By Matt Hombach
The style of putter has been around for years. Paul Azinger was one of the pioneers of the belly putter and was the first PGA Tour player to notch a tournament win with one. Keegan Bradley's unexpected triumph at the PGA Championship this summer was the first major win ever for the belly bumper.
More and more players -- including Adam Scott; Ernie Els; and one of the best putters ever, Brad Faxon -- have made the switch. Phil Mickelson used a belly putter during a pro am round recently, sparking speculation that he would convert. But Mickelson's caddy, Jim MacKay, had denounced the belly putter as cheating just a few weeks earlier.
The belly putter is not to be confused with its taller, older cousin, the "long putter." Players such as Bernard Langer have been using long putters for more than a decade. Belly putters are a bit more than 40 inches long and the end of the grip rests against, or slightly above, the navel as the player addresses the ball and strokes the putt. Long putters are generally 50 inches long or more and don't come in direct contact with the body beyond the two hands used to grip it.
According to one local pro, the attraction to the belly putter comes down to mechanics.
"The main advantage is the belly putter keeps the wrists from breaking down; it keeps them more stable," said Mike Messina, the professional at Greystone Golf Course, north of Hunt Valley. "It also creates a perfect pendulum stroke. There is no variation in your stroke. You can't go inside or outside or veer offline.
"It is a very mechanical and very fundamentally sound way to putt. In putting, you want a one-lever motion, back and through, with no wrist breakdown. The belly putter makes it impossible for your wrists to break down."
According to Messina, older golfers and discouraged putters who are fighting the "yips" (a sudden, involuntary twitch just before making contact with the ball) are especially attracted to the belly putter.
While this relatively new style of putter is attracting more fans, many good players that have tried the longer, flat stick don't like it.
"The biggest criticism you hear is it makes putting too mechanical and takes away the feel of the game," Messina said. "Above all, putting is all about feel and when you make it more mechanical, it can be harder, especially for longer putts."
Of the players Messina has seen make the switch, most of them struggle to re-learn distance control with the belly putter, but have a higher degree of accuracy on shorter putts.
Messina said he encouraged players thinking about "going long" to practice with the belly putter for a few sessions, then take their standard length putter out to the practice green and make a side-by-side comparison.
"It really comes down to which one you are the most accurate with and the most confident with," he said. "Keep a little scorecard and track how accurate you are on long putts, short putts, breaking putts and straight putts with the belly putter versus your normal putter. You'll know pretty quick whether you want to make a change or not."
Issue 166: October 2011