- Bob Harig, Senior Golf Writer
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LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England -- Golf's governing bodies hope to have a decision on the future of long/belly putters by the end of the year, a discussion that has been ongoing as three of the past four major champions have used a belly putter to help them to victory.
The conversation comes one day after Ernie Els won the Open Championship to become the third major champion using a belly putter. Els holed a 15-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole to win the Claret Jug at age 42.
R&A chief Peter Dawson said Monday and USGA executive director Mike Davis said last week that the two worldwide rules-making organizations feel it is important to come to some conclusion quickly.
"This may be the first one where we have had the winner and runner-up with long putters," Dawson said Monday morning at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, site of the Open, where Els defeated Adam Scott -- who uses a long putter -- by 1 stroke.
"Let me say, first of all, that the Open Championship result does not have a direct bearing on the discussions about long and belly putters. They were going on well before what has happened (Sunday).
"The situation is that the R&A and the USGA do have this subject firmly back on the radar. We appreciate that there is much speculation about this and that we need to clarify the position as soon as possible. And I think you're going to see us saying something about it one way or the other in a few months rather than years."
The R&A runs the Open and is the game's rules-making body everywhere but in the U.S. and Mexico, where the game is governed by the United States Golf Association. The USGA runs the U.S. Open. Both organizations are working together to come to some conclusion but have made it clear that, if anything, no clubs will be banned, but a rules change regarding "anchoring" could be imposed.
Both groups seem uncomfortable with the number of players who are now using clubs that they can attach to their body during a putting stroke. Els, for one, is against the clubs but uses one because it is legal. He joked about it last year.
"As long as it's legal, I'll keep cheating like the rest of them," he said.
Despite finding comfort with the putter, Els struggles on the greens. And while it gave Scott a great boost when he switched to a long putter last year, he's won just once since and missed a crucial 4-footer for par on the 16th green Sunday. The clubs are not automatic.
The R&A counted 27 long putters and 16 belly putters in the Open field.
"We are examining the subject from a method of stroke standpoint rather than length-of-putter standpoint, and that takes it into the area of the rules of play, the rules of golf, rather than the rules of equipment," Dawson said. "And therefore it's the rules of golf committees of the R&A and the USGA who are looking at this in detail, and then they have to make their recommendations to the boards of each organization."
Neither rule-making body wants to keep players who have back issues from using a longer putter. For those who feel they need to use one due to back issues, the governing bodies have said they don't mind a long putter, they just don't want it anchored.
Tiger Woods has been one who has proposed making the putter no longer than the shortest club in a player's bag.
Any such ruling would be hugely controversial, given that so many players today use the clubs. Simpson, for example, began using a belly putter when he was in college at Wake Forest. He simply liked putting that way rather than the conventional method.
Els is among a big group of players who became so frustrated on the greens that he went to the belly putter -- which took him months to get used to using.
"The objections I find from those who object at professional level, at elite level, are all about if people who've become failed putters in the conventional way, why should they have a crutch to come back and compete against me when I haven't failed in the conventional way," Dawson said. "That's the general argument one hears.
"But we're also seeing now people who can putt perfectly well in the conventional way thinking that an anchored stroke gives them an advantage. I think that's the fundamental change that we've witnessed in the last couple of years."
Dawson said because a rules change -- not an equipment change -- is being studied, such an amendment to the rules could not be made until 2016, as the rules of golf are changed in four-year cycles.
"If that were to happen and we were to announce it in the reasonably near future, I think the amount of notice people would be getting of the change would be perfectly reasonable," Dawson said.
Dawson made clear that the R&A and USGA, which set the rules for golf around the world, have not decided whether to ban the putters.
"This decision has not been taken," he said. "Please don't think that it has."
Because it is being treated as a potential rule change, it would not become effective until 2016. The Rules of Golf are updated every four years.
Jim McArthur, chairman of the championship committee for the R&A, said there were 27 long putters and 16 belly putters in the 156-man field at the Open. Dawson said the number of golfers using the long putter has dramatically increased from about 5 percent five years ago, although he did not notice an increase at the recent British Amateur.
"It hasn't yet backed its way all the way down the game, although the statistics would show -- and I've checked this with the manufacturers -- that at the club level or recreational level, they are much more used in the United States than they are anywhere else in the world," Dawson said.
Simpson and Bradley both were regarded as good putters before switching to the belly. Padraig Harrington, who always has used a conventional putter, said more players might be tempted to switch if it's clear their competitors have an advantage.
Phil Mickelson experimented with the belly putter last year in the FedEx Cup playoffs.
"Obviously, if the standard of putting goes up, which it clearly does ... guys wouldn't be using them if they didn't putt better with them, yeah?" he said. "If the standard of putting goes up, it puts more pressure on the guys that aren't using one just to compete. So all of a sudden, it's hard for a normal putter. Is he doing the right thing? Should he be using the long putter?
"So it actually has a negative effect on others as much as a positive effect on some."
Scott made the biggest turnaround. He felt such despair over his putting that he switched at the Match Play Championship in February 2011. His good friend, Geoff Ogilvy, said that his fellow Australian still was capable of making putts and winning even with a short putter.
"It just makes his bad days better," Ogilvy said. "It doesn't make his good days better."
The objection Dawson has heard the most is that if players can't putt with a conventional club, why should they have a crutch to compete with those who can?
"That's the general argument one hears," Dawson said. "But we're also seeing now people who can putt perfectly well in the conventional way thinking that an anchored stroke gives them an advantage. I think that's the fundamental change that we've witnessed in the last couple of years."
Information from The Associated Press contributed to this report.
One day after Ernie Els won the Open Championship using a belly putter, the Royal & Ancient said that a decision could come soon on the use of long putters.