In case you have not heard, Golf’s governing bodies across the world have agreed to ban the “Belly Putter” for any professional tournament and for amateurs beginning in 2016.
For those not familiar with the belly putter, it is a putter that is longer than normal that golfers can anchor to their stomach or sternum when performing a putting stroke.
Dave Stockton, one of Golf’s best putting guru’s shows us a belly putter:
In justifying the ban of belly putters, the US Golf Association and R&A (Europe’s golf governing body) have determined that anchoring the club to any part of the body is illegal and not “a stroke” per the rules of golf.
The question I would propose is “Why now?” Belly putters have been around for a decade or longer and have helped the putting stroke of a slew of professional and amateur golfers, notably Fred Couples and recent Major Championship winners Keegan Bradley and Webb Simpson. So, why all of a sudden are belly putters a problem? If anchoring the putter is not a stroke, why did it take so long to ban them?
But this is more than just what it means for professionals. It’s more about how it affects amateurs. If amateurs, starting in 2016, continue to anchor their putters, they will not be eligible for a USGA or R&A official handicap and cannot play in sanctioned tournaments. That really stinks. Amateurs do not usually play for money and, 99% of the time, go out merely for fun. Why do you want to make the game less fun for amateurs, whose entire purpose for playing the game is for fun?
This belly putter ban will most likely not pass the comment review period, and I would be surprised if the ban actually held up. The repercussions for a game already losing mainstream popularity would be too severe. Also, banning the belly putter would set a dangerous precedent for future technological legislation which would further temper excitement for golf, especially on the amateur level.
According to a survey done by the National Golf Foundation, Amateurs are the most important aspect of golf, and disenfranchising them would further hinder participation numbers and hurt the game of golf. NGF’s Herb Graffis said that amateur golfers are “from whom all blessings flow.” What he is saying is that without amateurs there is no golf industry, no golf media, no golf tournaments, nothing. The NGF threw out this startling statistic about how important amateurs are to the game:
“Well, it’s safe to say that American golfer spending accounts for 100% of the golf industry’s GNP.” Pretty strong statement right there.
Critics are quick to point out that the increase in distance has made golf courses obsolete, but using a belly putter has not, in any way, made putting on difficult greens obsolete. In fact, according to PGA Tour statistics, since the belly putter came onto the scene, putting statistics have not improved beyond a standard deviation, and players who use belly putters have not led the PGA Tour in putting stats by a wide margin. So, how is using a belly putter an advantage over someone who does not? Adam Scott, one of the PGA Tour’s most popular members spoke about this at the Australian Masters earlier this year:
“The holes haven’t been made smaller or the greens changed because of people putting, yet tees are moving a long way back and courses are made obsolete because of other technologies.”
According to a NY Times article, the driving distance of the 50th ranked PGA Tour player has jumped by 22.4 yards on average since 1997. But, if you were to look at the PGA Tour stats, scoring averages have not dropped noticeably across the board, and tour players have not been able to hit the ball more accurately more often despite driver heads reaching 460cc in size. Scoring averages from 1980-2012 among the top players has only dropped about 2 strokes per round, but the scoring average for the entire tour has only dropped about 1 stroke or less, depending on the year.
What does this mean? It means that there is no direct correlation between hitting the ball further and making someone a better player or more consistency. Yes, you can hit the ball on the sweet spot with more consistency and the perceived penalty for off-center hits has been minimized to increase consistency, but that can be disputed since driving accuracy stats and Greens in Regulation percentages on the PGA Tour have largely stayed within a standard deviation. A key stat to back this up is that the scoring average for amateurs has not gotten any better over the past 32 years, rarely deviating from 89-90 strokes per round.
Steve Stricker, one of the PGA Tour’s best players agrees with the notion that driving distances are not hurting the game, but other technologies has made scoring easier for the average golfer, and for touring pros:
“I think one of the hugest things, the changes that have affected the game the most, has been the utility club… When you had to sit back there and hit a 2-iron or a 3-iron over 200 yards and try to get it to stop on a green, before those utilities came out, that was a tough challenge. So that’s improved and lowered the scoring, I think, a lot.”
What this increase in distance has done for the game of the golf is it has actually INCREASED the amount of time it takes to play a round of golf. When you hit the ball off of the fairway, you are more likely to have a tougher 2nd shot and have more trouble finding your ball. Both instances slow down play.
According to the same NY Times article,
“This year, the top professionals completed the first two legs of a 140.6-mile Ironman triathlon in less time than the best golfers took to make one loop of the 7,170-yard United States Open course.”
But the issue is not how far the golf ball is going. Accuracy has not improved noticeably. If anything, accuracy off the tee has decreased. When you swing harder and have lighter clubs, the margin for error becomes less and your mis-hits are exacerbated because of increased clubhead speed. If I miss the sweet spot and I swing 100mph, my mis-hit will be less off the target than if I had 115mph swing speed. But, with a more controlled swing, I am more likely to be accurate.
Largely because of Tiger Woods, the type of athlete who decided to take up golf changed. Golf went from a niche sport played by average athletes to a more mainstream and hip game that was embraced by athletes who may have played other sports. Many of the PGA Tour’s current crop of superstars are exceptional athletes who would also excel in other sports. Golf’s most outspoken critics want to blame the startling increase in driving distance to golf equipment technology. This is not the root of the distance issue. The reality is that better athletes have become professionals and taken up golf; athletes who might otherwise play other sports.
To add to that, the advancements in nutrition, workout regimens and sports psychology coupled with better athletes playing the game are what has caused the increase in clubhead speed on the PGA Tour, not solely new technology.
Yes, it helps that golf clubs are much lighter than in years past, but that is a natural progression. And of course, the golf ball technology paired with lighter clubs has contributed to the explosion of driving distances on the PGA Tour, but it would be naïve to say that is the only reason.
Better athletes playing golf, better workout regimes, lighter clubs, advanced knowledge of the golf swing and better teaching techniques have allowed golfers to generate more clubhead speed than we have ever seen. But clubhead speed does not necessarily translate to scoring and being a better golfer. Practice and having a better swing does. That would happen in spite of equipment technology.
Never has the PGA Tour been saturated with so much raw talent across the board. The level of competitiveness at the highest level has never been better and the golf swings on tour have never been more technically correct. Even the younger levels contain ubiquitous fresh talent with a more polished all-around game than the up-and-comers of the 80s, 90s and early 2000s. This can be directly attributed to a renewed passion for the game and the advancements in other areas of golf outside of technology.
One of the solutions would be to create a separate set of rules for professionals and amateurs, but is this truly feasible? It would be cumbersome and difficult to enforce. It would also be a nightmare to equipment manufacturers who would have to create separate clubs for amateurs and professionals.
As the old adage goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” No matter what the so-called experts and powers that be tell you, golf is not broken. In fact, it is healthier than it has ever been, at least at the professional level.
Technology and distance the ball travels has not made golf courses obsolete. Scoring averages have not dropped and golfers are not necessarily better than they were 20 years ago.
The future of the game depends on technology. Let’s hope cooler heads prevail.