Golf Politics: Banning the Belly
In 1980, the long drive guy was hitting it 285, and now if you hit it 285, you’re one of the shortest guys on the Tour. To me, it’s a bigger change to go from that size head to what we play now than the putter” — Webb Simpson’
Banning the belly putter along with the broom handle putter or any putter that allows the club to be “anchored” against the body looks increasingly likely according to recent statements by golf’s rulemakers. All sports rules have an arbitrary element and many have long and and circuitous histories. However, changes in rules sometimes have a strong political element where certain factions within a sports impose their will on others. For instance, in 1968 a few influential people effectively targeted the putting style of one player, Sam Sneed, who had long used a “croquet-style” stance. That episode amounted to some of golf’s staunch traditionalists joining forces with some of Sneed’s competitors to ban a stance used really by a single player. A stance for goodness sakes!
Now, some of golf’s traditionalists have teamed with short putter pros to form a coalition capable of adjusting the length of the putter. Ben Crenshaw, a long-time critic of the long putters, spoke for traditionalists many years ago when he said, “it just doesn’t look like golf” — whatever that means. The politics of it all, and the importance of the traditionalists gaining allies among players with a competitive axe to grind — is shown in Webb Simpson’s comment. Persimmon (and other wooden) heads ruled the day for decades — the clubs were even called “woods” (how much more tradition can there be than that) — until metal “woods” took over around 1990. These newer materials allowed for incredible variation in shapes and sizes of club heads, so that the clubs not only hit balls farther but straighter. They made every course obsolete. By the late 1990s, long-hitting players were reaching the par 5 15th at Augusta National with a driver and wedge. Modest (and old) hitters like Tom Kite could reach Augusta’s 18th with driver-wedge. Other technological changes were taking place in wedge design, in shaft design, ball design, and beyond.
Yet, with the exception of square grooves, none of these prominent and game-changing developments prompted rules changes. Why? Purists may not have liked them and may have hated to make costly and controversial changes to venerable courses, but there was no major coalition of players to join with them. Although the long putters represent a much more minor influence on the game, the fact that some players use them and some don’t generates a natural interest group that the purists can lobby to join their push for a ban. Interestingly, as the Simpson article notes, the PGA stats don’t really support the idea that the longer putters create any clear advantage. As Graeme McDowell, a traditional putter, observes
“But having said that, if it was so easy, everyone would be using one. They have their advantages and their disadvantages. It just so happens that a lot of very good players in the world now are using long putters and it’s tough to ignore the timing of the decision, if one gets made, that the major champions in the last 12 to 18 months have wielded the long putter.”
McDowell’s followup really tells the story, “It wasn’t such a big issue two, three, four years ago, when perhaps they weren’t quite in the spotlight and winning major events. But the Open Championship, what was it, one, two . .. Adam Scott.” As long only as a few low tier players and senior tour guys used the longer sticks, no big deal. Once some of the pros felt serious competitive pressure from long putter users, the alliance between the short handle putters and the traditionalists took shape.