If putting from five feet in turns your stomach, it might be time for a gut-check. No, we're not talking about your soft abdomen (but more on that later). It might be time to measure the distance from the ball to your navel and buy a belly putter.
You've seen them on television when Vijay Singh is holing birdies. Fred Couples, who has struggled throughout his career with his putting stroke, is now back in the top 65 in the world rankings after making the switch. Davis Love III uses the belly putter as a practice tool to make sure he's using his shoulders.
You didn't notice? Maybe the reason lies in its appearance. Belly putters look more like conventional putters, whereas long putters stick out like Craig Staddler's gut. Tour players, who are often grounded in tradition, could be willing to tinker with something that doesn't draw extra attention.
Is the saying about the goose and the gander applicable here? Is what's good for the pro good for the hack?
Examine the history and theory of the belly putter and decide for yourself.
In 1965, a patent for a "body pivot putter" was granted to Richard T. Parmley, and Phil Rogers used one on the PGA Tour in the late 1960s. But the recent fad became popular when Paul Azinger stumbled onto a similar concept in 1999.
After Azinger won his battle with cancer, his return to the PGA Tour came with inconsistent putts-per-hole rankings (143rd in 1997, 30th in 1998, 111th in 1999). He read the works of putting guru Dave Pelz in 1999 and realized that good putters keep the end of the shaft pointed at their belly buttons throughout the stroke -- something he never considered.
Soon after, he was browsing at putters in a pro shop when he discovered a long putter that was cut down for a shorter man. Azinger pressed it against his belly button and was sinking putts all over the pro shop carpet. He put a different grip on it and took it on tour. This new putter allowed him to guarantee that Pelz's theory could be executed on every stroke.
In 2000, Azinger was ranked fourth on the PGA Tour in putting average. Through February of this year, he's the top ranked putter.
In 2003, players using belly putters on the PGA Tour won eight times. Four of those victories belong to Singh and two belong to Couples. Colin Montgomerie's best putting ranking at the Masters -- where Augusta exposes everyone's putting skills -- was 77th before going to the belly putter. With his new mid-length flat blade in 2002, he was seventh.
Belly putters anchor the end of the shaft against the abdomen, taking the wrists out of play while allowing for an accurate pendulum stroke.
"The belly is a really good putter for someone who has a nervous wrists or hands, or I hate to even say it, but if they have the yips," said Bob Bettinardi, founder of Bettinardi Golf, which makes Ben Hogan putters for Callaway Golf. "Bernhard Langer is the most renowned for the yips. He stuck the shaft right in stomach and eliminated some of that. Now he's onto the long putter.
"We seem to need more help as we get older," Bettinardi joked. "The progression with age is: standard putter, belly, then long."
Comparing the three, a conventional putter has the most feel, but the shaft has least amount of stability. The long putter has stability, but much less feel. The belly putter is somewhere in the middle. Since most players convert from a standard to a belly putter, they struggle with a standard loss of touch. That loss is the price of a straighter stroke.
"Anyone who puts in a little bit of time practicing with one is going to learn how to judge the speed," said Doug Hodge, head golf professional at Grayhawk Golf Club in Scottsdale, Ariz. Hodge uses a belly putter. "I think it's beneficial to anyone struggling with their stroke. A lot of people at Grayhawk like to try them out."
Most makes and models are available with mid-length shafts for a slightly higher price. When trying a belly putter, it's important to find the correct length so you're posture isn't too erect or bent over. Tour players who use them play the ball in the center of their stance, which could get some taking used to if you have a tradition front-foot approach.
Nothing in a golfer's bag is more personal than his putter -- the way it feels, the way each person swings it or grips it. It's such a subjective part of the game that no one definitive style, grip or stroke has been widely adopted like full-swing grips and techniques. Chances are, if you or your buddies call your flat blade, "Mr. Three-Wiggle," tinker with a belly putter.
Then, when making a case to your wife that this is a must-purchase -- you've tested it five or six times and like the feel and look of it -- throw in the fact that you'll have to keep your gut from growing any bigger. Seriously, don't get any heavier in the midsection after a purchase. The shaft will then be too long, and force bad posture and poor execution.
Hodge said he's heard grumblings that the USGA is going to place restrictions on the length of putter shafts that will make belly putters illegal.
Frank Thomas, the former USGA technical director, made every ruling on equipment for the USGA for 26 years. In an interview with TravelGolf.com last year, he said he wanted to outlaw long and belly putters when they first came on the seen.
"Of all the decisions I made [at the USGA], that was the one that was overruled, unfortunately," Thomas said in the interview. "There are five degrees of freedom in putting, and these putters take away three of the five."
It appears that Thomas' concerns are being taken seriously now by the USGA. But can golf afford to handicap one of the top tour professionals in Singh, who is the PGA Tour's No. 1 challenger to Tiger Woods. The drama on Sundays generated by those two has more power to grow the game than any charitable directive.
Golf equipment manufacturers also stand to lose out. Bettinardi said belly and long putters make up 20 to 25 percent of his sales. Those numbers could put some putting manufacturers in real trouble.
"In golf, everything changes every six months," said Frank Sarubbi, manager of a Nevada Bobs Golf franchise in Monterey, Calif. "But I think the belly putter will be here for awhile."
But a ban wouldn't hurt businesses like Nevada Bobs Golf. Sarubbi says he keeps a dozen belly putters in his store, and sells only three a month. But he is right about things in the golf equipment world changing every six months. So, don't put it past the USGA to ignore these situations and rule against the long and belly putters.
Should that happen, be sure to find a discrete long and skinny spot your closet or garage. You could need a place to hide that purchase you sold your wife on.
Brendan McEvoy spent five years with Times Community Newspapers, a Reston, Va.-based chain of 18 weekly newspapers covering the suburbs of Washington, D.C.
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