully, I won’t have to resort to (the belly putter),” said Green with a wry smile. “I have an overactive right hand at the moment. I’m trying a few things out. I haven’t been putting well with the short ones, I’ve just been getting flinchy on them.”

Translation: I have the yips.

“I don’t want to have to use (the belly),” he said. “I’d prefer to use my normal putting stroke I’ve used for twenty or thirty years, but it just doesn’t feel right at the moment. I’ll just try anything to putt a little better because you can’t have good weeks unless you’re putting decently.”

Similar to Els, Green admits his reluctance is partly a result of his pride.

“I don’t think you want to have to admit there’s something wrong with your stroke,” he said. “You feel slightly defeated when you go to a longer putter. I’ve exhausted all the other options with the short putter for the past year and a half, I haven’t putted that well.”

Interestingly enough, Green believes long putters should be banned from the game, but doesn’t think that will happen at this point with the increasing number of players using them.

“It feels a little bit like you’re cheating, but until they do something about the rule, I’ll try it,” he said.

Which is a controversy we’ll explore in more detail in the near future. Back to the point — first, Adam Scott, golf’s heartthrob, and now, Camilo Villegas, ESPN’s Body Issue cover boy — who’s next? Tiger? I wouldn’t be surprised, honestly (and it might not be the worst idea). What on earth is happening to the game? After the 1,200-word dissertation on the topic, I’ve only gathered one clear answer (which we already knew, anyway): Golfers are all a little mad.

(AP Photo/Matt Slocum)