They definitely should be banned. Nerves and the skill of putting are part of the game. Take a tablet if you can’t handle it.
—Ernie Els, on long putters, 2004
Golf changed forever in 2011. Not because Bill Murray won a PGA Tour event and Tiger Woods didn’t. (Murray had help.) Or because the rule banning box grooves made a difference on the PGA Tour. (It didn’t.) Or because Rickie Fowler’s wardrobe explored parts of the rainbow where no man had gone before (excluding Jimmy Demaret and Doug Sanders).
No, golf changed forever because of the invasion of long, thin, awkward-looking alien objects. Looking back someday, golf historians will identify that watershed moment as occurring at Atlanta Athletic Club on the evening of Aug. 14, when Keegan Bradley won the PGA Championship with a belly putter, which he raised in triumph after the final stroke with no small effort, and became the first player to win a major championship with a putter anchored to his stomach. Yes, anchored to his stomach!
Traditional putting hasn’t yet gone the way of the mashie niblick, the stymie or persimmon, but prepare yourself for a brave new world, golfing purists. Seven of 30 players who competed in last year’s Tour Championship did so with a belly or long putter, including the victor, Bill Haas. Five of the winners in the last seven regular-season Tour events went long, as did eight of the 24 competitors in the Presidents Cup.
Did you know this phenomenon already has its own designation? “We call it alternative putting,” says Scotty Cameron, the game’s best-known putter designer. Alternative putting? That does sound more dignified, like an automobile seems classier if it’s preowned instead of used.
“Every pro who has come to my studio in the last three months has asked to try an alternative putter,” Cameron says. “It’s been amazing.”
So what’s really up with alternative putting? Is this a game-changing revolution or a fad?
I think it’s simply another step away from a game that’s been played for 300 years.
—Geoff Ogilvy, on alternative putters, 2011
The Birth of the Belly
The first time a golfer used a belly putter at a PGA Tour event he won by seven shots. Yet the flat stick that Paul Azinger used to win the Sony Open in Hawaii in January 2000 went largely unnoticed. Azinger had won his battle with lymphoma cancer, and he turned the Sony triumph, his first since the 1993 PGA, into an emotional tribute to his pal, Payne Stewart, who had died in a plane crash the previous fall. It’s no wonder that Azinger’s putter was overlooked.
Here’s the backstory: A few months earlier Azinger was fooling around with someone’s shortish long-shafted putter in the Gator Creek golf shop near his home in Bradenton, Fla. “I put it in my belly button, started hitting every target around the shop, took it out on the putting green and made everything,” Azinger says. “It just fit. It was a fluke.”
Azinger never completely found his ’93 best-in-America form, but he climbed back into the top 20 in the World Ranking and onto a Presidents Cup and a Ryder Cup team. In 1999, Azinger finished 111th in putting. After he bellied up in 2000, he ranked fourth behind Brad Faxon, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, only the three best putters of modern times.
The belly and the broomstick are definitely superior methods. I don’t see any reason why a guy can’t be phenomenal with those putters.
—Johnny Miller, 2011
A Better Mousetrap?
The belly putter was already golf’s club du jour by the time Bradley won the PGA with it. When Mickelson, Mr. Ultimate Purist Blade Putter, showed up with one at the Deutsche Bank Championship three weeks later, two things happened. One, “I fainted,” jokes Dave Stockton, the putting wizard who had been working with Phil. Two, alternative putting was no longer seen as a last resort for poor putters. In fact, the success of the belly putter led many to wonder, Is this actually a better way to putt?
Quite simply, the belly’s not for everyone. Stockton stopped at TaylorMade headquarters in Carlsbad, Calif., to pick up a belly putter made to his specs late last summer so he could try one before his first belly-putting session with Mickelson. The two met at a nearby practice green, where Phil stroked a pair of long putts. Then Stockton took a turn, and on his first try he holed a 50-footer. “I was smart enough to quit after one,” Stockton says. “Phil just shook his head.”
Stockton, a Mozart on the greens, could probably hole putts with a pitchfork. He’s not a fan of the belly putter and believes anything anchored to the body should be illegal, but he has seen the results. “I still think your routine is much more important,” he says, “but this club is definitely going to help certain people.”
A few years ago Dave Pelz, the renowned short-game scientist, tested students at one of his golf schools for a Golf Magazine story. He had them putt five ways, including with a belly putter, a long putter and crosshanded. The belly putter edged out the long putter as the most effective on short putts.
“It’s not a panacea,” Pelz says, “but it eliminates two things amateurs do poorly. It helps them not rotate their forearms during the stroke, and it eliminates hinging their wrists.”
The only negative with a belly putter, Pelz says, is that the more controlled arm swing used with a long shaft can affect the touch of a player accustomed to a conventional putter. “Mickelson struggled with that,” Pelz says. “He was immediately better on short putts but not as good on long putts.”
Jim Suttie, a Golf Magazine Top 100 Teacher, was an advocate of the long putter long before it became fashionable. He was an early believer in the belly putter, too, after Azinger broke his out.
“I’ve been telling people to do this for a long time,” says Suttie, who estimates that 40% of his students own some sort of alternative putter. “The ideal way to putt, the purest way, is left-hand-low with a belly. When your right hand is low, your right shoulder is lower, and you push some putts. You want your shoulders level; that creates a real neutral stroke.”
Stan Utley, who works with a number of top PGA Tour players, teaches an arc-based stroke. Though Utley, an admitted traditionalist, disagrees with allowing anchored clubs, he sees value in alternatives. “Long putters cause the player to make the exact same stroke that I teach with a conventional putter,” Utley says. “When you anchor the grip end to the body, you can’t manipulate the grip in a way that pulls the top of the handle back during the takeaway or toward the target during the through swing, the biggest mistakes I see.”
Steve Flesch, 44, has used a belly putter for nearly a decade. He won three of his four PGA Tour titles with a belly putter. He considers it necessary. “It’s a means to cure the flinches,” Flesch says. “I got the flinches at 21 and have battled them my entire career. I went back to a short putter for a while, but you reach a point over a certain putt that maybe means a lot, and suddenly it’s like having a rattlesnake in your hands.”
One convert who jumped off the bandwagon is Jim Furyk. He began experimenting with the belly putter after getting some tips from Bradley at last year’s Canadian Open. Furyk knows unconventional. There’s his swing, for starters, and the crosshanded putting style his dad taught him growing up. Furyk’s putting had always been considered a strength, but last year, at 41, he struggled with his stroke and gave the belly a try, with mixed results.
“The part I liked is, it’s anchored,” Furyk says. “It does feel stable and steady. The part I don’t like is, it’s anchored. You have to determine how vertical you hold the club, your posture and your arms, and that affects the putter’s path. If you grip the club so it’s too long, you feel as if you’re going to stub it. Too short, and it feels as if it’s not anchored.”
Furyk went back to his conventional putter and crosshanded grip for the Presidents Cup, made everything and hasn’t looked back. “People ask me what I learned from using the belly putter,” Furyk says. “My answer is, I learned I had better remember how to putt with the short putter again.”
We don’t see this as a big trend. It’s not as if all the junior golfers out there are doing this. No one’s even won a major using one of these things anchored to themselves. So we don’t see this as something that is really detrimental to the game.
—Mike Davis, USGA executive director, on Golf Channel in 2011
The Belly Rebellion
Alternative putters are coming to a retailer—or maybe a golf bag—near you this year. More manufacturers are producing them and in greater numbers, and more stores are stocking them. Look in any golf shop; belly putters are multiplying like rabbits.
“We hadn’t gone gung-ho about alternative putters because there hadn’t been much of a market before,” says Titleist’s Cameron. “Now there’s a market. I think Adam Scott at the Masters last year [Scott tied for second with a long putter] made this acceptable and cool. Two years ago, when you used one of these putters, you looked defeated.”
The forecast for belly putters is decidedly bullish. According to a survey of 750 golfers by the Sports & Leisure Research Group, 17% plan to buy a new putter in 2012, up 8% from a year ago, and the amount each golfer estimates he or she will spend is $158, a 14% increase from 2011.
“Clearly, the belly putter has heightened interest, and the higher prices people are willing to spend reflect the innovation in this category,” says Jon Last, Sports & Leisure Research Group’s president. “Everything points to a resurgence in the putter category.”
Clubmakers have taken notice. Bettinardi Golf, known for its high-end custom putters, didn’t offer a belly model in 2011. Its new putter line does—the BB53, which comes in heel-shafted and center-shafted versions. “I was at the PGA when Keegan Bradley won, and that was my eureka moment,” says company founder and designer Bob Bettinardi. “So far, so good. They’re selling.”
Scotty Cameron Putters is expecting a huge year. Before Scott’s run at the Masters, Cameron says his company would sell 500 to 1,000 alternative putters a year. By the end of ’11 the number was 10,000. Cameron is gearing up to move 15,000 to 20,000 this year.
Instead of simply adding length to conventional models, for the first time TaylorMade designed its alternative putters to perform at belly- and long-putter lengths. Last year, according to Michael Fox, a TaylorMade product-marketing manager, the company sold four times as many alternative putters as in 2010, and he expects to double 2011’s sales this year. “We were back-ordered 30 days at one point last year,” says Fox.
Ping, riding the crest of Webb Simpson’s success with the Craz-E belly putter, which he has used since college, already had three belly models available and will add a fourth this spring. “We had to readjust our forecasts because our retailers had pretty robust sales during the holidays,” says Ping spokesman Pete Samuels. “I don’t see this as a fad. With so many younger players using it, that suggests it has legs.”
The belly putter is like the two-handed backhand shot in tennis 25 years ago. It was the odd guy who hit a two-handed backhand. Now if you don’t have a two-handed backhand you can barely compete, unless you’re Roger Federer. The belly putter is going to become accepted, and you’ll see more players using it.
—Brad Faxon, 2011
Fitting and Proper
If you know only one thing about belly putters, let it be this: The fit must be perfect.
Todd Sones, a Golf Magazine Top 100 Teacher and the owner of Contour Golf Custom Putters, has worked with alternative putters for years. He is adamant about the importance of putter-fitting.
“Belly putting is a Jekyll-and-Hyde thing,” Sones says. “It either works great, or it doesn’t work at all. Your chance of buying a belly putter and setting up properly without professional help is like buying prescription eyeglasses from Sunglass Hut.”
Sones says a golfer using a belly putter must be tilted at just the right angle so his hands hang directly under his shoulder line. If the putter is too long, the golfer will stand too upright, forcing his hands outside the shoulder line. If the putter is too short, the club is anchored too low in the midsection, inevitably pushing the putter to the outside on the stroke.
The challenge for marketing belly putters is the fitting process. “If Dan Forsman and Steve Jones stood next to each other, they’d be the same height,” Sones says. “But Dan’s belt is, like, five inches higher than Steve’s because he’s all legs. Anyone fitting putters only by height is getting it wrong.”
For example, Sones says he recently measured a 5' 7" teenager to a 33-inch conventional putter. He needed to add 91⁄2 inches for his belly putter to fit properly. Then, Sones worked with a 6' 4" man who needed a 36-inch conventional putter, but only six more inches to cover the distance to his belly. A 42-inch belly putter fit the big man, a 421⁄2-inch model fit the teen.
“Look, the biggest fundamental mistake even the best players make is that they come out of their putt, their upper body moves, usually up and back, or they peek, which makes them open up,” Sones says. “Because the belly putter is connected to the body, it’s easier to stay down on the putt and your chances of keeping your shoulders square at impact go up. Technically, I can see the reasons why belly putting is a better way to putt—if a player is set up correctly.
“Belly putters are technically sound. If they’re done right, they will help a lot of people. If they’re done wrong, they may go away.”
Guys can have a laugh at me, that’s fine. I’ve done it to them. As long as it’s legal, I’ll keep cheating like the rest of them.
—Ernie Els, on using a belly putter, 2011