Bubba Watson, who plays golf with a pink driver, is a traditionalist when it comes to his putter.
Watson opposes so-called belly putters, such as the 43-inch-long Callaway Golf Co. club Keegan Bradley jammed into his stomach in winning the PGA Championship in August. It was the first time one of golf’s four major titles was won with a putting method in which the top of the shaft is anchored to a player’s body.
As this season’s first Grand Slam event, the Masters Tournament in Augusta, Georgia, prepares to start April 5, critics such as Watson, 14-time major champion Tiger Woods and Hall of Fame member Arnold Palmer are calling for the clubs to be banned.
“The long putter really does not have a place in the game,” Palmer, 82, a four-time Masters champion, said in an interview at last month’s Arnold Palmer Invitational in Orlando, Florida.
The U.S. Golf Association and the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of Scotland, the sport’s rule-making bodies, said in February that they were going to take a “fresh” look at the long putter, which has been a boon to club manufacturers battling a drop in a marketplace worth almost $150 million.
It wasn’t until Woods, 36, declared himself a “traditionalist” and said he had “never been a fan” of belly putters during the Pebble Beach National Pro-am in early February that the USGA said it was going to discuss the issue.
“What we’re really going to learn on this whole belly putter issue is if a player has enough clout to force the rule-making bodies into a decision,” said Stewart Cink, who used a belly putter for eight years before making the switch back to a shorter club. Cink won the 2009 British Open using a traditional putter.
Woods, who is seeking his fifth Masters title this week, proposed a rule that bars a player from using a putter longer than the shortest club already in his golf bag.
“With that wording, we’d be able to get away from any type of belly anchoring,” Woods said in a press conference.
Long putters have been used in golf for more than 20 years, at first primarily on the 50-and-over senior tour.
Paul Azinger was the first to use the belly putter in a U.S. PGA Tour event and the first to win with it, at the 2000 Sony Open, according to Tour records. Five of the final seven tournaments last year were won with either a belly or long putter.
It wasn’t until Bradley’s victory in August that opponents began to say that the long putters violated the spirit of the game. There is no specific rule against anchoring a club to a player’s body. Critics say good putting should be the product of steady hands, not bracing a club against the chest or stomach.
Mike Davis, USGA executive director, didn’t respond to a telephone message seeking comment on the issue.
Augusta National Golf Club, site of the Masters, may influence any long-putter decision, as it did 45 years ago when Sam Snead was spotted by tournament co-founder Bobby Jones putting with a “croquet-style” stance. The following year, Snead’s stance, in which he straddled the ball and swung the putter between his legs, was outlawed. The USGA, acting on Jones’s input and citing tradition, ruled that players must stand to the side of the ball when hitting putts.
Such a ruling, if followed with belly putters, wouldn’t make the club itself illegal. The method of use would be the issue, players said.
Watson, who uses a pink driver in support of cancer research, said any support of the putter gives a player an unfair advantage.
“I think anchoring the putter like that is wrong,” Watson said in an interview. “The greatest putters who ever played the game putted with a normal putter.”
The Masters, owned and operated by Augusta National, could institute its own rule barring belly putters from the tournament. Cink and other players said they doubted it would come to that.
Charles Howell III, an Augusta native and seven-time Masters entry who switched to a belly putter in May, disagrees that the putting style gives a player an unfair advantage.
“You still have to read the putt and get the speed right,” Howell said in an interview. “It doesn’t make putts for you.”
Three-time Masters winner Phil Mickelson experimented with a belly putter during the 2011 Deutsche Bank Championship, then reverted to the shorter version. Everyday golfers are following the long-putter trend to try to improve their game.
After Bradley and his Odyssey brand putter won the PGA in a playoff over Jason Dufner, sales began to take off, said Steve Boccieri, founder of Scottsdale, Arizona-based Boccieri Golf.
In the three months after Bradley’s win, Boccieri said, belly putter versions of his company’s line of Heavy Putters accounted for about 40 percent of sales, up from less than 5 percent a year earlier. He declined to provide specific sales figures.
The putter industry has struggled to sell clubs. In 2011, sales of putters at golf courses and in golf-specific shops accounted for $141.3 million, down 30 percent from $200 million in 2003, according to figures provided by Kissimee, Florida-based Golf Datatech. It was the ninth straight year of declining sales. Golf Datatech doesn’t yet track sales of belly putters. In the first two months of this year, 100,540 total putters were sold, an increase of 3.1 percent, producing $14.7 million in sales, up 10.4 percent from the same period in 2011, the company said.
“The putter market has been flat and it’s shrinking,” Boccieri said in a telephone interview. “This is the shot in the arm that the putter category needed.”
Palmer says it’s a shot off-target.
“I would not be upset if they changed the rule,” he said.