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Wednesday, November 21, 2012
Putter debate hitting fever pitch

By Bob Harig
ESPN.com

No longer is it only a crutch, a technique used by those who have run out of options. For years, players have been using a version of a long putter in competition, whether by holding it against their chest or, the more recent phenomenon, anchored to their belly.

Desperation was typically the reason for going to such a putting style, the ability to stroke putts with a conventional putter increasingly frustrating.

Not so much anymore.

Keegan Bradley
When Keegan Bradley won the 2011 PGA Championship at Atlanta Athletic Club, he became the first player in history to win a major championship with a long putter.

Sure, there are players who try the anchored methods because they are at their wits' ends on the greens, but Guan Tianglang offers a perfect example of why golf's governing bodies are considering a rules change that is expected to be announced by the end of the year and perhaps as early as next week.

The Chinese amateur is just 14, but he uses a belly putter. He started playing with it earlier this summer and recently won the Asia-Pacific Amateur to qualify for the Masters -- where in April he will become the youngest competitor in tournament history.

"We're seeing now people who can putt perfectly well in the conventional way thinking that an anchored stroke gives them an advantage," said Peter Dawson, chief executive of the R&A, the rules-making body outside of the United States and Mexico, earlier this year at the Open Championship. "I think that's the fundamental change that we've witnessed in the last couple of years."

Dawson, along with his counterpart at the U.S. Golf Association -- executive director Mike Davis -- has said golf's rules-making bodies need to "clarify" their position on the matter "as soon as possible."

That day is drawing closer, and, as it does, there has been no shortage of meaningful conversation on both sides of the argument, especially pronounced with three of the past five major champions -- Keegan Bradley, Webb Simpson and Ernie Els -- having won using a belly putter.

Paul Azinger, the 2008 U.S. Ryder Cup captain who won 13 times on the PGA Tour, said he was the first to win using the belly putter in his Hawaiian Open triumph in 2000. (Rocco Mediate was the first to win on the PGA Tour using any sort of long putter, in 1991, although several players had been using long putters on the Champions Tour before that.)

"For 11 years, everyone said nobody can win a major with a belly putter; Keegan does it, Phil [Mickelson] tries it, and now they want it banned?" Azinger said. "I'll say this, the Great Big Bertha [one of the first medal drivers made by Callaway] made wooden drivers look like a 4-wood. Now the Great Big Bertha looks like a 4-wood.

"Everyone hits today's drivers farther; not everyone will putt better with a belly putter or, like the drivers, everyone would use it."

Technically, the USGA and R&A are not considering a ban of the putters; they are studying a change that would ban anchoring those putters to your body. Dawson said that means it would be a rules issue, not an equipment issue, and therefore would not be enacted immediately, as the game uses a four-year rules-changing cycle.

If a ban is adopted, the rule would not go into effect until 2016, giving professionals the next three years to adapt.

Still, Azinger's argument highlights two points against such a ban: Anchored putters are clearly not a cure, and the game seems to have bigger problems, such as the distance a golf ball flies.

"My opinion would be I don't think it is in the best interests of the game to ban [anchoring] the long putter," said Adam Scott, who won the Australian Masters on Sunday and who switched to the long putter in 2011. "I think there are some important issues that probably should have time spent on them other than putting."

"I think that it is fairly well acknowledged that length generally is probably the biggest issue in the game, and it doesn't just mean how far pros hit it. Some of our courses, great courses, are too short these days. If we are talking about the equipment side of things, the length issue is probably the most important because tees are moved back. Greens are not changed because people are putting with a long putter."

Those against a ban point out that those who anchor the putter are not necessarily cleaning up on the greens. They still have their struggles making putts; they still must read greens and figure out the speed.

And none of the top 10 putters in 2012 on the PGA Tour in the strokes-gained-putting category uses an anchored putter; they all putt conventionally.

Brandt Snedeker, who was first in strokes gained putting and second in total putting in 2012 using a conventional stroke, feels he is giving up some of his advantage to those who do not putt in the same conventional manner.

"I feel like they should be banned," 2012 FedEx Cup champion Snedeker told the Golf Channel last week.

"I've got no problem with longer putters if you want to make sure they're not anchored; I've just got a problem with anchoring. There's a reason why guys that have belly putters use them. They work. If they didn't work, they wouldn't use them."

Els presents an interesting example in the debate. He was clearly against the use of anchored putters, even after he switched to one in 2011.

"As long as they allow it, I'll keep cheating," he joked.

But Els now sees the other side. He talked about how much work he has had to put in to get comfortable with a belly putter. And although his putting has improved, he is still just 112th on the PGA Tour in strokes-gained putting. (In 2011, he was 181st.)

After winning the Open Championship -- where he holed a long birdie putt on the final green that ultimately helped him defeat Scott by a stroke -- Els said he wanted to get back to using a conventional putter by the end of the year. But recent comments have him siding with those who anchor.

Then there is 2010 U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell, who said last week while competing in Australia that he had spoken with the USGA's Davis and learned that data showed anchored putters gave an advantage under pressure.

"They're convinced the research has shown that, under pressure on a Sunday afternoon, the long putter kind of takes extraneous movement out of the putting stroke," McDowell said. "It just makes it physically easier to stroke the putter when the nerves are there, and I think we should be leveling the playing field [by banning it].

"I think it's probably something they're disappointed in themselves that it's got to this point. They probably should have nipped it in the bud many, many years ago."

But they didn't. And so here we are, on the verge of a change that is bound to have varying repercussions.

"It's OK for manufacturers to seek game-improvement clubs, but if a player figures something out, it's banned?" Azinger said. "Even though it only improves some players?"

Or …

"I think it's the influx of junior golfers using belly putters," Snedeker said in the Golf Channel interview. "There's a whole generation of kids right now that are growing up playing golf, never using a short putter. Is that keeping with the traditions of the game?"