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Saturday, September 3, 2011

How Will Phil Putt Next?

Phil and his new dateIt's all the buzz, isn't it? Phil Mickelson "dating" a belly putter. (In the highly unlikely event you haven't heard the saying in the last few days, here it is: "You don't marry a putter, you only date them.") In this case, it's a particularly "spicy" relationship since Phil's caddie Bones is on record saying that, if he could change one thing about the rules, he'd outlaw long putters.

I find this whole affair very sad. I know that a lot of young players are coming out on Tour having never used anything else. Using a long putter used to carry the stigma that you were in the throws of desperation, and supposedly these young guys are changing many players' viewpoint. But I'm not sure the stigma has lessened, no matter how many youngsters start using them.

In essence, no matter what reason you give, using a belly putter is an admission that you no longer believe you can putt. There's no question why Phil is trying one out -- he's developing a reputation for missing 3-footers and coughing up majors as a result.

Bobby Jones famously wrote,
"Anyone who hopes to reduce putting -- or any other department of the game of golf for that matter -- to an exact science, is in for a serious disappointment, and will only suffer from the attempt. It is wholly a matter of touch, the ability to gauge a slope accurately, and most important of all, the ability to concentrate on the problem at hand, that of getting the ball into the hole and nothing more." (Bobby Jones on Golf, p88)
The belly putter (and its brother, the "broomstick") is proof that Jones knew what he was talking about.

If anyone has approached this part of the game scientifically, it's Phil. He's enlisted the help of short game gurus Dave Pelz, who really is a rocket scientist (at least, he used to work at NASA), and Dave Stockton to help him reduce it to pure mechanics. I have a lot of respect for both men, and I've said more than once that I enjoy just reading Dave Pelz's Putting Bible because I always learn something from it.

But has this approach worked? No. And if I might point you to the Jones quote again, think about how many times Phil has blamed poor putting on problems with his concentration.

The main problem modern players face is rigid mechanics. Lower bodies are locked in place, arms and shoulders locked into a triangle that must never be altered, and players are told that the wrists must remain firm throughout the stroke and not "break down." Then they're told to stay relaxed and swing rhythmically! It ain't gonna happen, folks.

Add the debates over straight line strokes with no wrist action versus arc strokes with release moves, each side bolstering their arguments with high-tech research projects... it's no wonder players have forgotten the simple way they putted as kids. Presumably they made enough putts back then to qualify for the Tour and make millions of dollars, but that's no longer good enough.

Eventually the USGA and the R&A may outlaw the technique of "anchoring" that makes long putters so attractive to struggling players. I doubt that the putters themselves will be outlawed simply because the technique that Matt Kuchar and Michelle Wie are using -- letting the longer shaft just rest against their lead arm -- is much too close to a regular crosshand style. If they tried to outlaw such a long-accepted practice, they'd have a rebellion on their hands.

Even a broomstick can be used without anchoring the butt of the putter. People have been sweeping with regular brooms for eons, and the technique can work with long putters as well.

Personally, if it comes down to a putting contest between a belly putter and someone who remembers the nearly extinct art of putting, I'll put my money on the short stick. They'll probably win at least 7 out of 10 times. That's why I don't mind if the belly putter stays legal; I remember how to putt. The long putter will never allow you to putt with as much feel as a regular putter, no matter how much you practice.

Besides, I don't really want to spend hours practicing something so simple.

But when you're convinced that you can improve your golf by sticking a metal rod in your gut, you've got bigger problems than the yips. Do the phrases "crisis of confidence" or "paralysis of analysis" ring a bell?

The pic came from Dexter's post about Phil's experiment -- one of many such posts dotting the web this week -- over at Golf Tips & Quips.


  1. Hi Mike:

    Really enjoy your bloc, I don't know where I heard this but it goes something like this
    "you can't make arts into science", sports in general is an art, if you can reduce putting into a totally mechanical process then anybody can be a great putter.

    Luke Zheng, Vancouver BC, Canada

  2. I think you hit it right on the head, Luke. There are ALWAYS mechanics of some sort involved... the problem comes when they become too important in the swing.

    It's like signing your name. You have to have a certain amount of skill to sign your name in a readable way, and you could identify the mechanics of it if you needed to. But you certainly don't want to be thinking about mechanics when you actually write your name!

  3. Hi Mike:

    On a related note, take a look at this video, it's exactly what you've been saying about the full swing.


  4. Thanks for the link, Luke. I'm going to post it tomorrow (9-15-11) for everybody to see.

    Thanks again!