CROMWELL, Conn. – Brendan Steele stomped off the final green after the first 18 holes of his U.S. Open sectional qualifier two weeks ago, long putter in his hand and scowl on his face. He’d posted a 74 and was already considering not returning for the second half of his day.
Admittedly “fired up,” Steele turned to caddie Bobby Brown and said he needed an immediate change with the flat stick.
“I told him, ‘I don’t want to play if I’m going to putt with the same putter, because it’s not worth it for me to go out there and be this upset about how I’m putting,’” Steele recalls. “I had the speed of a 30-handicap. I mean, I was hitting 20-footers 10 feet by and thinking they were decent putts. It was just so bad.”
Long story short – literally – he switched to a standard-length putter for the second 18 holes and turned things around in a hurry. An afternoon 67 left him one stroke shy of reaching a playoff to get into the year’s second major, but it laid the groundwork for a transition.
Steele went home to Idyllwild, Calif., for two weeks and worked with short-game instructor Chris Mason, using nothing but the shorter putter.
When he returned to action Thursday, he needed just 26 putts – three fewer than his season average – in posting an 8-under 62, equaling his previous career low PGA Tour score.
Not that he solely credits the hot start on a hot putter.
“You’re going to miss putts whatever you’re using,” Steele explains. “The best players in the world have bad putting days and good putting days. It comes and it goes. The fact that you putt well on Thursday doesn’t mean Friday is going to be good. You hope that it lines up that you’re putting it well on a week when you’re hitting it well and things work out.”
This isn’t the first time he’s made the putter switch. He started anchoring a long putter back in 2006, but it’s never been a permanent solution.
Last year he used what he referred to as “the Matt Kuchar style” of putting for four weeks. The before that, he went with the shorter stick for a few rounds. One time in Q-School, he actually carried a short putter and a long one, using the former for everything outside of 6 feet and the latter for everything closer.
“Had I known that I only had 10 years to change back, I don’t know that I ever would have gone to it,” he says. “Maybe I would’ve, because I’d say it’s 10 years away and I’ve got time. But it’s definitely been a big distraction for me over the last couple of years.
“Inevitably everyone always asks you about it. ‘What are you going to do? When are you going to change?’ So instead of giving the long answer, now I just tell people, ‘I’m working on a few things. I’ll get it figured out.’”
This latest switch has less to do with Jan. 1, 2016, than it does with posting the best possible score right now. It’s not totally out of consciousness, though.
Just knowing the ban on anchoring is 18 months away has helped speed up the process for Steele.
“With that impending ban, it’s a good time for me to be working on it. I feel like I can be a better putter this way. My ceiling is a lot higher, because my speed control is much better. I just want to work really hard on it and become a better putter.”
One thing that made him a better putter in Thursday’s opening round was taking a zero-putt on the first hole. Steele holed out a wedge shot from 131 yards for eagle, which perhaps only proved the statistical theory that states better ball-striking is the gateway to better putting. The closer you are to the hole, the easier it is to make 'em.
When he wasn’t that close, he made some, too. For the round, Steele dropped three putts of longer than 20 feet – the exact distance from which he was admittedly hitting it 10 feet past the hole with the anchored style just two weeks ago.
That switch failed to get him into the U.S. Open field, but it might have paved the way for better results this week and beyond.
He’s just careful not to credit the putter more than the guy who’s using it.
“At the end of the day,” he says, “if you’re good putter, you’re a good putter.”
At the end of this day, being a good putter was good enough to post a score that has everyone else in the field chasing him.