ORLANDO, Fla. – The army of anchorers has all but disbanded.
The belly and broom have essentially gone belly up with the Jan. 1 ban still eight months away.
All that’s left are three major winners relearning how to play with a putter that isn’t pressed against their sternum or stomach.
To the casual fan, this wouldn’t seem like a huge deal – they’re PGA Tour players! – but the early returns have suggested otherwise:
• Adam Scott snapped a streak of 45 consecutive made cuts after a cover-your-eyes week in Tampa.
• Keegan Bradley ranked 29th last year in putting. So far this season, he’s 148th.
• Webb Simpson has never ranked worse than 58th on the greens (including 34th a year ago). Today, he’s 92nd.
This (way-too-early) data from the marquee names would imply that anchoring helps, that the transition is more significant than originally thought, and that’s bad news with the start of major season now only 21 days away.
Indeed, the new normal is an uncomfortable one for the former anchorers, which is why rounds such as Thursday’s at Bay Hill can represent a significant step. All three players shot 69 or better in the first round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
“Every round that we play is so big for us,” Bradley said, “because it’s another round under our belt that we haven’t had. This is new for all of us.”
For his many gifts, Scott has never been a particularly strong putter, with or without the broomstick. Only three times since 2004 has he been ranked inside the top 100 in putting.
When he switched to the broom-handled putter in spring 2011, the most notable difference was not that he consistently poured in more birdie putts, but that his poor putting days weren’t as bad. That led to him racking up six top-five finishes in majors since 2011, the most of any player over that span.
After messing around with the short putter during a long offseason, Scott started auspiciously over the first two rounds at Doral. He faded over the weekend (T-4) and had a rough two days in Tampa, leading to his first early exit in 45 events. Entering this week, he had missed 17 times inside 10 feet over his last four rounds and lost a whopping 7.9 strokes to the field. Worse, he admitted that he wasn’t “married” to the short stick, meaning he was still flirting with the idea of switching back. Indecisiveness typically doesn’t play well at Augusta.
Scott appears to have settled on a unique approach in which he uses a conventional grip for longer putts on slower greens, and the claw grip for putts from inside, say, 30 feet.
The longest birdie putt he made Thursday was an 8-foot, 11-inch putt on No. 9, his final hole of the day. Three of his four birdies during an opening 68 were from inside 3 feet. That’s not uncommon this week on a course that has slower, bumpier and spottier greens than usual.
“[The greens] are not exactly what I was hoping for to test my stroke at the moment,” Scott conceded.
Bradley, meanwhile, switched to the shorter putter at the World Challenge event in December, and after a high finish there he declared it was one of the “biggest tournaments of my career.” Hyperbolic, perhaps, but it only underscores how fragile a player’s confidence can be on the greens.
Four months later, Bradley described his putting performance as “kind of boring, middle of the road,” which is also one way to describe his results – only one top-15 in six 2015 starts.
Bradley has transitioned from a 46 1/4-inch putter to one that is about 39 inches – still longer than a conventional short putter – but has a long, thick grip that is similar to his belly model. His new putter is more upright, which puts his eyes more directly over the ball.
“It’s very awkward, very different,” he said of the switch. “I’ve given up thousands of rounds, thousands of hours to these guys out here, so I’m gaining some of those back as we speak.”
Simpson is starting from square one, too. Earlier this year he snapped his belly putter – the same club that helped him win the 2012 U.S. Open – over his knee so he wouldn’t be tempted to use it again.
At times this season he probably wished he had some superglue, because in 15 tournament rounds he is 92nd on Tour in putting. He lost nearly 1.5 strokes on the greens on Thursday, too, even during an opening 69.
“I’m having some good days, some bad days, similar to the belly putter,” he shrugged.
For the past year and a half, the anchoring brigade said it would wait as long as possible before changing – you know, to make hay while they could. Yet today, it’s rare to see a long putter on the PGA Tour, and the ban doesn’t take effect until the first day of 2016.
“Waiting until the last minute, it was a situation where it was almost like I was forced into doing something, like it was my last resort,” Simpson said.
In a few years we’ll know how much anchoring truly mattered. For now, there’s only one option: Adapt.