Belly Putter or Regular Putter?

The belly putter is one of the few topics in the golf equipment world that’s truly controversial. Watching the controversy around these clubs is like watching the tides ebb and flow – one year (or month, or week) golfers are engaged in hot debate, while the next year (or month, or week) things seem to calm down. Will the controversy continue forever, like the tides, or will it finally come to an end? What are belly putters, anyway? And should they be legal for play under the rules of golf?

What Are They, Anyway?

Most people would define a belly putter as a putter which has a longer-than-normal shaft, although shorter than the shaft of a “long putter” or “chest putter.” The butt end of the shaft is anchored against the player’s stomach and serves as a fulcrum which promotes a smooth putting stroke. Basically, the shaft’s connection to the player’s belly helps stabilize the wrists and prevent twisting or turning of the putter head during the putting stroke.

Traditionally, the only connection between a golf club (including conventional putters) and the player’s body is at the hands, where they grip the shaft. Belly-style putters change that by providing an additional connection - between the shaft and the player’s abdomen. Currently, the Rules of Golf allow golfers to use a belly putter in any type of competition, whether on an amateur basis or at the professional level.

Should the Rules of Golf Permit them?

Okay, so the shaft is longer than normal. What’s the big deal? Well, here’s some background to help you understand the controversy.

Basically, there are two schools of thought when it comes to golf equipment. The first school of thought - perhaps most vocally supported by Arnold Palmer – essentially says “let golfers (or at least recreational players) use whatever type of equipment helps them enjoy the game.” Remember the big brouhaha over Callaway’s ERC driver a few years ago? It didn’t conform to the standards established by the USGA’s Rules of Golf and therefore was “illegal.” Arnie stood up for the club, saying if amateurs “want to use a nonconforming club, if they want to use a baseball bat, whatever they want to use, I think that's their privilege if it makes the game a little more fun for them to play."

Because of its source – one of golf’s most respected and revered names - that simple statement made a tremendous splash.

The second school of thought essentially falls back on tradition, saying golfers should use the type of equipment that has always been used – the type that the Rules of Golf have always approved. A related school of thought says that golf equipment has become “too good” and makes the game “too easy.”

Huh? That may or may not be true for the pros, but golf certainly isn’t “too easy” for the vast majority of us mere amateurs. Nonetheless, that’s why the rules for the grooves permitted on short irons were changed in 2010. And that’s why no less than Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman and Tom Watson have been calling for changes to be made to golf balls – changes that would make them fly shorter distances. I don’t know about you, but I need more distance, not less!

You’re probably wondering what all this has to do with the belly putter. The answer is “plenty.” Some traditionalists are claiming the belly-style putter gives the golfers who use one an unfair advantage.

Remember, it provides an additional connection between the golfer’s body and the club. In theory, anchoring the putter’s shaft to the abdomen promotes additional stability throughout the putting stroke by providing an additional contact point and taking the wrists and hands out of the stroke. At its heart, the controversy revolves around the additional stability they’re claimed to provide. The key thing to remember, however, is that despite being controversial, the belly putter is fully “legal” under the Rules of Golf – at least for now.

Should it be? I don’t know. I do know that plenty of professionals (and some amateurs) claim the extra stability of a belly putter helps them fight a “handsy” putting stroke. Others (Bernhard Langer, among several others) have used one to defeat a nasty case of the yips.

We probably have Paul Azinger, who began using a belly putter on the PGA Tour in 1999, to “blame” for the controversy. Or maybe we should thank him. It all depends on the position you take. For now, at least, the belly putter is “legal.” A number of top-flight professionals have used one, including Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson, Keegan Bradley, Fred Couples, Bernhard Langer and Michelle Wie. Obviously, they think they’re a good idea. Me? I’m undecided.

More on belly putters.

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