Lefty tries belly putter on for size

NORTON, Mass. -- Shortly after Phil Mickelson finished his second-round 1-under 71 last Friday at the Barclays, he made an urgent phone call to Austie Rollinson, the principal designer for Odyssey Putters.

It was noon in Carlsbad, Calif., and Rollinson was building prototypes at the company's pro tour department. A few months earlier, Rollinson had built Mickelson a belly putter with a White Ice D.A.R.T. head to try out.

"He loves to experiment," Rollinson said, "and he is very direct about what he wants. But he'll listen to what we have to say."

However, now the 41-year-old 39-time PGA Tour winner wanted a left-handed version of Keegan Bradley's putter, and he needed it fast. Upon his return home to San Diego on Monday, he told Rollinson, he planned to drop by the testing center to pick it up.

That afternoon, Rollinson and his team began building Mickelson's Sabertooth White Hot XG insert belly putter. A master toolmaker would make by hand the insert to put more weight behind the club. Left-handed putters are not in plentiful supply, but Rollinson was lucky enough to get the White Hot head from Tom Hilton, the designer of the putter, who happens to putt lefty.

By Monday morning, the putter was ready.

When Mickelson arrived at the Odyssey offices Monday morning, he spent about 30 minutes at the facility talking with Rollinson and Randy Peterson, Callaway's director of fitting and instruction.

"We talked about the way to position your eyes," Rollinson said. "He had heard from Keegan Bradley that you should position your eyes inside of the ball, and we just confirmed that for him. We also talked about the stroke being more of an arc rather than straight back and straight through."

Mickelson left with the putter but called Rollinson on Tuesday morning to say he wanted to cut a half-inch off the shaft and make it 2 degrees more upright. What they ended up with was a 45.25-inch putter with a lie of 70 degrees.

"I always love the Friday afternoon fire drill," Rollinson said. "When Phil asks for something, it's generally in preparation for a tournament."

A week after his initial call to Rollinson, Mickelson put the putter in play during his opening-round 1-under 70 at the Deutsche Bank Championship at TPC Boston, overshadowing the fine play of leader Troy Matteson, who shot a 6-under 65.

Perhaps not since Sam Snead took up the croquet or side-saddle style putting technique in the 1960s after years of struggling with the short stick or since Jack Nicklaus used the jumbo-sized putter at the 1986 Masters has a great player caused so much attention with his putting.

"I thought it went well," Mickelson said after his round. "I feel that I'm probably putting better with that putter than I would be the short putter, so I'll end up using it for the rest of the tournament I would anticipate.

"But I don't know if it's a short-term or a long-term thing, but it feels good."

This is a striking departure for a man still considered by many to have one of the greatest short games in the sport. But his putting, especially the ones inside 10 feet, has hurt Mickelson all year. He had 29 putts Friday and made most of them from inside 10 feet.

Still, it's too early to tell how he will fare with the long stick. With his mallet or blade putter, he does a forward press with his hands, but the design of the belly putter doesn't allow for that.

"It passes my hands," Mickelson said, "so it's a different stroke. That's probably why it's a little bit more awkward at first for me because I'm used to keeping my hands ahead."

Bill Haas started using a belly putter this year and empathized with the difficulty of the transition.

"From 70 feet it feels awkward, but from 60 or 70 feet it should feel awkward," said the 29-year-old three-time PGA Tour winner. "But if I lag it up there 6 or 7 feet, I feel more confident with my belly putter than my short one.

"Phil is a guy who has had two drivers in a major. So he might just be trying. But it's certainly caused a buzz."

After making his way through throngs of autograph seekers late Friday afternoon, Mickelson ended up at the practice putting green. His caddie, Jim Mackay, and his mental coach, Julie Elion, were camped out to watch him stroke some putts.

It's no doubt that it will take all their collective efforts to push him through his putting woes. His future and theirs might depend on this new putter.

Farrell Evans covers golf for ESPN and can be contacted at evans.espn@gmail.com.