Add Ernie Els to the growing list of PGA Tour players that may jump on the long putter bandwagon. Els started toying around with a belly putter while practicing at the Masters a few weeks ago. At The Heritage this week, he might take it a step further and actually put it in his bag for tournament play on Thursday. While those close to Els have been encouraging him to make the change, he’s been reluctant for several reasons, including overcoming the stigma attached to long putters.
“I’m old school,” Els said during a candid chat on Tuesday at Harbour Town Golf Links. “I’ve been around a long time and it used to be that whenever you go to a long putter, it meant that you had the yips or you had something really wrong with your putting.”
(Isn’t that still sort of the case?)
Once the 41-year-old South African started tinkering with it, he felt he could stroke the putter more consistently with it anchored in his belly.
“I feel like I can repeat the strokes a lot better with the belly,” he said. “Since the Masters, I started practicing with it a little bit and it felt great. Only problem is it’s so much heavier than any other club in my bag. so it throws off my feel. I get off the green with this heavy putter and then I get on the next tee and the driver feels too light. That’s my only problem. I might try to do something about that.”
Perhaps the bigger challenge is Els letting his ego get out of the way.
“To me, it’s always been a pride thing because a long putter says, ‘Hey, I’ve got a weakness,’” he continued. “But I’m seriously considering playing with it this week.”
While Els still has his reservations, he’s come a long way from his ardent opposition to belly putters in past years. In fact, he launched a crusade to make them illegal after they swept the Tour when Vijay Singh switched to a belly and jumped from 100th in putting average to the top ten. “They should definitely be banned,” said Els in 2004. “I believe nerves and the skill of putting are part of the game.”
(Interestingly enough, Adam Scott backed Els’ campaign, and of course, Scott, who drained almost every putt he looked at on the back nine during the final round of the Masters, switched to a long putter earlier this year.)
Els’ change of heart likely stems from his recent putting woes. He’s ranked 159th in putting average — a drastic drop from last year’s stats when he finished 59th, averaging 1.768 strokes. By this time in 2010, Els had already notched two victories with wins at Doral and Bay Hill. This season his best effort mustered a tie for 15th at Doral.
“At the end of the day, you’re trying to make a living out there — whether you’re playing with a short stick or long stick, you’re trying to get it in the hole,” he said almost wistfully.
On Tuesday afternoon Els had the belly putter — an Odyssey XG#1 — in his bag for practice the next two days and will make his final decision after he plays the pro-am on Wednesday. However, sources in the Callaway van felt Els might be leaning toward using the Backstyrke Marksman, a conventional putter.
Who knows. Els doesn’t even know. And I certainly won’t believe it until I see him anchoring the belly on the first green on Thursday.
“It’s a big deal for me, mentally to get around it, so we’ll see,” he said.