Once-scorned long putter becomes choice of champs

By Michael Whitmer
Globe Staff / September 1, 2011

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NORTON - Mocked for years as a last-resort tool of desperation, the long putter just might be having the last laugh.

If golf consumers base their equipment purchases on what’s in the hands of the PGA Tour’s best players, expect long putters to start flying off store shelves. Adam Scott won on tour with one, then Hopkinton High School graduate Keegan Bradley became the first to claim a men’s major championship with it at the PGA. Webb Simpson made it three victories in three weeks.

The renewed fascination with long putters is rekindling a spirited debate that pops up whenever there’s a surge in popularity over such an unconventional club: Should golf’s governing bodies ban long putters?

“You know, I probably was one of those people [calling for a ban]. I mean, if I’m being a golf purist,’’ said Scott, who will have the long putter in his bag at TPC Boston for the Deutsche Bank Championship, which begins tomorrow. “But it’s not [banned], so I’m not worried about it.’’

Said Simpson, a 26-year-old who switched to a long model when he was a college freshman: “Guys are talking about banning the putters. I think that’s pretty crazy, because if it was so easy, why isn’t everybody using it?’’

The reason for the debate is primarily because the long putters - or the slightly shorter belly putters - are typically anchored to the body during the stroke, which some say reduces the hand/wrist/arm/shoulder movement, an essential part of how a swing is made and how golf is played. Those calling for a ban argue that the long putter provides an unfair advantage because it might be an easier stroke to make under pressure or on short putts, especially if someone suffers from the dreaded yips (an inability to make short putts). A player who uses a shorter, standard putter doesn’t have anywhere to set the club to calm nerves or steady trembling hands.

“I think when you use the word unfair, you’re treading on . . . it’s a difficult line. I try not to use the term, because now it sounds like you’re breaking the rules,’’ said Jim Furyk, a former US Open champion who was prompted to switch to a long putter after playing two rounds with Bradley a few weeks ago. “I think if they were to go ahead and say, you know what, you are not allowed to anchor the putter anymore, you can’t use one anymore, the best players will still find a way.’’

Technology and the ensuing dialogue of what should be allowed in some sports seem to go hand-in-hand. In the mid-1970s, Jimmy Connors helped alter the way professional tennis was played when he began using a metal racket, a radical change from the traditional wooden model. Some of Connors’s fellow pros followed, while others, such as Arthur Ashe and Bjorn Borg, stuck to wood for some time. In baseball, aluminum bats are permitted at all levels except professional (and the iconic Cape Cod League), but enough serious injuries have occurred from hard-hit balls coming off those bats that many have pleaded for change.

Golf has gone through similar growing pains. Hickory shafts gave way to steel, and persimmon clubheads were more recently replaced by metal. The argument over how big clubs can be, how far the ball can be hit, and how much it can spin has been around for decades.

Dozens of PGA Tour pros now use a long putter, which got its start in the 1980s. Gone is the stigma that came with it: The only players who used them years ago were those who had tried every other option in an effort to putt well, or those who suffered from a bad back. The recent success has resulted in a number of players either making the switch or practicing with one to see if it would be a good fit.

“Tour pros, even though they’re dressed like wolves, at the end of the day they’re sheep. If somebody wins with something, they’ll do the same thing. They’re just like us,’’ said Scott Munroe, a teaching professional at Nantucket Golf Club part of the year who has written articles touting the long putter. “A long putter forces you to make a long, pendulum stroke. It completely takes the hands out, takes the yip out.

“They’ve been talking about [banning them] for years, but you’ve got to remember, there’s manufacturers involved and big money at stake. Time will tell. It could be outlawed eventually.’’

The US Golf Association, which is the governing body of golf in the United States and along with the R&A writes and interprets the Rules of Golf, has the power to remove long putters from competitive play. So far it has refused to do so, but that doesn’t mean the organization is unaware of the criticisms.

On the Golf Channel earlier this year, Mike Davis, the USGA’s executive director, said: “Clearly, the USGA and the R&A have thought about the long putter, the belly putter, many times over the last few decades. The question is, ‘Do we want the concept of players anchoring a club against the body?’ When this gets looked at, we always come back to who’s using the long putter, who’s using the belly putter. And it tends to be two groups of players. It’s either those afflicted with yips or something else that’s not good, or people that have back problems. And you start to say, ‘Do we want to take clubs out of the hands of people who almost can’t enjoy the game anymore because they’re so mentally afflicted with the yips or something of the like, or people that are having back problems? . . . We don’t see this as something that is really detrimental to the game.’’

Monitoring the advancements made and deciding whether certain equipment is conforming is a large part of the USGA’s role. But as in other sports, rulings are made that directly impact what can and can’t be used. Until the USGA bans the long putter - if it ever does - some players will continue to prefer it. The more victories it has a hand in, the louder the issue of its legality probably becomes.

“Is the belly putter doing that much harm? Are they gaining an advantage?’’ said Padraig Harrington, who has won three major championships using a short putter. “I think over the years, it’s been easy to let it slide because of the fact that guys using belly putters were just bad putters, so nobody really worried about it.

“But now good putters are using belly putters.’’

Michael Whitmer can be reached at