By Scott McCormick, Contributing Writer
Webb Simpson and Keegan Bradley have recently taken home major championship trophies on the PGA Tour utilizing a distinctive putting style – the long putter, or belly putter – in which they anchor the top of the putting shaft to their torso.
Their success has inaugurated a debate about the virtues of the belly putter and whether the technique runs contrary to the spirit of the game of golf. Such luminaries as Tiger Woods have chimed in against the belly putter, and PGA tour officials are said to be considering the future legality of the practice.
With this putting technique getting increased attention and a debate among golf aficionados raging as to its legitimacy, let’s take a look at the finer points of the belly putter. Who uses it and why? Does it constitute an unfair advantage?
There is a common misconception that the belly putting style is a wholly new fad, and though the method has clearly risen in prominence in the last couple years, the origins of the style actually date back to at least the 1920s. After struggling with his short game, a future Hall-of-Famer by the name of Leo Diegel began experimenting with new techniques, eventually settling on a strange method in which he placed both elbows out wide and tucked the shaft of the putter into his chest.
In the decades since, other golfers who have experimented with alternative putting styles have done so for the same reason as Diegel: they were lousy putters and they were looking to improve. Bernhard Langer -- a fantastic golfer who had the misfortune of acquiring a bad case of the putting “yips” during his heyday in the 1980s – experimented with an anchor putt similar to the one currently used by Adam Scott.
Adam Scott showing off his unique anchored putting style
Other putters past and present who have utilized an anchored shaft putting method include: Rocco Mediate, Johnny Miller, Billy Casper, Orville Moody and Jason Day.
Since the impetus for a pro golfer to adjust his stance to the belly putt has traditionally been a failure to putt well with a “normal” stance, for many years the belly putt had a less-than-sterling reputation. The belly-putter was an oddity, seen as a desperate move to improve the short game that many golfers who might have benefited from it no-doubt eschewed due to the embarrassment.
That’s changed a lot over the past ten years. Not only have many tour pros adopted the belly putt, but Dale Pelz –arguably the foremost putting instructor alive today – has for years recommended the anchored putt as way to improve your short game.
But with increased popularity has come a rise in scrutiny and calls for the PGA and/or the USGA to outlaw the practice either through regulations that limit the length of the putter, or more likely a ban on anchoring the club against any part of one’s upper body.
Opponents of the belly-putt say that anchored putting goes against the spirit of the game, that failure to perform a full swing with a pendulum motion is in contrast with the very nature of the game.
Others say that anchored putting has been around for too long to ban it now, particularly when many younger golfers have been utilizing the style for their entire careers, and sales of long putters on the amateur market have skyrocketed in recent years.
The counterargument to that line of reasoning is that the golfing establishment has made many other rule changes to improve the game over the years, and those who were affected either adapted or were left behind. As far back as 1895, the billiard cue style of putting was formally outlawed (really!) and the croquet style putting that Sam Snead experimented with in the 1960s was also regulated out of existence.
Weighing the pros and cons
In order for there to be sufficient justification to outlaw something, one must first wonder if it really is giving golfers an advantage. What is the benefit of the anchored putter? And are there disadvantages that balance out these gains? After all, if it is such a tremendous advantage, why isn’t everyone using it?
According to many, the main edge that belly putting adherents gain is purely psychological. Particularly for those that have suffered from extreme cases of the putting yips in the past, having the top of the club shaft anchored to something gives the golfer the sense that their stroke is more stabilized and less susceptible to anxiety attacks. Whether this is simply a placebo or something tangible probably depends on the individual, but there are some that argue that the benefits are far more than merely mental, and that posture, pace and rhythm are all significantly improved with an anchored stance.
Yet, there are those that feel that belly putting can be a detrimental in certain instances. Commentator Johnny Miller, who as a top tour pro piddled around with the belly putter himself, has said on occasion that belly putting removes some of the “feel” from putting, making it more difficult for a golfer to “get in the zone” on their short game. Others have noted that while the method can help improve consistency on putts within ten feet, longer putts are actually more difficult when using the anchored approach.
My two cents
In my opinion, calls to have the belly putter banned are misguided. Compared to other golf equipment revolutions in recent years – drivers and balls that enable pros to drive 400 yards, wedges that literally cut through rough – it’s hard to see long putters as an over-the-top advantage, despite what someone like Tiger says. With the stigma of using the belly putt slowly eroding, we can expect to see more tour pros experiment with the method, but many more will stick to the traditional approach.
And making an adverse ruling against long putters at this junction would be tremendously unfair to those that have come to rely on the method. There are parallels in other sports for handling these kinds of rule changes; years ago when baseball outlawed the spitball, they “grandfathered in” those that had used the wet pitch for the duration of their career. But applying that scheme to golf in this day and age would be cumbersome and impractical, a textbook definition of a solution in search of a problem.
But since the debate has heated up and speculation as to what the golfing establishment will do has run rampant in the last year, it would behoove PGA officials to announce their intentions one way or the other. If they have no plans to ban the anchored putt in the near or long-term future, they should make a proclamation to that effect; otherwise up-and-coming golfers will be in limbo when trying to determine which style to adopt.
Scott McCormick comes from a long line of mediocre – yet devoted – golfers. He lives in Arizona with his wife Alexis and their two dogs. When not trying to improve his short game on an office putting machine or following his favorite PGA tour pros on Twitter, he works as a freelance writer for GolfNow, specializing in Kansas Kansas City Golf and Orange County Golf Courses.
photo credit: http://www.linksforlife.com
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