NAPA, Calif. – Brendan Steele had just poured in his third 20-footer in the last four holes when one of his fellow playing competitors decided he had seen enough.
“Just hang in there, it’s a long season,” Steve Wheatcroft quipped as they walked off the 15th green at Silverado. “You’ll make one eventually.”
Oh, Steele made more than a few Thursday during a 9-under 63 that gave him a one-shot lead over Jhonattan Vegas at the season-opening Frys.com Open.
With the anchoring ban now just two-and-a-half months away, Steele is relieved just to watch a few putts drop.
He went to the belly putter because he believed it was a better way to putt, but he conceded that he wouldn’t have gone to the method if he’d known it eventually would be banned.
“It put everybody behind,” he said.
Steele was one of several players forced to make the switch, though the 32-year-old decided to transition in spring 2014, once he’d locked up his card. So, for the first time in eight years, he ditched the belly putter and went back to a conventional-length putter with a claw grip, which he has used since college.
“It was scary,” he said, before adding, “but I figured there was nothing to lose. If I putted well, I would be ahead of the game.”
That turned out to be the case, at least initially, as he finished fifth in his next two starts. But by no means did he light up leaderboards last season – he was ranked 121st in strokes gained-putting.
“Keegan (Bradley) and I have talked about this a lot,” he said. “Basically, everybody is thousands of hours of practice behind with the short putter. So that’s where everybody has to kind of catch up. We have to outwork everybody now to pick up those little idiosyncrasies that we’ve missed over the last eight or 10 years.”
At times, the greatest battle was mental. The anchoring brigade felt increased scrutiny every time they made a switch and played an event.
“You know everybody is paying attention,” Steele said, “so when you have a 4- or 5-footer on your first hole, you’re like, 'Just don’t miss this one,' instead of, 'OK, what do I need to do here?' You start thinking about, What is everybody going to say if I miss this one?'”
Steele is over that stage fright now, his confidence surging after what he says was his best season as a pro, even better than his breakout in 2011, when he won his first (and only) event and shared the 54-hole lead at the PGA.
He has been stunningly consistent in each of his five full seasons on Tour – a similar number of starts (24-27), a similar number of top 10s (2-4), a similar paycheck at the end of the year.
But in 2014-15, he posted more good finishes in fewer events. He had a better made-cut percentage (20 of 24). He even played well overseas.
A number of factors contributed to that, whether it was his continued work with swing coach Rick Smith and putting guru Chris Mayson, a reliable caddie in Christian Donald, or the time spent in the gym that has seen his driving distance spike 13 yards in the past two years.
“Maybe each one is worth a quarter of a shot a round,” he said, “and it ends up being a big deal at the end of the year.”
His season ended three weeks ago in Chicago, and he couldn’t wait for the restart.
Last week, he shot 62 in a casual round with friends. In the Wednesday pro-am here, he felt in total control of his game and started to get antsy.
“I hate it when I’m home and I feel really good; it’s hard to keep it,” he said. “I always say your game is either coming or going. So when it’s coming, you want to be in the right place.”
Like, you know, wine country?
On a postcard day, Steele went out in 29 and made par on his last four holes for his lowest opening round in 16 months. With that revamped putting stroke, he brushed in nine birdies, six of which came from inside 7 feet.
“Kind of a basic 63,” he shrugged.
It's a long season with an auspicious start.