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Do longer putters give golfers an edge?

ATLANTA -- Dave Stockton, two-time PGA Championship winner and renowned expert with the flat stick, recently put in an order for a belly putter. The reaction of the TaylorMade officials who fielded the request was said to range from jaws hitting the table to bodies toppling onto the floor.

Dave Stockton, belly putter?

Putting purists can relax. Loathers of the long putter can rest easy.

Stockton himself is not switching to one of the putters that have seemingly swept the game this year. But he is curious to see what all the fuss is about, especially in light of all the recent victories by players using such instruments.

"I've toyed with it so I can help teach it,'' said Stockton, 69, a former PGA Tour and Champions Tour player who now works with several players on putting, including Phil Mickelson, who recently began experimenting with a belly putter. "I found it very simple to use. I've just been messing around with it to see what it's like.

"We always get fads and trends. When the metal wood came out, I didn't think they would be legal. And everyone has benefited from it. With this, I just think we are going to see better putting. If somebody is not a good putter, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to them. As long as it's legal.''

It is, although not without controversy.

Long putters have been around for years, and they gained prominence after several players started using them with success on the Champions Tour more than 25 years ago.

The consensus was that a long putter (which is often anchored to the body with the left hand -- for a right-handed putter -- at the chest) or a belly putter (which is wedged into the gut) were for those whose putting problems reached a point of desperation.

Even those who used them on the PGA Tour were in the minority, players looking for a putting cure because the traditional methods were not working.

But in recent years, more and more players have found success using the longer versions. Adam Scott, for example, switched to a long putter in February, finished second at the Masters and won the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. Keegan Bradley, a rookie on the PGA Tour who has been using a long putter since college, became the first to win a major championship with one when he captured the PGA Championship.

They were part of a recent trend that saw four of five winners of PGA Tour events using non-traditional putters, including Webb Simpson, who enters this week's Tour Championship at East Lake Golf Club No. 1 in the FedEx Cup points standings.

Not everybody likes the development.

Over the years, players such as Tom Watson have spoken out against the clubs. So did Ernie Els several years ago.

"It's just becoming such an easy way to putt and you are actually pushing the putter into your body and then you can make a kind of perfect stroke with your hands,'' Els said.

"Physically or scientifically, you put the club up against your body and it's resting against something. If you were to put a pencil at the end of the putter, you're going to almost come back on the same angle every time, and that's why I say they should be banned.''

That was in 2004. Earlier this year, Els started using a belly putter. Mickelson did a few weeks ago at The Barclays.

"I'm enjoying it. The more I've spent time with it, the more I'm enjoying it,'' Mickelson said. "I'm not giving shots away on short putts anymore. But again, I've only used it a couple weeks. It's not like I'm sold on it. But it's helped me not throw too many shots away around the greens. I feel like I'm putting short ones a lot better and starting to make some more mid-range.''

Mickelson said he plans to work more with the club in the offseason and decide whether to commit to it. Stockton will help him, but the putting guru still has a hard time believing we've gotten to this point.

"I find it kind of humorous,'' said Stockton, who has written a book called "Unconscious Putting.'' "I never understood how they could make it legal to anchor it on your body and putt when they outlawed Sam Snead's croquet style with nothing anchored. But you've found players like Bernhard Langer and Freddie Couples did pretty darn well with it.

"When Phil went to it, I didn't know he was doing it. It's going to shake some people up. Now we're getting people who are totally talented, guys like Keegan Bradley and Webb Simpson have used it for a long time. They could putt with anything.''

Today, numerous young players use the longer versions because they simply got comfortable doing so early. It wasn't because they couldn't putt with a traditional putter. It is not uncommon to see an entire group on the Nationwide Tour with long or belly putters.

Belly putters are typically about 45 inches, or around 10 inches longer than a standard putter. A long putter is usually around 50 inches.

Such putters offer up plenty to debate, as Els acknowledged all those years ago. There is clearly an advantage to being able to anchor the club.

"I switched so long ago, it was my first semester at Wake [Forest],'' Simpson said. "Actually it was kind of a joke why I tried it. I went to the pro shop and I was with my dad and I was kind of making fun of the belly putter, and I thought, I just have to make a couple putts with this.

"I went on the green, made a few long ones and thought, this is pretty good. So I took it out on the course for nine holes and made everything. I knew I was going to get made fun of by my teammates, but took it back to Wake. I used it, one of my teammates, two years older than me, he was making fun of me for using it, which I knew he would, but he saw me putt with it and he went out and got the same exact putter and won his first college event two weeks later.

"Guys are talking about banning the putters. I think it's pretty crazy, because if it was so easy, why isn't everybody using it? I think the belly putter/long putter is still in the minority.''

Longer putters still don't guarantee success, which is why golf's governing bodies have been reluctant to change the rules. Although an obscure mini tour in Spain -- the Gecko Euro Pro Tour -- recently banned them, there does not appear to be an imminent move coming from the game's biggest ruling bodies, the USGA and the R&A. Mike Davis, the USGA's executive director, has often said the putters help, but that "we write the rules for all players.''

And then you look at some of the numbers. Not a single player in the tour's putts gained putting category who ranks in the top 10 uses a long or belly putter. Steve Stricker, who leads the stat and is followed by Luke Donald, is 44 years old and has used the same style putter for years.

When he runs into issues, he doesn't go looking for a new putter.

"I just work on my technique,'' he said.

After all, you still have to read the putt and hit it the correct speed.

"It is about the routine,'' Stockton said. "I try to get them away from trying so hard. There's a lot more to it than the length of the putter.''

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