Share this article

print logo

Players getting attached to belly putters; Use is questioned, but do they help?

Leave it to the Big Easy to perfectly encapsulate the debate raging over belly putters.

"Right now, I'm glad they haven't banned it," Ernie Els famously said last October. "As long as it's legal, I'll keep cheating like the rest of them."

Does the use of a belly putter constitute cheating? That's for the United States Golf Association (and its European counterpart, the R&A) to decide. It's an issue that's being reviewed.

"We're going to take a fresh look at this. We want to be sure that we are looking at all the angles and thinking about what is in the best interests both of the traditions of the game, the history of the game, and what we think would be good for the game," said Mike Davis, executive director of the USGA, in an interview with Golf Week in January.

For now, there's no rule stating you can't have a belly in the bag. So as long as that's the case, the question area golfers need answered is: Will this help lower my scores?

>A stable base

"For an amateur, yeah, I think it's an advantage," said Keith Zahner, a local instructor who teaches out of the Wehrle Golf Dome and the Links at Ivy Ridge. "It's going to help you keep the blade more square and definitely keep the putter on path."

That's accomplished by "anchoring" the club to your body, either near the belly button or, for even longer putters -- the kind used so successfully by Adam Scott on the PGA Tour -- by the chest or chin.

The setup is paramount to putting success, and what the belly does is take out some of the guesswork.

"When it's attached to you, it takes some of the variables out of it," Zahner said. "It's harder to manipulate the face angle."

A good setup will promote the correct fundamentals and enable players to repeat the same solid stroke. (In that sense, having the belly putter sized by a club-fitting specialist is especially important).

"Putting is probably the toughest part of the game for most people," said Fred Zillner, the director of golf at Diamond Hawk in Cheektowaga. "For the higher-handicap golfer more so than anybody, it helps. It gives them a stable base to putt from. Being upright gives them a little bit better view to the hole and it helps them play a little bit better."

Of course, players still have to pick the right line and correctly judge the speed, so there's no guarantee changing to a belly will turn you into Steve Stricker on the greens overnight.

"It does help, but I don't think it gives you an unfair advantage," Zillner said. "If it did, wouldn't everyone be using one?"

>Bellies get bigger

Carrying a traditional putter isn't like having a 2-iron in the bag yet, but there's no question the belly putter is in the midst of a surge in popularity. The watershed moment came last August, when 25-year-old Keegan Bradley won the PGA Championship, becoming the first player to win a major with an alternative putter.

Seven of the 30 players who competed in last season's Tour Championship used long putters, including the winner, 29-year-old Bill Haas.

Even a staunch traditionalist like Phil Mickelson put a belly putter in the bag for last season's Deutsche Bank Championship -- three weeks after Bradley's PGA win.

"We had five belly putters on the rack. The week after Mickelson used it and had a good tournament, we sold out," said Rick Zurak, the owner of Rick Zurak Golf. "It's amazing the influence the pros have on people."

That's good news for golf manufacturers and retailers both locally and nationally. In February, the New York Times, based on information provided by the research firm Golf Datatech, reported that putter sales revenues had dropped from about $200 million in 2003 to $141.3 million in 2011.

If the local reaction is any indication, that trend should reverse this year. Jay Stellrecht, a club-fitting specialist at Golf Headquarters of Western New York in Williamsville, said over the past six months, his store has seen a huge growth in belly-putter sales -- about 400 percent.

A store representative at Golf Galaxy in Amherst, one of the area's largest retailers, said he could not comment on specific sales numbers but added, "our inventory has increased. We're carrying a lot more belly putters."

Chris Koske, the global director of Odyssey Golf, which makes the 43-inch White Hot XG Sabertooth model Bradley used to win the PGA, told the Times in February that his company sold 8,000 belly putters nationwide in 2010 and more than 34,000 last year.

"I'd like to get to 100,000," he told the paper. "I think it is completely doable."

>Birth of the belly

Although they're surging in popularity, long putters are far from new technology. Back in 1986, Charlie Owens came up with his own 50-inch broomstick model, winning a pair of Senior Tour events that season. Three years later, Orville Moody won the U.S. Senior Open with a long putter and Mark Lye became the first player to use one on the PGA Tour.

Not long long after that, Tom Habermehl switched to a long putter. Habermehl is the president of Crag Burn Golf Club, and a pretty good stick (5 handicap). He caught a bad case of the yips (involuntary movements that interfere with putting) about 25 years ago and was desperate for a cure.

"I couldn't make a foot putt to save my life," he said. "I almost gave up the game. Back then, there weren't a lot of long putters around. I found one at Transit Valley and got relatively proficient with it. I don't think I could have played much longer without it."

For many years, long putters had a stigma attached to them. They were only for those desperate enough to use it -- either to cure the yips or to ease pressure on their backs.

That myth has been busted.

"A lot of these pros have grown up not using anything else," Zahner said.

>Going low

"The first time I used it, I made eight birdies," said Tim Hume, the four-time Buffalo District Golf Association champion who now resides in Tampa, Fla.

How much of a difference has it made for Hume? Last July, he came home to play in the Porter Cup. He struck the ball brilliantly, but called his putting "brutal," counting 36 putts during a final-round 73.

After switching to the belly?

"I started shooting low numbers again," he said. "I'm talking mid-60s."

Hume switched to the belly putter in December and said it took about two months to get used to. His misses at first were long, but he started consistently dropping those 3- and 4-footers which can cause so much stress.

"You start making those, and you can be more aggressive on your putts," he said. "I'm playing with a lot more confidence. The rest of my game, I don't have that stress [about putting]."

Hume, who turned 50 in February and is a plus-2 handicap, watched both the pros and those around him have success with the style.

"I figured, 'why not give it a shot?' " he said.

>Is anchoring legal?

Ask any golf pro about the legality of belly putters and you'll get answers as varied as their golf swings.

"I believe they're [the USGA] going to ban it," Zahner said. "I believe you shouldn't be able to attach a club to your body. It takes some of the nerves out, and especially for pros, they should have to be steady under pressure."

The USGA is expected to address the subject again in June at the U.S. Open.

"I could see where they might be banned for the pros," said Frank LaForce, head golf pro at Crag Burn, "but for local use, the weekend golfer, I don't think they should. Putting is very personal. It's different for everybody. I'm not saying it's going to help the masses, but it might help a few people."

As for Els, he's still using the belly putter, with decidedly mixed results. Last month at the Transitions Championship, he missed a pair of 4-footers over the final three holes, costing himself a chance at a win and the resulting invitation to this week's Masters.

That proves one thing about putting in general. At the end of the day, success is ultimately up to the surgeon, not the scalpel.