LEMONT, Ill. – Even more surprising than Phil Mickelson using a belly putter at the second stage of the FedEx Cup playoffs was a direct message that showed up during the weekend on Twitter.
“I have a belly putter!”
It came from Brad Faxon, who, when contacted Tuesday in South Korea for confirmation, had just been told by security that he and Jeff Sluman were not allowed to play cribbage in the hotel lobby because it was too close to the casino.
Can you believe that?” Faxon said.
The ban on cribbage? Sure.
A belly putter for the guy reputed to be among the best in golf with the short stick? Hard to believe.
“I’m dead serious,” Faxon said.
Only a week earlier, he said the belly putter for most people was a “second, third, fourth or last resort” when all else had failed, and that some USGA officials, no doubt, were turning in their graves for not ruling against the concept of anchoring a putter to the body. Faxon then called Paul Vizanko at the Scotty Cameron Putting Studio in California and ordered one.
Before anyone starts looking for dogs and cats to fall from the sky, Faxon said he won’t be using the belly putter on the Champions Tour this week in South Korea or anywhere else in competition. He was simply curious.
“I wanted to see what all the hype was about,” Faxon said.
The belly putter first gained attention when Paul Azinger used one in a seven-shot victory 11 years ago at the Sony Open in Hawaii. The hype to which Faxon refers began last month, when players won three straight PGA Tour events with long putters.
Adam Scott, who in February switched to a long putter that he anchors to his chest, won the World Golf Championship at Firestone. A week later at the PGA Championship, Keegan Bradley (belly) became the first player to win a major using a longer putter. Webb Simpson (belly) won the following week in Greensboro, N.C., and then won again at the TPC Boston.
Maybe it’s more than a fad.
“It’s like the two-handed backhand in tennis,” Faxon said. “Twenty years ago, it was not the norm. Now it’s the better way to go. The belly putter and the long putter are going to trend that way. Young kids are not going to be afraid to switch.”
There have been ample anecdotes about an entire threesome using a long putter. Ian Poulter tweeted that of 10 guys on the practice green in Boston, eight had long putters.
More telling are raw numbers.
There were six players using longer putters in 2009 and 2010 at The Barclays, the opening playoff event for the top 125 players. This year, the number of long putters jumped to 20.
One of them was Jim Furyk, who is having one of his worst years. Since getting a few pointers from Bradley - three weeks before Bradley won the PGA - he has put himself in position to advance to the Tour Championship.
“Ten years ago, no one ever went to the belly putter unless they couldn’t putt,” Furyk said. “So I didn’t really think of it as unfair. I thought of it as desperation, if that makes sense. For me, it was still desperation, but I’ve seen some guys that have gone to it where they are decent putters, but they think it’s a better way.”
The debate is whether such putters should be banned because, some would argue, anchoring them to the belly or the chest eliminates the skill. The USGA has shown little interest in ruling against them, and some believe it’s too late now.
Azinger thinks the argument is hollow.
“Everyone wants to act like it’s foolproof,” he said. “It’s been around for 11 years. Now somebody does something and it blows up. You’ve still got to make putts under pressure to win. Ernie Els has jacked so many short putts with a belly putter, and I didn’t hear anyone complaining about them.”
Azinger still doesn’t know what made him try it at his home club in Florida toward the end of 1999. There was a longer putter that had been made for someone much shorter than him. For some reason, he stuck the end of the putter into his belly button.
“I was making stuff all over the pro shop,” Azinger said.
He switched the putter head to one he liked. He changed the lie and angle. He moved the ball back in his stance and put more weight on his right leg to make him feel anchored.
“I was instantly better,” Azinger said. “Paul Runyan watched me putting in 2000 and said it was the best single-lever action putting stroke he’d ever seen. To this day, I don’t know what that means. But when I grabbed that thing, I became a better putter. And I was back in the Ryder Cup and the Presidents Cup and in the top 20 in the world.”
Still, the belly and long putters raise one question: If it’s so good, why isn’t everyone using it?
The PGA Tour’s most reliable statistic for putting is called “strokes gained.” The top 12 players on the list use a conventional putter. The more traditional statistic is average putts per round. None of the top 12 players on that list use a long putter, either.
Steve Stricker is No. 1 in “strokes gained” and No. 3 in putts per round.
So why isn’t he using one?
“I like how I putt. I like the conventional wisdom of the short putter. Is that saying it nicely?” Stricker said with a smile.
He did try one at the TPC Boston to see what it was like.
“It was a totally different feel,” he said. “I’m used to following through with my hands.”
Just then, Padraig Harrington walked by and caught the tail end of Stricker’s comments.
“Don’t tell me you’re talking about a long putter,” Harrington said. “The day Steve Stricker goes to a long putter, we’re all in trouble.”
Aaron Baddeley is another great putter. He stared blankly when asked why he isn’t using a belly putter, then understood the point of the question and said the same thing Stricker did.
He then was asked another question. The day pigs fly is when who uses a belly putter?
“Tiger Woods,” he said. “And Brad Faxon.”