Matt Kuchar has been a sought-after commodity on practice putting greens at PGA Tour venues over the past couple years, in increasing regularity in recent months.
With the PGA Tour ban on anchored putting strokes approaching, belly putters are going belly up and broomstick putters are being swept out of the game.
Some players who have relied on the two putter models are desperate to find a new technique and are intrigued by Kuchar’s putting style.
Kuchar uses a longer shaft than a traditional putter and braces the top portion of the shaft against the inside of his left forearm, which is allowed because the arm is a moving part in the putting stroke.
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“I think when the rule first came out, I had a number of people interested and ... of late more and more,” Kuchar said. “I think seeing the deadline come up, there’s more and more guys interested in trying to figure out what it is I do and how I do it.”
In May 2013, the United States Golf Association and the R&A – golf’s two global governing bodies – announced that on Jan. 1, 2016 they will implement Rule 14-1b, which prohibits anchoring a putter against the torso.
Golf’s significant professional tours, including the PGA Tour, agreed to adopt the ban.
I decided I’m going to use my long putter until they basically rip it from my hands.
Many tour members who are being forced to change their putting style remain disgruntled and disillusioned because golf’s governing bodies allowed anchoring for several decades.
“I have to support the guys who have used it for such a long time and now it’s been taken away. It’s got to be harsh on them,” said Ernie Els, who won one of his four major championships with a belly putter and switched back to a traditional putter early in 2014.
The first patent for a belly putter was approved in 1965, and Phil Rodgers won twice on the PGA Tour in 1966 with a 39.5-inch belly putter that he reportedly anchored against his stomach.
In 1991, Rocco Mediate became the first player to win on the PGA Tour using a long putter that was anchored against his sternum, which he used because of back issues.
Paul Azinger reintroduced the belly putter to the PGA Tour in 2000 and won his first tour event with it – the Sony Open in Hawaii – by seven shots.
The USGA acknowledged that an increase in usage of the technique among both pros and amateurs contributed to its consideration of the ban, and that spiked when players who anchored putters won four of six majors from the 2011 PGA Championship through the 2013 Masters.
Keegan Bradley was the first player to ever win a major while anchoring a putter at the 2011 PGA Championship, and he was followed by Webb Simpson at the 2012 U.S. Open, Els at the 2012 British Open and Adam Scott at the 2013 Masters. The first three used belly putters and Scott used a long putter.
With its announcement in 2013, the USGA released a 41-page explanation of its decision, which had the support of several of the game’s famous names including Tiger Woods and Arnold Palmer.
The USGA and R&A debated the use of long putters and anchoring in 1989 shortly after Orville Moody won the U.S. Senior Open with a long putter, and then-USGA executive director David Fay said, “Putting is a very individualized art form. To inhibit a golfer’s individual style would take some of the fun out of the game.”
But the regimes of USGA executive director Mike Davis and R&A chief executive Peter Dawson reversed their organizations’ stances, believing that a putter should be swung freely to remain consistent with all other shots in golf.
“I don’t understand the decision,” said two-time Masters champion Bernhard Langer, who has used a long putter for 18 years. “I think it affects a few people. I think they have bigger issues in golf to deal with than the long putter. If it was really an advantage everybody would use it, and there’s only 10 or 15 percent using it. I don’t understand it. No matter what they say it makes no sense.”
Some players, including South African and N.C. State alumnus Tim Clark, considered legal action against the Tour before begrudgingly accepting the ruling.
Clark is perhaps the touring pro most affected. Born with a rare medical condition that doesn’t allow him to supinate his forearms – he can’t turn his forearms and palms to the sky – his ability to tuck his elbows close to his body for a putt is restricted and he can’t get his right hand in a comfortable position for a traditional putting grip. Clark, 39, has used a long putter for 18 years.
“When I first heard about it [a lawsuit] certainly came to mind,” Clark said. “The more we looked into it, it seemed like an impossible task and it would take a toll on my game and me financially if things didn’t go my way. So it didn’t make a whole lot of sense. Going forward I’m not sure what I might do, but for now I’ll try to figure it out and make a change.”
Several prominent PGA Tour members are holding onto their anchored putters until death of their legality do them part. “I decided I’m going to use my long putter until they basically rip it from my hands,” Clark said.
Others have discarded them in favor of a traditional-length putter to expedite the inevitable, and the struggles for some of those players have been dramatic.
Scott’s then tour-best streak of 45 consecutive cuts was snapped in his second event with a short putter – the Valspar Championship in March. He missed four putts inside 5 feet in a second-round 75 to end a consecutive cuts streak that had reached 57 worldwide events. The short putter lasted three events, as Scott went back to the broomstick just two events later at Augusta National Golf Club
I don’t think it’s the right decision at all, but I’m not upset about it anymore. It’s [the USGA’s] job to make the rules of the game and that’s kind of how it works, and they’re the dictators over it, so that’s the way it is and if you don’t like it then don’t play.
Bradley has dropped from 47th in the PGA Tour’s strokes gained putting category in 2014 to 112th this year, and from 25th in total putting to 65th.
The drop in statistics has been even more precipitous for Simpson. He never ranked worse than 58th in strokes gained putting in his first six years on tour and was 34th last year. This year he has plummeted to 165th and he’s dropped from 65th to 158th in total putting.
“I don’t think it’s the right decision, but for whatever reason the USGA is in charge of making the rules so that’s the way it is,” Bradley said. “It’s going kind of okay. I need to make more putts but I’m getting better.”
The PGA Tour and PGA of America, which operates this week’s PGA Championship at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin, actually took stances in opposition to the ban during a three-month period of public input before the ban was announced. They feared it might negatively impact growth of the game. Amateurs who keep a handicap or play in a tournament that abides by the USGA’s Rules of Golf will no longer be allowed to anchor putters.
But both organizations agreed to abide by the ban for the sake of continuity.
“One concern is what they’ve done to the recreational golfer,” Clark said. “We’re trying to encourage people to play more golf and get more people into the game, and a rule like this seems to be forcing people out of the game. It just doesn’t seem to be the right move for golf in general.”
Clark, Scott, Langer and Carl Pettersson are among those who are taking the anchored putting stroke to the wire. They’ve all at least dabbled with short putters over the past year but figure they’ll get the most out of all the hours of work they’ve put into anchored putting.
I’m a little bit angry, but it’s more of a case it seems to be a pointless rule change. If they’re talking about us having an unfair advantage there’s no validity to that. Putting is still difficult no matter what you do. It includes speeds and reading the greens. It’s confusing why they went after the putter.
▪ Tim Clark had surgery in February to repair tendon damage in his left elbow and played in his fifth tournament this week since his return. Because his recovery didn’t allow him to hold a long putter for three months, he practiced with a shorter putter that was still longer than a traditional putter and played with it in his return in late June at the Travelers Championship, where he missed the cut with a 4-over 144.
Clark, a winner of the 2010 Players Championship and 2014 RBC Canadian Open who has three top-three finishes in majors, isn’t sure how he’ll putt next season, and said Kuchar’s style is a possibility.
“I’m probably not going to use a regulation-length putter,” he said. “I’ll probably have to figure something else out, still maybe use a long putter not anchored or in a different kind of style.”
Clark would be ranked 135th on tour in strokes gained putting this year if he had played enough rounds to qualify, and has been between 49th and 123rd on tour in the category over the past seven seasons after ranking No. 2 on tour in 2007.
“As time has gone on I’ve come to terms that I’ll have to figure something out and figure something out that might make me a better putter. At the end of the day I don’t see how my putting stats could be any worse,” Clark said. “I’m looking at it as they may have done me a favor and are forcing me to change and maybe become a better putter. I’ll try to become a better putter and prove to them that it was a waste of time.”
▪ Adam Scott has used a long putter for the past four years and abandoned the short putter early this year after a tie for fourth in the WGC-Cadillac Championship, the missed cut and a tie for 35th that followed in the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
Scott attempted a unique approach in which he used a conventional grip for longer putts on slower greens and the claw grip for putts from inside about 30 feet.
“To have my best results consistently I need to stick with what I worked on for the last four years and become very good at,” Scott said. “ I’ll have time again at the end of the year to make a change and probably have a little more of a better understanding of exactly what I want to do with it now that I have at least played a couple of events with the shorter putter.”
Scott has seven top-five finishes in majors since 2011, the most of any player over that span. ”I still don’t think it was the right decision in my opinion but I’m not losing sleep over it,” Scott said. “I know there are lots of ways to putt, still.”
▪ Carl Pettersson, 37, is five-time PGA Tour winner who has used a long putter for 18 years, dating back to his college career at N.C. State. He hasn’t always been among the tour’s best putters, but spent three years from 2010-12 in the top 25 in strokes gained putting, rating second in 2010.
The Swede played about 10 events with a short putter early this wraparound season, but switched back in late March. He used a claw grip, which he intends to use in 2016, and thought he putted well other than struggling with his speed on long putts.
“I’ve been using this for so long I thought I might as well use it for a little bit longer,” Pettersson said. “From 15 feet and in I was fine [with the short putter], so I’ve just got to work in the offseason on my lag putting. It went better than I thought it would.”
▪ Bernhard Langer, who has used a long putter since 1997 after he struggled with putting yips, hasn’t made the transition to a short putter and doesn’t plan to until the 2015 season is over.
“I haven’t even tried,” Langer said. “As of now the plan is to finish the season with a long putter then go back to what I used to do 17-18 years ago.”
Langer has been a dominant player on the Champions Tour with 23 wins since 2008 while playing occassional PGA Tour events, but he’s unsure how much a new putting style will impact his success. “I’m on the back nine of my career for sure. I’m 58 [this month], so we’ll see what happens there,” Langer said. “But I love the game and love to compete so I’ll find a way.”
The transitive ones
Simpson, Bradley, Els, Vijay Singh and Brian Harman all shelved their anchored putters sometime before this season.
▪ Webb Simpson’s belly putter that he used to win the 2012 U.S. Open is on display in a trophy case at his home Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte, N.C. – in two pieces.
He wanted to eliminate any temptation to go back to a belly putter this season. So before he left for last fall’s Dunlop Phoenix Tournament in Japan, Simpson snapped the 44.5-inch putter in half over his knee and the new putter accompanied him to Japan.
“I wanted to just go ahead and switch. I was confident I could make the switch,” Simpson explained. “I’m glad I switched before we had to. I had a lot of time off last November and December. I figured I would have some time to work on it. I didn’t want to wait until the last minute.”
Simpson last used a conventional-length putter regularly in his first semester at Wake Forest in 2004, and he used the same putter for 10 years after the switch. “I didn’t get as hot quite as often but I felt I was more consistent and that’s what I was after,” Simpson said.
In his first competitive round of 2015 at the Sony Open in Hawaii, Simpson shot a 62 with birdies on eight of his final 10 holes and called it one of the best putting rounds he’s ever had. He needed only 23 putts. He’s largely struggled on the greens since.
”Every week I’m kind of learning more and feel like I’m getting better and that’s kind of the goal,” Simpson said.
▪ Keegan Bradley had used a belly putter since 2009 and switched to a conventional putter after last year’s Ryder Cup. He transitioned from a 46 1/4-inch putter to one that is about 39 inches – still longer than a conventional short putter – and has a long, thick grip that is similar to his belly model.
“I wanted to wait until after the Ryder Cup and then switch for good just to get some rounds under my belt before it was banned,” Bradley said.
▪ Ernie Els didn’t waste any time, switching back to the short putter early in 2014. “I thought, ‘You know what, let me go to the short putter and get used to it again.’ And it’s been better. It’s been good,” Els said. “I’ve been putting better with the short one than with the long one.”
What did Els gain in the two years he used a belly putter? “Well I won a major, so that was pretty nice,” he said. “But I didn’t think it made my stroke technically better, so I’m glad I’ve come to the short putter. It feels good.”
▪ Vijay Singh, a three-time major winner, won an amazing nine times in 2004 switching between putters – six times with a standard putter and three times with a belly putter. He ditched the long putter a few years ago because of poor results before the ruling was made.
“They shouldn’t have [banned anchoring]. It’s been going on forever,” Singh said. “I don’t know what they’re going to gain out of it. But they’ve made a decision and we just have to abide by it.”
▪ Brian Harman recorded his lone PGA Tour win at the 2014 John Deere Classic with a long putter but switched to a short putter midway through that season. He said he won despite his putting because he had negative strokes gained putting that week, so he won because of his ball-striking.
“Putting is about practice and feel and those are things you just learn,” Harman said. “If I was kicking it I would figure it out. They’re not making me putt with something that’s not making the ball roll. The putter is meaningless, it’s just an extension of me, basically.
“Even with a long putter, it’s still a practiced skill. It’s not like someone just picks up a long putter that’s never played golf before and makes every putt they look at. There are plenty of guys who have gotten worse with a long putter, so I don’t think it really matters.”
While many PGA Tour players support the anchoring ban, those who have used belly and long putters and many others in the game question why putters were targeted by the USGA and R&A when other advancements have also seemingly provided advantages.
“Everybody is using [new] hybrids and drivers because it’s an advantage, and graphite shafts, and the ball, because it’s a clear advantage,” Langer said. “If it was a clear advantage, I guarantee you if guys think they could win tournaments they’d use the anchor stroke or whatever.”
Rule 14-1b - Anchoring the Club
In making a stroke, the player must not anchor the club, either “directly” or by use of an “anchor point.”
Note 1: The club is anchored “directly” when the player intentionally holds the club or a gripping hand in contact with any part of his body, except that the player may hold the club or a gripping hand against a hand or forearm.
Note 2: An “anchor point” exists when the player intentionally holds a forearm in contact with any part of his body to establish a gripping hand as a stable point around which the other hand may swing the club.
* Putter lengths — Standard: 33-35 inches; Belly: 38-47 inches; Long: 45-54 inches