Ban or befriend -- that's the question

Ernie Els is an agreeable sort whose insouciance toward most legislative matters makes him one of pro golf's great political inactivists. Last week in Germany, however, Els took an assertive and somewhat timely stand, denouncing the legality of long putters.

"I think they should be banned," the Big Easy said without much provocation. "Nerves and the skill of putting are part of the game. You know, take a tablet if you can't handle it."

My goodness. Talk about a right-to-left ball flight.

The issue has maintained front-burner status for months, supposedly under review by the USGA and R&A. A clear departure from the usual equipment swordfight pitting tradition versus technology, the long putter raises questions of an unfair advantage -- not just as an antidote for whiskey wrists, but when taking drops from hazards (two club-lengths) and other various relief.

As far as the tour pros are concerned, and most obviously are, you can have the four extra inches after hitting it into the creek. It's the five-footer for $150,000 that ignites this blaze, the premise that young, non-yippers such as Trevor Immelman are employing the belly putter to cure slumps and the notion that stabilizing the club can't help but produce an infallible stroke.

"My take is no putter should be anchored to the body," said Lee Janzen, who has spent a lot of cash this year inside six feet. "I have no hard feelings toward anyone who uses one. I just don't think they should be legal."

Frank Lickliter was born in a country where you're not penalized two strokes for voicing an honest opinion. "Cheatin' [bleeps]," he sniffed. "It turns people with no clue how to roll the ball into adequate putters -- I can't wait for the USGA to outlaw it. If they changed the rule, people out here would still function, but you're basically taking the hands out of the process when their hands are what's causing the problem."

The list of those on the long-shaft life raft has gotten as lengthy as the putter itself. Vijay Singh, Fred Couples, Stewart Cink, Steve Flesch, Rocco Mediate, Bernhard Langer -- even arch-traditionalist Nick Price is said to be pondering its merit. "It's legal right now, so I'm gonna use it," said Robert Gamez, who bellied up two years ago. "I tend to take a [conventional putter] outside and cut across it, but if they ever banned the belly, I'd figure out a way to putt with a split grip or something."

Gamez was asked to refute the widespread belief that the long putter does not require a "stroke" as constituted by the Rules of Golf. "It's more of a stroke than some I've seen out here," he answered. "I just played two days with Billy Mayfair. I stopped watching him on the back nine Friday and immediately started putting better myself."

No one seems more internally vexed than Flesch. The 2004 Bank of America Colonial champion copped his first PGA Tour victory in New Orleans last year with a belly stick -- he made a bomb in the playoff to beat Bob Estes -- but wishes it had been with a standard-length putter. "In all the pictures of me [winning], I'm holding that thing," Flesch said. Last week's triumph was with a conventional shaft, although Flesch admitted that if he had brought a belly with him to Texas, he would probably have used it. "I don't think you should be able to hinge the club on your body," he said. "You should be able to hold it any way you want, just not against your torso."

Confused? Flesch used the belly putter until this year's Masters, where Augusta National's greased-lightning greens left him concerned over his ability to control his speed. He switched back to a normal putter and immediately felt comfortable, finishing tied for 17th. A tie for fifth in Charlotte reaffirmed his decision to stay short, but he's capable of infidelity at any time.

"If I was married to a putter, I'd be divorced many times by now," Flesch said. "I do think [the belly putter] makes you take a stroke. Your shoulders and hands still have to take the club back and forth."

Any discussion about putters must include Jesper Parnevik, who has tried hundreds of models over the years and spends six to eight hours each week on the practice green. A man cut from such rare cloth tends to attract equally odd behavior. At this year's Players Championship, for instance, a tour official came rushing up to the Swede and asked to inspect his wristbands. Jesper thought the guy was joking. "He wasn't," Parnevik said. "He told me I could be disqualified if I wear them too low. They could be considered a swing aid."

It's funny how the silliest things in golf create such intense calls for action while more serious matters, particularly those with commercial implications, remain under permanent review. At the game's highest level, one man's salvation is another's condemnation. "I'm all for them being banned," Parnevik said. He wasn't referring to those things on his wrists.

John Hawkins is a senior writer for Golf World magazine.

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