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Should the Belly Putter be Outlawed?

By: Nick Bonfield | Fri 27 Jan 2012

The debate over the use of the belly putter is one that shows no sign of settling down. Those staunch opponents of the new breed of putter are gathering momentum as more and more opinions are shared on the subject. It is fair to say that I am not one campaigning for eradication. Quite the opposite. I personally do not have a problem with the belly putter, and find it hard to believe that so many do.

Equipment can certainly be of benefit, but the person wielding the equipment is in direct control of success or failure. The way some people talk about the belly putter would suggest that it completely eliminates the human aspect; that the belly putter is some robotic implement that guarantees success.

To have a successful putting week, a solid, positive stroke must be employed and timing and ability to judge pace and incline must be spot on. These factors are outweighed by the ability to rise above great pressure and hole the all important putt when it really matters. It comes down to your very constitution, to being a winner. Tiger Woods holed everything in his prime because he believed he was going to, and belief in your own ability and aptitude is, and will always be, far more significant than any piece of equipment

Modern equipment

Puzzlingly, I don’t see those advocating the removal of the belly putter campaigning for the removal of other modern equipment, such as the adjustable driver. The supposed premise is remarkably similar: belly putters can make you better on the green, adjustable drivers can make you better off the tee; belly putters make it easier to hit a better putt, adjustable drivers make it easier to hit a better drive. In theory, both make golf easier, but pressure and reality make this argument defunct. Does someone have more chance of hitting a fairway when they absolutely have to because of some screws in their driver, or of holing a pressure putt because they have a belly putter? It all comes down to mentality.

According to a former USGA Technical Director, the belly putter can “make a bad putter a good putter, but it can’t make a good putter a great putter.” To win a golf tournament, your putting has to be better than good.

Unclear legislation

Having said that, the golfing authorities have done themselves no favours by using vagaries in the rule book. The current legislative stance is that putters cannot be shorter than 18 inches and that equipment must remain ‘traditional and customary.’ What a wholly inadequate and ludicrously subjective stipulation. Should metal drivers be outlawed because they are not made of wood?

Completely legal

There simply isn’t a concrete law against the belly putter. Many argue that the putter should only come into contact with the hands, and that creating a pivot and a third point of contact gives an unfair advantage. Everyone that uses, or has used the belly putter will readily admit that a better stroke comes at the expense of feel. The belly putter is advantageous from within fifteen feet, but gauging feel and distance from further away is so much more difficult. Again, subjectivity rules, and places different emphasis on the respective virtues of stroke and feel.

Last season on the PGA Tour, the average approach shot finished more than 35 feet from the cup. Does the belly putter really hold the advantage? What is made up in stroke is lost in feel, and the advantage gained from within fifteen feet is nullified by the increasing difficulty of putting from outside that range. For me, there is nothing in it.

Post Bradley’s PGA victory

The issue has been given so much exposure since Keegan Bradley won the PGA Championship. There is now disproportionate emphasis placed on any success achieved with the belly putter. It becomes the main focus of a victory and detracts from all the other components of success. Take Keegan Bradley. Would he have won the PGA Championship had he not been second in greens in regulation? No, but how often do you hear that cited as a reason for his success. Would he have won if Jason Dufner didn’t throw away a five shot lead? Of course not, but the belly putter attracts all the plaudits.

A quick fix?

No one seems to mention those players that haven’t had success with the belly putter. It did absolutely nothing for Vijay Singh and Ernie Els, and wasn’t it interesting to see Phil Mickelson using his old putter last week. Turning to the belly putter isn’t a quick fix and doesn’t immediately transform your putting statistics. I would argue that the placebo effect is far more significant. As stated by Mike Davis, Executive Director of the USGA: “We aren't seeing any data that says these things have changed the game or are harming the game.” Constant discussion on something that is irrevocable and devaluing the skills of players that use the belly putter is harming the game.

A look at the statistics

The fact of the matter is those that turn to the belly putter do so because of inferiority with the flat-stick. On the PGA Tour last season, no one in the top 10 of the ‘strokes gained – putting’ category used the belly putter. No one in the top five of the world rankings uses the belly putter. It is only perceived to be an advantage, and there is a huge gulf between perception and reality. There is no need to outlaw the belly putter.

Els spot on

If the game becomes overawed with belly putters, then so be it. If they are so beneficial we will see more and more birdies and golf will become more and more exciting. This simply won’t happen, though. As Ernie Els said so poignantly after the Frys.com open last year: “If I want to get to the next level, I gotta start making those putts when I need it.” The belly putter won’t be able to help him with that.  


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