Golf Bucks County

By Bob Oliver

Middletown Country Club

Middletown is a compact 80 acres of challenging golf, with rolling hills and large specimen trees that have watched many golfers travel its fairways over time. It has retained its old time feel with tees and greens in close proximity, allowing golfers to walk the course if they choose.

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Ban the belly, long putter?

Written by Bob Oliver on .

This is one of those stories that has been told dozens of time and simply gets better with age.

 

Playing in a tournament along the Grand Strand years more than 20 years ago my foursome after a long night of libations trudged its way onto the golf course.

 

Somehow, nobody remembers the number of shots, each of us found our way onto the first green.

 

Putting from 20 feet from the hole, Player A rolled home a downhill putt. Nothing all that unusual there, except he was a right-handed player putting left-handed.

 

Nobody roared, it was just "nice putt" all around.

 

Player B rolled in a 12-footer looking all the while at the hole and not the ball after he'd took a couple practice swings and placed his mallet putter behind the ball.

 

While most thought, "How'd he do that" all that was said was "nice putt."

 

Not to be undone, Player C, another right-handed player, switched around and stroked home a 10-footer putting left-handed, cross-handed.

 

"Way to go, three in a row," one player remarked.

 

That was enough for Player D to observe. He removed his mark after placing his ball on the green about 8 feet from the hole. He lined up the putt and then calmly reached over, picked up his ball, threw it into a greenside pond and exclaimed, "No way I can play with you (expletives). I'm going to the bar."

 

Putting styles can make crazy people out of sane ones.

 

For years golfers have been looking for the perfect stroke. Without question, Ben Crenshaw had one, Jack Nicklaus had one that came out under pressure. Loren Roberts once had the nickname, Boss of the Moss. Point is, golf's touring professionals can putt like demons, but some are better than others.

 

And there are still others where the demons come out in different forms and turn putting strokes into haphazard flailing that are embarrassing and costly.

 

Major Champion Johnny Miller lost his stroke, making three-foot putts seem more like 30-footers.

 

Jay Sigel once told me the reason he had a double bogey on the first hole at Pine Valley. When I asked "What happened?" he stared at me and explained "I missed my third putt." At least he never did seem to go over the edge and into the land of putting hell.

 

Bernhard Langer battled the yips for years, finally turning to a long putter, a short putter, a side stance and a belly putter secured not on his belly but along an arm like a splint. Along the way these remedies allowed him to be one of the top golfers in the world.

 

Langer proved there could be numerous ways to skin a cat, er, have different putting strokes and still remain a premier player.

 

My friendly Myrtle Beach foursome took four different paths to a putting stroke, mainly due to the "yips".

 

All of which brings us to the USGA and R&As concern about the prevalence of belly putters and long putters in today's game. Rumor has it that golf's ruling bodies are about to ban the blasted things that have saved the careers of many professional and amateur players. Of more importance, these instruments have made the game fun again for thousands of players.

 

For years golf's ruling bodies have ignored the Slim Jims and the Belly Busters, thinking of them as embarrassing but not a problem. The last time they ruled on something centering on putting was when the outlawed the croquet style putting that all-time PGA Tour victory leader Sam Snead popularized in the 60s.

 

And then along came the twisted trio of Webb Simpson, Keegan Bradley and Ernie Els.

 

Simpson won the United States Open this year, Bradley used a long putter to win the 2011 PGA Championship and Els rejuvenated his career with a victory in this year's British Open. And while the long and belly putters have been around for years, their success in the major's brought their use to the front pages.

 

At the British Open, the belly putting of Els nipped the long-putter of Adam Scott.

 

Taking notice at the Golf House in Far Hills, N.J., the bluebloods of the USGA exhaled a collective, "Phoo" and "bah humbug".

 

Those putting implements have been called priceless, the magic potion which has saved fallen careers, righted the yips and given players on the downside of their careers a second life.

 

Those long putters of varied shapes and sizes and the belly putters that have proven that those with a little extra around their midsection can still play the game. For some they are the magic wands on the greens.

 

Yet United States Golf Association bluebloods are formulating their plan with their brethren in the UK to ban the now-dreaded things from the game.

 

Ironically, the long putters have been around for more than 70 years. You wouldn't know it, because it wasn't until Charles Owens began using one and Orville Moody turned around his career that anyone noticed.

 

Bottom line: for some players the anchoring against the chest of the long putter, or against the stomach of the belly putter, the game of golf is fun again. But while there are players who have been helped by putting a non-traditional wand into play, there are an equal number who've tried and denied. They've gone back to the traditional putters.

 

There is no question that Langer and Els, who older PGA Tour players, have seen resurgence in their games and that rebirth can be attributed to their selection of putters. Who knows if it's just a quick fix --- and their putting woes will return --- or if they will end their careers rolling home putts with the non-traditional wands.

 

They've found a cure, temporary or permanent, and others will surely follow. But there is no indication that every player will use the long putter or belly putter, as if they were the perfect putter everyone would use them. Like years ago when metal woods made permission woods obsolete.

 

Today, you can have a golf shaft that is steel, or maybe you prefer a composite graphite shaft. It's your choice.

 

Golf for years has attempted to perplex average players with its rules. My son hates to wear a collared shirt on the golf course. I think playing in shorts is offensive, unless you are a female. Whatever. Traditions are there and the game needs to be respected.

 

Still, when rounds are down nationwide and the time to play can be snail like, golf does not need another rules dispute taking fun out of the game.

 

Fact is, golf is a game. It is supposed to be fun, not a death march. Yet too many times the ruling bodies do things that shoot themselves in the foot.

 

If long putters, or belly putters were against the rules of golf, then why didn't the ruling bodies address the issue 10, 20 or 30 years ago? Why now?

 

Oh, the series of major championships being won by those using their magic wand spurred them to action, but the fact is that so very few players use them, and have used them, gives thought to a true in your face, you've found a loophole we have to tie up, that just doesn't smell right.

 

Clearly one understands the quandary of anchoring the top of the body being against the spirit of the game, just as the croquet styles employed by Snead or even the pool shark style employed by Shade McDivot or Happy Gilmore. Yes, all appear to be abnormal. And yes, the ruling bodies have the final say. So be it.

 

I recently ran into Stephen Kay, the golf course architect who designed the South Jersey gem, Blue Heron Pines. 

 

Kay's solution isn't to ban long or belly putters. It's banning the  philosphophy of "achoring". 

 

"If there was no achoring, the length of the putter wouldn't matter," said Kay. "However, anchoring has been going on for years. Do you remember (Buffalo) Billy Casper? He anchored his putter against the top of his thigh and then putted with a popping motion For years players have tried all kinds of methods to putt and beat their putting problems. There will always be something. But removing anchoring will solve much of the controversy."

 

Kay makes a good point. Players will go to the far end of the universe to find a cure to putting problems. I knew a guy who putted with the blade of his sand wedge, another who putted with this seven iron. 

 

Golf is a game of traditions, but the biggest influence on golf in the last 30 years is not the long or belly putter. No, it's the golf ball, which now sees pint size players booming 300-yard belts.

 

Thing is, the new ball only helps players with superb swing speeds, while average players might see a little added distance but it's negligible.

 

If the ruling bodies of golf wanted to address changing implements in the game that has affected top players, they'd do better to focus on the golf ball rather than the putting implements.

 

From this corner, the worries about the big sticks, magic wands, is relevant and should be the subject of discussion. But against the rules? Just don't think so.Now anchoring a club against one's body...now that's another thing.