The Long Putter: Unfair Advantage, or Part and Parcel of the Game?
By Nick Bonfield
What is required to win a golf tournament? Great ball striking, accurate iron play, a great short game, control of emotions, character, and, most importantly, a great display of putting throughout the week. Is a great display of putting down to equipment, technique, or the person wielding that equipment? The long putter can certainly be of assistance, but it isn’t automatic assurance of a great putting week. The stroke still has to be good, as does timing, the ability to judge pace, incline, and make that vital putt when all the pressure in the world is coming down on you. The belly putter isn’t some robotic implement that guarantees success. Similarly, take modern drivers. Nowadays, screws can be changed to modify loft, and give assistance to those with, for example, a predisposition to slice a golf ball. Will the ball go down straight down the fairway every time? Of course not, because the human aspect, encompassing everything from nerves to the swing itself, has to be solid in the first place to gain maximum benefit from the technology. As former technical director of the USGA stated: “It can make a bad putter a good putter, but it can’t make a good putter a great putter.” Do you have to be a great putter to win a golf tournament? No. Do you have to putt great for a week to win a golf tournament? Yes. If you had your mortgage riding on someone to make a 10 foot putt, who would your money be on: Robert Allenby with a belly putter, or Steve Stricker? Only a severely deluded individual would select the former.
It cannot be denied, however, that use of the belly putter falls into a grey area. The current legislative stance is that putters cannot be shorter than 18 inches, and that equipment must remain “traditional and customary.” This is a wholly insufficient and vague stipulation, and depends entirely on ones interpretation of traditional. Should metal drivers be outlawed because they are not made of wood? Absolutely not, because this doesn’t cater for evolution in the game.
The fact of the matter is that there is no concrete law against long putters and belly putters. Many argue that the putter should only come into contact with the hands, and that creating a pivot and a third point of contact gives an unfair advantage. Yes, this might be advantageous from within 15 feet, but it becomes far more difficult to gauge distance and feel from further away. Let us not forget that the average distance to the hole, on approaches so far this season on the PGA Tour, has been over 35 feet. Who holds the advantage? Is there anything in it? Turning to the belly putter is not a quick fix. Of the top 10 in putting average on the PGA tour, only Webb Simpson uses the belly putter, a piece of equipment that he has employed since his college days. At the end of the day, it comes down to mindset and confidence. If you believe that you are going to hole a putt, you have more chance of holing a putt, regardless of equipment or technology. Did Keegan Bradley hole that wonderful, sloping putt on the 17th green at Atlanta Athletic Club because of his long putter, or was it down to sheer willpower, determination, and the ability to step up to the plate at the biggest moment of his career?
Furthermore, talk of the long putter being an unfair advantage implies that it is an option only available to a select few. I respect those that change to the long putter. With such an enormous wealth of talent on golfing circuits in this day and age, you have to give yourself every opportunity to be as good as you can possibly be. It shows a willingness to better yourself, and a fundamental drive to improve on an area of weakness. Take Adam Scott, a world class ball striker who has transformed his career since adopting the long putter. Take Ernie Els, a ‘veteran’ of the tour doing everything he can to make sure he can still compete at the top level. Let us not forget, these changes rely on perception, and there is an enormous difference between the belief that something can make you better and its translation into reality. As Els said after his final round at the Frys.com: “If I want to get to that next level… I gotta start making those putts when I need it.” The belly putter won’t be able to help him with that.
If the game becomes overawed with long putters, so be it. If they are, as the critics affirm, an unfair advantage, then we will start to see more and more birdies, and golf will become more and more exciting. But to make birdies, you have to put yourself in position. At the PGA Championship, Bradley’s putting contributed to his success, but would he have won if he wasn’t second in greens in regulation? Would Scott have won the Bridgestone if he wasn’t second in total driving? Are the top 10 in putting average on the PGA Tour concerning themselves with the long putter debate? No, because they know they have reached their position atop the rankings through hard work, practice and skill, and not because of a piece of equipment that is only perceived to be advantageous.