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Of Belly Putters and Rule Breakers

Anchored Putters may have helped players but they can do without them

Posted Mar 19, 2013 by Dermot Gilleece


All this stuff about belly-putters and anchored blades and the support by Tim Finchem for practitioners such as Keegan Bradley, Webb Simpson and Tim Clark on the PGA Tour, has prompted some intriguing thoughts from 25 years ago.  They have to do with Bernhard Langer, who experienced more putting problems than any player in the recent history of the game.

Let us begin our delve into the past in late-May 1987, in the gloriously sylvan setting of the West Course at Wentworth.  That was where Langer produced a performance described by arch-rival Seve Ballesteros as “quite unbelievable golf”, which indeed it was.   With rounds of 66,69,68,67, the German compiled a record aggregate of 18 under par to beat Ballesteros by four strokes when capturing the White & Mackay PGA Championship.

Six weeks later, Langer proceeded to do something similar over the sharply contrasting links terrain of Portmarnock.   This time, he had rounds of 67,68, 66, 68 to win the Carrolls Irish Open by a record 10 strokes from Sandy Lyle, one of Europe’s top players at that time.  The fact that the German was 37 under par for those two events, would suggest seriously good form with his putter.

Now let’s move forward a year.  “It was pathetic to watch him,” was how Eamonn Darcy described the experience of being playing partner to Langer while he suffered grievously on Portmarnock’s greens with opening rounds of 72,77 in defence of his Irish Open crown.  This had come after the Open Championship at Royal Lytham where he endured the indignity of five-putting one green en route to a final round of 80.

By the end of the year, Langer had slipped to his lowest tour ranking since 1979.  His solution was to clasp a longer-than-normal putter to his left forearm, just as Matt Kuchar is doing these days,  a method first devised by Scottish professional, Ian Marchbank - Brian’s father.  And it saved Langer’s career.

It seems remarkable to think that five years after the torment of summer ’88, he passed the ultimate examination of putting, when capturing the US Masters title for a second time.  And since then, he has gone on to have spectacular success on the Champions Tour in the US, using the broomhandle putter.

Jack Nicklaus famously remarked that “putting should be as much a test of nerve as it is of skill”.  So, there is an inescapable appeal in a method which greatly reduces the impact of nerves on the putting stroke.  And while Langer switched from conventional putting to an anchored method, the proposed change of rule will require players to do the opposite.  But if experience has shown us anything, it is that when it comes to getting the ball into the hole, a tournament professional will always find a way.  

Nobody demonstrated this better than Des Smyth through his exploits in 2005.  It will be recalled that with a broomhandle putter, Smyth became the oldest player to win a regular event on the European Tour when capturing the Madeira Island Open in 2001 (a distinction recently usurped by Spain’s Miguel Angel Jimenez).  When preparing for the 2005 season on the US Champions Tour, however, the Irishman decided on a change back to a conventional putter with a variation of the so-called claw or saw grip.

"It was certainly a significant factor in my win," he recalled of a breakthrough victory in the SBC Classic in California on March 13th 2005.  And employing the same method, he won again a month later, in the prestigious Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf in Savannah.

Then, remarkably, he switched back to the broomhandle and earned a tie in the Senior British Open at Royal Aberdeen the following July, before losing the play-off to no less a figure in the game than Tom Watson.  Smyth then completed the 2005 season with victory in the European Seniors Tour Championship in Bahrain.  “I just didn’t feel comfortable with my putting in Savannah, so I changed the following week,” he explained.

Going back 40 years and more, Peter Alliss was among those players who felt obliged to quit the tournament scene when their putting failed them.  Of course where Alliss was concerned, there was the alternative of taking up a broadcasting career while others simply reverted to their club job.

Nowadays, the average player doesn’t have those options.  So he has to find another way.  And as Smyth and others, including Tom Lehman, have proved, there is most assuredly another way.  The change of rule, if it comes about, won’t signal the end of their world.  And it’s time they stopped bleating about killjoys in the Royal and Ancient and embraced the recommendations of the game’s authorities.

- Dermot Gilleece

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