Drilling Down: Ban be damned, a belly putter makes history at a major

Angel Cabrera, Masters
Robert Beck/SI

1. At the Masters, Angel Cabrera became the first player to win a major with a long putter. The accomplishment — or abomination, depending on your point of view — comes with an asterisk because Cabrera swung Ping's 39-inch customized belly putter like a normal flat stick, i.e., he held it with two hands on the end of the shaft, not secured to his gut.

2. Getting the Shaft

As soon as the long putter appeared, there were questions about its legality. Some argued that because a player anchored the shaft against his chin, chest or belly, it provided an unfair advantage. The Rules of Golf state that a putter cannot be shorter than 18 inches, but there's no maximum length. Still, the governing bodies could have banned the clubs under the rule stating that equipment must maintain "traditional and customary" use, and in fact one of the biggest arguments against the clubs is that they simply don't look right. In this case, however, the rule makers determined that while the long putter does provide some advantages, particularly for players struggling with the yips, the club also has disadvantages (speed control, less feel) that balances the exchange. As Frank Thomas, who was the USGA's technical director at the time, has said, "It can make a bad putter a good putter, but it can't make a good putter a great putter." Still, the controversy persists. In 2004, when Vijay Singh switched to a belly putter and went from 100th in putting average to the top 10 (and rose to No. 3 in the World Ranking), belly putters swept the Tour. "They should definitely be banned," Ernie Els said. "I believe nerves and the skill of putting are part of the game." Els didn't get his way, but since then long putter usage has remained flat according to the Darrell Survey, largely for the reasons Thomas stated. "I can always be an average putter with that long putter," Tom Lehman told Golf World last year. "But if I wanted to be a really good putter, I had to go back to the short putter. I don't want to be an average putter. I don't want to be a decent putter. I want to be a great putter. I'm willing to sacrifice a bit of pain in the short term to make myself a great putter."

3. A Short History

1985 Charlie Owens invents long putter and begins using it on Senior tour.
1989 Orville Moody wins U.S. Senior Open with long putter.
1989 Mark Lye becomes first player to use long putter on PGA Tour.
1991 Rocco Mediate wins Doral-Ryder Open with long putter.
2000 Paul Azinger wins Sony Open with belly putter.
2009 Angel Cabrera wins Masters with belly putter using conventional grip.

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