The Long Putter: To Ban or Not To Ban?

(Note: The following post was originally publshed by the author for WaggleRoom.com) Stroke: A "stroke" is the forward movement of the club made with the intention of striking at and moving the ball, but if a player checks his downswing voluntarily before the clubhead reaches the ball he has not made a stroke.

Putt:

•1.       hit golf ball with tapping stroke: to hit a golf ball with a gentle tapping stroke along the ground on a green, aiming for the hole

•2.       tapping golf stroke: a gentle tapping stroke that rolls a golf ball along the ground on a green, aiming for the hole

The above definitions are from the Rules of Golf and the Encarta World Dictionary (respectively) and define what the "powers that be" deem as a golf stroke and putt. However, thanks to Adam Scott and Keegan Bradley over the past two weeks, you can already hear the murmurs coming from around the bend: exactly how "legal" is the use of a long or belly putter in professional golf? 

According to a recent article byRandy Phillips of the Postmedia News, these long putters are an "aberration" and should be removed from the game as soon as possible. For the record, I also have never heard of Randy Phillips.

The United States Golf Association and R&A - gatekeepers of how the grand old game is played - missed the boat when they had the chance to ban the use of belly putters and long putters years ago.

Unfortunately, now with the winners of two big tournaments over the last two weeks on the PGA Tour using them, any attempt to ban those putters from competition might be a case of trying to shut the barn door after the horses have bolted.

The biggest issue that naysayers to the long putter have regarding their use is the anchoring technique that players will use while putting. In the case of a belly putter, a player can anchor the putt-end of the club into his stomach (hence the name, of course) and make a pendulum-like swing without the worry of a player breaking his wrists. For a longer putter - such as what Adam Scott used at the WGC Bridgestone Invitational two weeks ago - a player holds the club with a split-handed grip to create the same pendulum motion. In both examples, the player's wrists remain steady and a smooth putting stroke is the result.

This lack of "wrist breaking" seems to be the major issue that has everyone up in a tizzy. According to an interview for the Toronto Star, putting-guru Dave Pelz suggests that "the feel and the ability to determine the stroke needed to putt the ball the right distance are helped." Furthermore, Pelz argues that the longer putters prevent the player's forearms from rolling-over, thus eliminating the possibility that a putt can be pushed or pulled off-line during impact.

While I am certainly nowhere near a professional-grade golfer, I decided to put this argument to rest - at least for myself - by conducting a small experiment at my local golf course. The method was simple: I would hit ten putts of roughly 10 feet with my conventional putter, then hit ten similar putts with a belly-putter borrowed from the pro shop. To disclose, I have never played a full golf round with a long putter of any kind and have only had limited experience using one in a golf store previously.

My results were somewhat surprising to me, especially since I went into the experiment expecting little to no difference between the two clubs. However, after making only 6 putts from 10 feet with my conventional putter (35-inches in length), I made 8 putts from the same distance using the belly-putter. In other words, my putting accuracy for this experiment improved from 60% to 80% in a matter of minutes.

Now, I fully understand this was not a fool-proof experiment by any means. Any number of external variables could have altered or affected the results of the experiment, but for the most part the conditions remained the same in both trials. Furthermore, I also knew which way the putt was going to break after attempting it one time, so a more accurate test would be to play a full round with the long putter instead of using it on a practice green. Regardless, I did feel a slight difference in the two clubs and can certainly understand where Mr. Pelz is coming from. The conventional putting stroke offers a larger margin for error; there is no doubt about that.

However, two factors remained to hold true or both clubs: I had to know how hard to hit the putt and I needed to start the putt on my intended line appropriately.

Should the USGA and R&A ban the use of longer putters during competition? Personally, I don't see the purpose of doing so. As far as what the aforementioned definitions suggest, a "stroke" is still being made on the golf ball.  More importantly, a player still has to read the green, account for the surrounding elements such as wind and grass type, determine the appropriate speed of the putt, and make a confident stroke while in the midst of thousands of spectators at a professional tour event with millions of dollars on the line.

Those latter details, in my opinion, separate the professionals from the amateurs.