Open greens face belly-putter onslaught

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. -- A 2-iron comes in handy this week, not only to get the ball in play but to cut the tension. Players don't so much win the U.S. Open as they survive it. By the end of the tournament, nerves will be as frayed as the ankle-high grass in the rough.

So do players employing the ever-popular belly putters and long putters have an advantage? Are they able to better control their strokes under pressure?

These topics are sure to be broached as players convene for the 104th U.S. Open, which begins Thursday at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club on Long Island. If treacherous greens aren't the reason, then surely the fact that the tournament is run by the United States Golf Association -- one of golf's rules-making bodies -- will be a factor.

In recent weeks, the game's top-two ranked players, Tiger Woods and Ernie Els, have questioned the legality of the belly putter, which has a longer handle that is anchored against the stomach.

"I thought the art of putting is to try and figure out how to swing both arms together,'' Woods said at the Memorial Tournament. "Anything fixed, I don't think that's right.''

Els ignited the debate last month at PGA European Tour event in Germany, where countryman Trevor Immelman of South Africa won using a belly putter. He said the putter makes it too simple for a golfer to repeat the stroke.

"It's become such an easy way to putt," Els said. "Nerves and skill in putting is part of the game. Take a tablet if you can't handle it.''

Not everyone agrees.

"I don't see what the big deal is,'' said Mark Calcavecchia, who employs an unconvetional claw putting grip. "A putt is a putt. You still have to read it right. You still have to have the right speed. If it was that great, everybody out here would be doing it. I can't do it. I'm average at best with it.''

"I've missed plenty of putts with that belly putter,'' said Paul Azinger, the first to use it in 1999 and who won with it in 2000. "That's all I can tell you. I've had some of my worst putting rounds ever with it. It's not foolproof. Anyone who thinks it's foolproof is not much of a golfer. A lot of guys tried it and said it was awful for them. It's not for everybody.''

This is not like the technology issue which has dogged golf for years. Everybody benefits from clubs and balls that go farther, and almost everybody has attempted to use the gains to their benefit.

But with the long putter or belly putter, there is the issue of whether it is an unfair advantage, or if it is even the proper way to putt. Being able to stabilize the stroke -- whether it be under the chin with a long putter or at the stomach with a belly putter -- has made some poor putters pretty good ones. At least that's the theory.

"I said it from day one, if you're sticking something in your body, you're taking away the skills,'' said Billy Andrade. "I just think anything that's up against your body is taking an aspect away from the game. Everybody should have a free standing-putter like everyone has a free-standing club.''

The issue of long putters is under review by the USGA and Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, the world's major rules-making bodies.

But no change is imminent, according to Fred Ridley, president of the USGA. And it's not simply a matter of banning long putters.

"How would you write a new rule to prohibit certain putters? There are some problems with that,'' Ridley said. "Do you address it by the length of the putter? Do you address it by those anchored to the body? If so, how do you really enforce that?

"I can understand people who watch players who were not very good players and then they change to either the long putter or the belly putter and they are putting better. The fact of the matter is, they still have to get it in the hole. I don't know that it's any easier to putt than the regular way. But there is a constant discussion about this issue. It's one that kind of keeps popping up.''

Ridley, the 1975 U.S. Amateur champion who still plays to a low single-digit handicap, said he has used the belly putter himself.

"It's not automatic,'' he said. "I found the short putts were easier (with the belly putter). I liked it. I didn't like the way it looked. I did like the mechanics. But you still have to get the ball in the hole.''

There are a long line of professional players who have used a version of the long putter. Fred Couples, Stewart Cink, Rocco Mediate and Bernhard Langer are just a few. Vijay Singh, who won the PGA Tour money title last year, has experimented with various models and seems to have settled on the belly putter. Steve Flesch, who won the Colonial last month using a conventional putter, won his inaugural PGA Tour title last year in New Orleans with a belly putter.

Flesch admitted that it bothered him to see pictures of himself using the putter. "I don't think you should be able to hinge the club on your body,'' Flesch said. And yet, as long as it is legal ...

"I was putting badly and I was looking for something different,'' said Cink, who won the Heritage earlier this year with a belly putter. "These days, if you're not putting well, there's no stigma attached to trying a long putter. Times have changed. You're seeing a lot more guys who aren't afraid to use it. They're not afraid of what it might look like.

"I see their point, the guys who think it should be illegal. I'm going to keep using it until they write a rule to make us stopping using it. Because it's within the rules.''

Bob Harig covers golf for the St. Petersburg Times, and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at harig@sptimes.com.