Bill Nichols

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Belly Up: Big putters no longer big deal on Tour

FORT WORTH _ It’s not like golfers suddenly decided to sell their souls to the devil for a better putting stroke. Most would consider robbing a convenience store for a flat stick that didn’t shake uncontrollably over three-footers. 

But the stigma associated with brandishing broomsticks is vanishing. Players no longer feel like criminals when caught with an oversized putter in their hand. These days a guy can shoot 65 with a broomstick and actually look his playing partner in the eye.

Adam Scott almost won the Masters with a broom-handled putter. Ernie Els has experimented with a mid-length model. 

Martin Laird won at Bay Hill with a belly, playing in the final pairing with fellow 20-something belly user Spencer Levin. Two weeks later, rookie Brendan Steele bellied up to the victory stand at the Valero Texas Open. Webb Simpson has two oversized runner-ups to rank 13th in FedEx Cup points.

``I’d use a stick if I knew it was going in,’’ Scott said Wednesday at the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial.

He is not alone. Eight of the top-30 players in the World Rankings have employed oversized putters this season.

After watching his World Ranking drop because of struggles on the green, Scott converted to a long putter. He then finished sixth at the WGC-Cadillac Championship and posted his best major finish, a tied for second at the Masters.

Scott kept searching for a different feeling with his conventional putter before going unconventional.

``After a long time of not seeing them go in consistently, confidence was gone,’’ he said Wednesday at the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial. ``It makes it very hard to play the rest of the game when putts from 10 feet aren’t going in and scrambling is difficult. You just put so much pressure on it, and this is certainly taking some of that away.’’ 

Nothing says desperate old man like a long putter. You may as well hang a white flag from your bag.

But for Scott, the broomstick has not detracted from his Aussie-surfer aura. Chicks still dig him.

Scott and Ernie Els have attracted the most attention for changing because they have been vocal in denouncing oversized putters. Big putters have always generated debate because they are anchored to the body.

“If they banned it tomorrow, I'll still be a happy guy, but whilst it's legal, I might as well use it,” Els told reporters at the recent Ballantine’s Championship in South Korea. ``A lot of other guys are using it, so I'm giving it a go. I must say, I feel slightly embarrassed using it, but if I can start making putts, I think I'll quickly forget about it.”

Els wrestled with the decision before putting his belly putter in play at Hilton Head. He has since reverted to conventional.

It’s tougher for older players to make the switch because of the stereotype associated with long putters. Oversized models reduce the chance of yips because the putter is steadied on the body.

Vijay Singh and Tom Lehman, who are in the Colonial field, have been longtime experimenters of belly and long models.

Bruce Lietzke, a two-time Colonial champ, proudly waved the broomstick, as have Fred Couples and Bernhard Langer.

Lehman, 1995 Colonial champion, said he had no trouble making the switch from conventional.

``It was easy because I couldn’t make a three-footer,’’ he said. ``So I went with the long putter, but I decided I could never be great with the long putter. So I figured I would have to find a way to putt well with the short putter again. I’m just trying to find that repetitive stroke again.’’

David Toms has always been considered a strong putter. He has never used an oversized model in competition.

But that doesn’t mean he won’t start tomorrow.

``I have practiced with long putters before,’’ Toms said. ``It’s a great stroke that way. I have problems setting up with them. I think if I could get the setup and feel comfortable, I wouldn’t mind putting that way because I think it’s almost like cheating.’’

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