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Old school of thought

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Deep within the bowels of Golf Channel’s Orlando, Fla., headquarters Dave Stockton Sr. paces the floor of a “borrowed” office with an energy well beyond his 69 years.

Did you ever consider using a belly putter?

“No,” he answers, confusion etched across his face by the most ridiculous of questions, “why would I?” With that, the game’s preeminent putting guru – and a self-described “old school” guy – turns his attention back to the 42 ¼-inch model he had the folks at TaylorMade make for him last week.

Strange days, indeed.

The title of Stockton’s new book “Unconscious Putting” tells you all you need to know about the 10-time PGA Tour winner.

To Stockton putting is an art, which would, if reality followed perception, make the use of a longer-than-standard-length putter the competitive equivalent of coloring by numbers. Yet as the two-time major champion tinkers with his new belly putter, rolling ball after ball to an imaginary hole, there is no hiding a genuine curiosity.

Four of the last five PGA Tour events have been won by players using long putters, including Keegan Bradley’s historic long-putter breakthrough at the PGA Championship. Stockton’s star pupil, Phil Mickelson, made headlines, if not hay, two weeks ago when he switched to a belly putter at the Deutsche Bank Championship.

In short, Stockton wanted to see what all the fuss was about. So on his way to Mickelson’s Southern California home last week for a pre-BMW Championship session, he had a belly putter built for him.

Call it field work. Call it experimentation. Whatever you call it, the results have been enlightening and Mickelson’s use of the belly putter was, by any measure, a step in the right directon as far as Stockton is concerned.

“(Mickelson) is only going to get better at doing it. He’s got the eyes, he’s got the feel,” Stockton says. “With it anchored like that you’re only going to repeat (the stroke).”

To be clear, Stockton has no plans to convert to a long putter, nor would he advise one of his students to try one, at least not from the outset. In fact, he’s still not sure the long putter’s use should be legal, at least at the highest level.

“I’m old school. I don’t understand how you can anchor it on your body,” he says. “Nobody can tell me how Sam Snead’s croquet (putting style), where nothing is connected but just because you’re straddling your line is illegal, and then tell me (the belly putter) is legal.”

But then, Stockton quickly points out, he thought metal-headed drivers should be illegal the first time he hit one. “I’ve been wrong before,” he smiles.

Turning back the rules-making clock seems highly unlikely considering the long putter’s recent success, both on Tour and among average golfers. At an Orlando-area Edwin Watts store early Wednesday the shelves were nearly bare of long putters. Even in a “down economy” high handicaps from Tacoma to Tallahassee seem willing to dole out big bucks for a putting fix.

All total there were four belly putters and nine broom-handle models on display at the Edwin Watts, compared to, for example, some 22 left-handed, standard-length Odysseys in the rack under a larger-than-life poster of Mickelson wielding his old short model.

“We can’t keep them in stock,” says a sales associate named Alison. “People don’t really care, belly putter, broom-handle, they just want a long putter. It all started with Keegan.”

For “old school” Stockton, it started long before young Bradley became the first player to win a Grand Slam event with a long putter. For Stockton it started when the U.S. Golf Association failed to act, and now it’s too late.

“The ball is in the USGA’s court, they can’t do anything. They can’t scale back now. You can’t say Freddie (Couples) we don’t want you to use it anymore, Phil we don’t want you to use it anymore,” says Stockton, one of the game’s best putters in his prime whose current list of clients include Mickelson, Rory McIlroy and Yani Tseng.

“I told (Mickelson), you were in the middle of the (2009) groove controversy and I know this is going to create a storm,” Stockton says. “He certainly is much more relaxed with it. It just feels good to him.”

When asked if he thought Mickelson would put the belly putter back in play this week at Cog Hill Stockton quickly waves his hand, “Absolutely. I’d be surprised if he uses any other putter the rest of the year,” he says.

With that Stockton turns his attention back to his 42 ¼-inch model, seemingly mesmerized by the mechanical simplicity of it all.

The man who pieced together a potential Hall of Fame career (he’s on this year’s HOF ballot) one 5-footer at a time may be less than enamored with the legality of the belly putter, but there is no denying its benefits. Which prompts one last question: does the belly putter reduce the amount of skill needed to be a good putter?

After a long pause, Stockton echoes a line made in recent months by many a Tour type: “It’s not going to putt it for you, you still have to do it right,” he says before another long pause. “I’m never going to advocate someone starting with one of these.”

Stockton may be open-minded, but “old school” is willing to go only so far.