A year ago Ernie Els was struggling mightily with the putter. He was openly critical of long putters, but in desperation, as his putting skills were deteriorating, Els himself made the switch to a long putter late last fall. He became the third major championship winner in the past year to have the long putter in his bag on Sunday at Royal Lytham..
Keegan Bradley was the first player to win a major with a long putter when he hoisted the Wanamaker Trophy at last year’s PGA Championship at the Atlanta Athletic Club. Next it was Webb Simpson winning the U.S. Open at the Olympic Club this summer in San Francisco. Only Masters Champion, Bubba Watson, has used a conventional length putter in the past year as a major champion.
Three-time major champion, Padraig Harrington, was extremely vocal in his criticism of the long putter on Sunday night after Els defeated Adam Scott, also the user of a long putter, at Royal Lytham. The objection that most players make is that if a player can’t putt with a conventional club, why should they have a crutch to compete with those that can.
Even Tiger Woods admitted recently that he has had conversations with Peter Dawson, Chief of the Royal and Ancient, golf’s rules makers. Woods has encouraged the R&A to act on the issue sooner than later.
“I’ve talked to Peter about this for a number of years and gone back and forth on how we could word it,” said Woods. “My idea was to have it so that the putter would be equal to or less than the shortest club in your bag. I think with that we’d be able to get away from any type of belly anchoring.”
Woods has heard that the R&A and the USGA are ready to focus on the stroke rather than the club, but doubts whether that is the right decision. “You can still anchor the putter like Bernhard Langer did against the arm,” he said. “But, that’s still the art of swinging the club.”
Mike Davis, Executive Director of the USGA, outlined to me last week why the debate is so complicated. The R&A and the USGA met a couple of times last week at Lytham, as well as at the first two majors of the season. The discussions have been lengthy and tedious, delving into the detail and wording of the rulebook.
“If you want to ban something, what do you want to ban? Because you just say the word ‘anchoring’, it can mean a lot of things,” Davis told me. “And it’s not just putting either. There are clubs now where you can anchor a club underneath your armpit and pitch that way. The point is, there’s a lot more to this than just somebody putting with a belly putter.”
Yet despite the complexities, there is a palpable desire to make a definitive decision soon. Dawson said last week, “I think it is incumbent on us to make our position reasonably clear in months rather than years.”
Davis concurred, “Whatever gets done is going to be tough in the short run. If we decide to do nothing, that decision- I mean, that indecision, if you will- is actually a decision. If we decide to do nothing, it’s really unfair to the game of golf and to future governing bodies.”
Any rules changes could not come into effect until 2016, allowing players time to reacquaint themselves with the short stick. There is also a threat that some of the players who are impacted could make contact with lawyers and file a lawsuit.
Besides Bradley, Simpson, Els and Scott, other well-known players using the long putter include Matt Kuchar, Fred Couples and the LPGA’s Michelle Wie. Phil Mickelson experimented with the long putter during last year’s FedEx Cup, but returned to the short club.
“Obviously, if the standard of putting goes up, which it clearly does, guys wouldn’t be using them if they didn’t putt better with them, right?” said Mickelson. “If the standard of putting goes up, it puts more pressure on the guys that aren’t using one just to compete. So, all of a sudden it’s hard for a normal putter. Is he doing the right thing? Should he be using the long putter?”
“It’s not only the significant increase with the elite touring professionals, but a significant increase with recreational players,” Davis added. ” This has been going on for 15 to 20 years, but until now it’s been a small group of golfers. Now, in the last year and a half, that’s changed.”
Currently, about 25% of the players on the PGA Tour use the long putter. It begs the question, if there is that much of an advantage to the long putter then why are the vast majority of players still using shorter clubs?
Adam Scott missed a crucial four-footer on #16 Sunday at Lytham. Most would say that shot was the one that cost him the Open Championship. His long putter didn’t make the difference when it counted the most.
“As long as it’s legal, I’ll keep cheating like the rest of them,” said Els last October when he switched to the longer model.
Does that mean Els’ achievement, or Bradley’s and Simpson’s, are diminished in any way?“Absolutely not,” said Dawson. “These championships are conducted under rules of play at the time and that doesn’t detract in any way from the winner as long as he obeys the rules of play at the time. Bobby Jones used concave faced clubs for some of his major championships and they were outlawed later.”