Belly the new black


NORTON, Mass. – Golf abhors asterisks. It’s why Bobby Jones is still the only player to have ever won the single-season Grand Slam even though half of Bobby’s haul is no longer considered part of the “impregnable quadrilateral.”

It is a truth that is at the heart of the debate du jour on the PGA Tour. Love ‘em, hate ‘em or hold ‘em, long putters are a Pandora that were let out of the rule’s box long before young Keegan Bradley rolled his way to major history.

Long before Adam Scott, Bradley and Webb Simpson won in consecutive weeks wielding something longer than standard on the putting surfaces. That’s 3-for-4 the last month on Tour for the long stick, a stunning statistic that doesn’t even include Fred Couples’ victory at the Senior Players Championship two weeks ago.

Depending on whom one asks the long putter is either the scourge or the savior of the game. Traditionalists howl, troubled souls with trembling hands rejoice.

“If it were going to be banned, it should have happened 20-plus years ago. But now that it's been legal, I don't think you can make it retroactive. … Having said that, we've been retroactive on grooves; we've outlawed the paddle grip for crying out loud,” said one left-handed, four-time major winner.

That the same southpaw set out just after dawn at TPC Boston with a belly putter in his bag only demonstrates how devilishly divisive this issue has become, and Phil Mickelson knows about divisive decisions.

“I was a little shady with it on the front (nine), a little bit better with it on the back (nine),” said Mickelson on Thursday at the Deutsche Bank Championship. “Look, I’m willing to try new things. I’ve hit two drivers, no drivers in Opens. I don’t mind trying something different.”

When asked if he planned to put the mid-length putter in play for Friday’s opening round at TPC Boston Mickelson said, “Probably.” Whether the decision is born from Lefty’s pedestrian putting this year – he ranks 87th in the new strokes-gained putting category and, more concerning, 131st on putts between 10 and 15 feet – or a desire to make a political statement about a club some Tour types say is legal only because golf’s rule makers failed to act remains to be seen.

Just last year Mickelson caused a stir when he put a legal-but-non-conforming Ping wedge into play at the Farmers Insurance Open. A week later he removed the club from his bag saying, “My point has been made.”

Whatever Mickelson’s motivations, having the game’s second-largest draw join a growing list of long-putter converts only promises to fuel an already combustible debate.

The only consensus, at least on Tour, is that whether a player uses a longer-than-standard-length putter or not there are real benefits. Where the debate begins is when the traditionalist among the play-for-pay set are asked the most esoteric of questions: Is the long putter cheating?

“If it was cheating you’d see every single person using it,” said Spencer Levin, who switched to a belly putter late last season and has become a convert. “I don’t think it is the cure-all. You still have to be good to use it. But there’s no doubt, you give a good putter a long putter and he’s only going to get better.”

While another Tour player, who asked not to be identified, pointed out a different trend saying, “Look at all the young guys using it. When you see that you know they went through a tough putting stretch in college and never went back.”

One man’s cheating is another’s second chance, and, despite the escalating debate over the long putter’s use on Tour, it is becoming increasingly clear that there is no going back.

“Once something is approved it’s difficult to go back,” said Wally Uihlein, CEO of Acushnet Company, the parent company of Titleist, FootJoy and Pinnacle. “The statistical evidence here, similar to the grooves, one of the things that no one ever measures is the guy who plays 18 holes and leaves himself on the right side of the hole for 18 consecutive holes, he’s going to have fewer putts than the guy who is on the wrong side of the hole.

“How do you do any kind of statistical analysis, long putter vs. short putter, to argue that inherently we’ve neutered the skill factor as a result of benefiting technology? I don’t know how you do that.”

The U.S. Golf Association, and by association the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, seem to agree.

“We always come back to who’s using the belly putter?” said Mike Davis, the USGA’s executive director. “It tends to be two groups of players. It’s either those afflicted with yips or something else that’s not good, or people that have back problems, and you start to say, ‘Do we want to take clubs out of the hands of people who almost can’t enjoy the game anymore because they’re so mentally afflicted with the yips or something of the like, or people that are having back problems?’

“We don’t see this as something that is really detrimental to the game.”

Ultimately, however, it will be golf’s aversion to asterisks that will keep the long-putter debate theoretical. When Bradley stroked in his winning putt at Atlanta Athletic Club to become the first player to win a men’s major using a nontraditional putter the club was effectively granted lifelong tenure.

As liberating as hindsight can be, there is no going back. Not now. Not in golf.