What debate? Belly putters go missing from the LPGA Tour

Stanley Chou

Chicks may dig the long ball but long putters, not so much.

When golf’s overlords hand down their long-anticipated ban on belly putters (or, more precisely, the anchoring stroke that players use with such clubs), the edict will have a much greater impact on the PGA than on the LPGA Tour. Indeed, while the big bats may be the flat stick du jour for two of the past four major winners on the men’s side, you have to search far and wide to find women pros -- or amateurs -- navigating the greens with sticks that tend to make traditionalists gag on their 9-irons.

LPGA star Sandra Gal made just such an observation during Thursday’s opening round of the season-ending Titleholders tourney as the 2011 Kia Classic winner responded to tweets during the Golf Channel broadcast. One particular Twitter question -- about why men seemed to use long putters more than women -- perplexed Gal, who said she had tinkered with a lengthy wand but found it wanting.

“I have actually tried it just a little bit in practice,” Gal, who began Friday’s second round at 2-under and four shots back of the leaders, said during her stint behind the scenes at TwinEagles Golf Club in Naples, Fla. “To be honest with you, I find it...harder than my short putter and I don’t see [an] advantage there.

“You’ve got to have skills to use a long putter,” added Gal, who placed herself squarely in the camp of several big names -- including 2011 PGA champ Keegan Bradley and reigning U.S. Open and British Open titleholders Webb Simpson and Ernie Els -- who believe the unconventional sticks should remain legal.

“I don’t think they should be banned,” Gal stated on the same day that one of the best putters on the PGA Tour, FedEx Cup champ Brandt Snedeker, told GC’s “Morning Drive” hosts he was all for yanking the bellies out of his colleagues' breadbaskets.

"I feel like they should be banned," said Snedeker, who employed a regulation putter on his way to a No. 1 ranking on tour in the strokes gained-putting category and second in total putting. He said he was not opposed to the longer models, per se; he just wanted to eliminate anchoring.

"There's a reason why guys that have belly putters use them -- they work," he said. "If they didn't work, they wouldn't use them."

That may be so, but whatever advantages the big bats may yield have yet to convince many on the LPGA to switch, since Gal and her Golf Channel cronies could recall only about 10 women pros (including Michelle Wie for a while in 2011) who had toyed with belly putters. We attained a glimpse as to why, thanks to a totally unscientific survey (we sent a bunch of e-mails to our golfing pals) we did for GottaGoGolf magazine, in which we discovered that many a woman’s gut reaction to a club that Tiger Woods would shave down to size was a resounding “Get that putter outta my belly!”

The reasons for the anchoring antagonism were many. Long putters don’t fit those of us who are somewhat vertically challenged, weigh too much for golfers who carry their bags, and impale women in sensitive places. Plus, noted one player, they’re totally uncool, what with users resembling flustered chickens with wings flapping in the wind.

According to Mike Fox, TaylorMade Golf’s global product marketing manager for putters and wedges, responses to our queries were par for the course.

“It’s a struggle for a woman to find a long putter that fits [so she can] try or demo it,” he told us earlier this year. “A big reason why better players are not using [belly putters] is because they don’t have a chance to demo or try them. They’re expensive to buy when you can’t get any feel for it from demo’ing.”

Fox said all golfers -- especially higher-handicappers of both sexes -- could benefit from belly putters. But he agreed women tended to feel klutzy tinkering with the bigger batons because manufacturers made them too tall.

Also, many women golfers feared being tagged with the “stigma” of maneuvering a club that observers once associated with lousy players who couldn’t roll one-footers into holes 12 feet wide.

“They don’t want to buy a product to make them look like a 40-handicapper,” Fox said.

Alan Way, fitting specialist and assistant store manager with New Hampshire retailer Golf & Ski Warehouse, said women also spurned the putters because of their heft and weight. The industry standard for belly putters is between 43 inches and 45 inches -- “neither of which will fit most women,” he said.

“For woman between five-foot-two and five-foot seven, a 43-inch putter is really a long putter and at no point would that work for them,” said Way. “It’s also way too heavy.”

The remedy for women seeking longer putters was custom-fitting, agreed Way, Fox, and Boccieri Golf president and chief executive Stephen Boccieri.

“The key is finding the correct fit and actually giving the golfer some guidance on how the belly stroke actually works,” Boccieri said.

A few tools exist to help golfers find the proper fit. Belly Putt is an adjustable attachment to your regular putter that can lengthen it by up to 8 inches. Way warned, however, that such conversions could affect the swing-weight point of the putter, which would make the club feel too light and result in less control of the putter head.

TaylorMade, which expected belly models to comprise more than 10 percent of its putter sales this year, shipped 3,000 belly-putter fitting tools to pro shops and retailers across the country. The manufacturer designed the steel telescoping shafts to fit consumers with the proper length putter, from 39 inches to 46 inches, in quarter-inch increments. The shaft system allows TaylorMade to build a putter to the weight and flex of a fully assembled belly putter so that golfers can putt normally while testing different shaft lengths and positions.

An adjustable Nome 405 mallet putter from Ping also works like a telescope, letting golfers choose the proper length by sliding the shaft between 37.5 inches and 46.5 inches and locking it in place.

“Adjustability is key because the standard 42-inch belly putter fits a narrow range of people,” John Solheim, Ping chair and CEO, said in a statement. “When the shaft is too long or too short, it alters your distance from the ball, your eye position, and the path of your stroke. Adjustability lets you experiment until your posture is comfortable and your eyes are over the ball, which helps you make a consistent stroke and solid impact.”

So, ladies, there you have it. You dislike long putters, and with good reason: they’re clunky, overweight, and poke you in all the wrong places. Manufacturers are becoming savvier about your concerns, however, and since the impending ban won’t take effect until 2016 and will have little impact on recreational golfers, you may want to pick up a long putter and customize it to your specific needs.

And should you have any more questions for Gal and the ladies who will eat your lunch (as Paula Creamer once described her fellow LPGAers), tweet them to @LPGA with the hashtag #LPGAonGC and you might hear your comments read on air over the weekend.

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