Updated: February 21, 2012, 2:25 PM ET

Putting debate swings into golf's cross hairs

Harig By Bob Harig

There is bound to be plenty of debate and conjecture now that the United States Golf Association -- and its rules-making counterpart, the R&A -- has said it will study the idea of "anchoring" a putter against the body.

For years, the practice has been allowed as more and more players have gone to some form of a long putter. And while some decried the use of such putters, it was often viewed as a crutch or a last resort for those who struggled to putt conventionally.

More and more, however, players are learning to putt with long putters or belly putters simply because they work better.

So when the USGA said at its recent annual meeting that a "fresh look" at the issue would be taken, naturally all kinds of reaction has been forthcoming from all sides of the issue.

While the USGA seemed to suggest it was more interested in the idea of anchoring as opposed to the type of putter being used, Tiger Woods made it clear he is "not a fan" of long putters and would like a rule that limits the length to no longer than the shortest club in a player's bag.

Then there is Phil Mickelson -- who last year experimented with a belly putter -- who wonders about the length of time such putters have been allowed.

"It's been legal for however many decades, and to change that I think is really unfair to those that have been using it," he said.

[+] EnlargeBill Haas
AP Photo/Reed SaxonBill Haas won the Northern Trust Open on Sunday with a birdie putt on the second playoff hole using a long putter.

And therein lies the big problem with making any sort of rules change of this nature.

How do you legislate against putters that players have been using for years?

One reason such putters were likely allowed to exist is because they were seen as a last resort, a way to stay in the game. But that is not so much the case anymore. Junior players, college players … they are cropping up everywhere using these putters, even among players who simply like using them better than a conventional model.

Keegan Bradley, who became the first player to win a major championship using a belly putter when he captured the PGA Championship in August, is seen as an excellent example. He has been using one since college.

Bill Haas, the reigning FedEx Cup champion who uses a long putter, captured his fourth career title on Sunday at the Northern Trust Open, defeating Bradley and Mickelson in a playoff. Haas is coming up on his 30th birthday, hardly the age for which a long putter is associated.

"My thought is they've picked the wrong thing to fight against and they've done it about 15 years too late," said Tom Lehman at a Champions Tour event last week. "To make an issue about this when they should have made an issue about the balls or clubs 15, 20 years ago is ridiculous.

"I think it's just fine. If there were this method of putting where it was foolproof and you couldn't miss and it just turned this whole game into a joke because it was so simple and so foolproof, I would say that's probably worth looking at," he said.

"The long putter, the belly putter have helped guys who have struggled to keep their careers intact or bring them back from the depths. But it's not a foolproof way."

Lehman has a point. Players do not start magically making putts with belly putters. In fact, there is a considerable learning curve that is necessary to putt with long putters. And the ball does not automatically go in.

Adam Scott is among those who gained much more confidence on the greens since switching to a long putter at last year's WGC-Match Play Championship. But while Scott has been better on the greens, he only improved marginally in the strokes gained putting statistic on the tour.

"It's not going to ruin me if they ban a long putter one day because I putted good some weeks with the short putter," Scott said last week. "I won a lot of tournaments. I'll just have to work a bit harder with it."

Where it might really be an issue is with players who went to it due to back issues, such as Fred Couples and Rocco Mediate. By using a longer putter, they could practice longer, as they would not have to bend from the waist as much and put a strain on their backs.

Ernie Els has long been against a putter that you can anchor, but nonetheless joined the brigade last year as he sought a remedy for his putting woes.

"I feel the same as most of the traditionalists," he said. "I feel that no club should be anchored to your body. I don't know how they're going to go around it, maybe use a putter as long as you want as long as it's not anchored to your body. You see a lot of the guys use it in their armpits now.

"Nothing should be anchored to your body, and I still believe that. I was in such a state that I felt that I needed to change something, which I did. I went to the belly. It hasn't really helped me that much, but it has helped me," he said.

"But I'm for it. Ban it. It's fine."

It won't be with everyone, which means plenty of debate is forthcoming as the process plays out.

Charl's Augusta plan

What will long be remembered about Charl Schwartzel's Masters victory a year ago is his four-birdie finish at holes 15 through 18 at Augusta National to win by two strokes over Adam Scott and Jason Day. Perhaps not remembered is it was just the second Masters for the South African.

It typically takes some time to learn the nuances of the course, and especially the greens. That became clear to Schwartzel after tying for 30th in 2010.

So he decided he had to do something different to prepare for Augusta's greens. At every tournament he played, for six or seven weeks leading up to the Masters, Schwartzel would seek out the fastest spot he could find on the putting green, especially downhill.

"The biggest thing I learned was to try and make a small stroke," said Schwartzel, who shot a final-round 66 in 2011. "I think that's what helped me. I felt very comfortable making a little, small stroke. It worked out for me. I felt very comfortable, even when I had very fast putts."

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.


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