On the final hole of the third round of last week’s Tiger Woods World Challenge, Keegan Bradley was heckled by one golf fan who called him a “cheater” for using a belly putter.
This happened just a few days after the R&A and USGA announced that from 2016, using any putter that uses any part of the body as an anchor or pivot point, would be outlawed.
Condemnation for the fan was swift and to his credit, Bradley did not react at the time, but it had clearly irked the 2011 USPGA champion.
“I had some guy here call me a cheater on the last hole, which was no fun,” he said afterwards.
“But I look forward to hopefully making everything tomorrow with that belly putter and hopefully it (the heckling) will get a little louder.
“Today I heard a few things but I also heard way more positives than negatives.”
Unfortunately, for those players who now opt to continue to use the belly putter, or similar, in the traditional fashion, this is unlikely to be the last we hear of such issues.
The fact is, by stating that using this club is outlawed in 2016, the USGA and R&A have taken a stand, but unfortunately, it has come far, far too late.
When belly putters first started to become more than a tool to allow older, veteran players the chance to putt a little easier, then the powers-that-be should have addressed the issue immediately.
Unfortunately, the issue was not addressed and while many people were uncomfortable at the growing prevalence of the belly putter in the pro game, an entire generation of golfers have since come through who have now started to adopt the belly putter as their weapon of choice on the green.
By allowing the putter for so many years and then making a ruling after three players have won Majors using the putter, the authorities that be have now put players like Bradley, Adam Scott, Webb Simpson and Ernie Els (below) in an invidious position.
They can either ditch their belly putter immediately (and likely struggle on the greens for an indeterminate amount of time – which will then affect their ranking, money won, Olympic qualification etc), or they can continue to use the putter until it is phased out.
The problem is with that, in doing so they risk the wrath of uppity fans and fellow golfers who view what they are doing as ‘cheating’.
I have sympathy for both sides here. On the one hand, for the golfer that doesn’t use a belly putter, I do believe that using the body as an anchor benefits the stroke. It restricts lateral movement across two dimensions, in a way that a traditional putter does not.
I agree that when standing over a 6-foot putt to win a tournament, the belly putter does offer a slight advantage as it lessens the range of movement that can be generated by the hands and I think that is unfair.
By the same token, this is not a magical aid that makes poor putters into Dave Stockton on the greens. The statistics show that belly putters do not offer that much of an advantage. The vast majority of top putters on tour, in terms of statistics collated over the year, use the short stick.
To give you an example of that, on the PGA Tour in 2012, in terms of the average of total putts per round, Webb Simpson ranked 42nd, Keegan Bradley 54th, Ernie Els 119th and Adam Scott 138th out of 191 golfers.
From inside 5 feet, the time when using a belly putter is supposed to offer the biggest advantage, Keegan Bradley was 50th, Webb Simpson 76th, Ernie Els 94th and Adam Scott (below) 134th. Hardly compelling evidence for a huge advantage.
There is also the counter argument that putting longer distances with a belly putter is more difficult than with a shorter putter as it is harder to generate power with an anchored club.
For reasons of uniformity, the decision needed to be made, but unfortunately the R&A and USGA decided to wait far too long to address the issue and now that they have addressed it, it is a somewhat unsatisfactory ruling in my view.
It is clear that the authorities did not want to ban the club, so this ruling that the club may not be anchored to the body may seem to address the issue and permit players to use the club, just by doing so in a different way.
This is akin to saying that you can still use an outlawed driver, but only if you use one hand to drive the ball with and have your eyes closed while playing the shot. It is not really feasible.
I believe the decision is a fudge – It is clear there would be repercussions from banning the club (not least from equipment manufacturers who are making them in their thousands to sell to amateurs) so this move is simply a way to keep the club ‘legal’, without being able to use it as it was designed.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t help clarify matters a great deal. What if a player shaves a few cm’s off the top of a club to make sure it doesn’t touch their belly when putting, but the putter ‘looks’ like it is touching on video or tv?
Is that a legal stroke or a penalty? Who decides? Are officials going to have to check players as they putt? What if an opponent thinks that it is an illegal stroke and queries it?
There is also the issue that belly putters allow older players, or those with disabilities to putt more easily. Is it fair that we deny these players the chance to play, if they really do not have the flexibility or range of movement to use a traditional putter?
Therefore, while I do feel there is a need for clarity, I am not sure the USGA and R&A have provided it here. There’s still plenty of room for confusion and ignorance, as that fan showed last weekend.
The fact of the matter is, this decision should have been taken many years ago. The fact it was not is not Keegan Bradley or any other player who opts to use a bell putter’s fault.
Yet it is a price that golfers that use the belly putter will have to pay over the next few years; is that fair?
We’d love to hear your thoughts on the issue below!
Pictures courtesy of Keegan Bradley, Ernie Els, Adam Scott and Odyssey Putters Facebook Pages