Michael Arace commentary: Belly putter ban is in golf’s best interest

Thursday November 29, 2012 6:55 AM
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The U.S. Golf Association and the Royal and Ancient Golf Club — those who make the rules of the game — announced yesterday that they are moving forward in a process to ban the putting stroke associated with anchored putters. The putters — belly, chest and chin — are OK. The intention is to prohibit the anchoring of those clubs on any part of the body because putting should entail swinging a club, and handling nerves, without a fixed point.

Because golf history spans 600 years, there is no telling who picked up the first broomstick and pronounced gowk by his mates. The modern story of the long putter begins at the Belmont (Mass.) Open in 1936, when Paul Runyan spread his feet and stuck the butt end of his putter in his waist. The wind was howling and Runyan wanted to feel more firmly planted.

Eventually, Runyan found that his new stance was not as effective for longer putts — so he tried a longer shaft. Eureka.

“An advantage I hadn’t quite expected is that this system minimizes the adverse effect of nervous tension,” Runyan wrote for Golf Digest in 1965.

The story takes a terrific twist in 1938, when Runyan faced the great Sam Snead in the match-play final of the PGA Championship. Runyan was 50 to 80 yards shorter off the tee, and it did not bother him in the least.

Runyan was known as “Little Poison” because he was 5 feet 7 and somewhere between 125 and 140 pounds — and he was lethal from inside 100 yards. Ultimately, he won 29 PGA Tour events and two majors, including the 1938 PGA.

Runyan destroyed Snead, 8 and 7, in the 36-hole final. At one point in the match, Snead turned to Runyan and said, “This isn’t golf, it’s magic.”

In one of his biographies, Snead wrote: “Runyan left me so bothered that after awhile I couldn’t have sunk a putt in a bathtub.”

Runyan went on to a long career as a short-game guru and published a book, The Short Way to Lower Scoring, that is a classic. He died at age 93 in 2002 and was enshrined in the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1990.

Snead, of course, was renowned for his longevity. He won 82 PGA Tour events, seven majors and still was a threat well into his 60s. He also was famous for his yips. Although it is difficult to identify all the ingredients that go into the evil spell that is the shaky putter, no doubt Snead’s problem had something to do with the Little Poison pill he swallowed in 1938.

Snead thought he found an antidote in 1967, when he won the PGA Seniors’ Championship by nine strokes using a croquet style of putting. He stood astride the ball and his stroke went between his feet. At the 1967 Masters, Snead finished tied for 10th with Bobby Jones watching. Jones did not like the croquet style. Suffice, the USGA had the stance banned within a year.

At the time, Jack Nicklaus said, “This is a ridiculous rule.”

It is still seen as capricious. Some important people did not like the way Snead’s style looked, or they did not like Snead. They killed his innovation and packaged it as a victory for the Right Way to Play.

This latest debate is a little different. The thought of banning long putters has been around for years. The argument is perhaps best framed by Ernie Els.

Els called for a ban of the long putters in 2004, saying, “Nerves and the skill of putting is part of the game … take a (pill) if you can’t handle it.”

Els picked up belly putter in 2011, won the British Open and said, “As long as it’s legal, I’ll cheat like the rest of them.”

Runyan is not spinning in his grave this morning — he could have putted with a frying pan or a willow switch — but Snead’s spirit must be uneasy. The Slammer’s croquet style — where the club swings without anchoring — is more in the spirit of the game than belly, chest or chin putting. Why not bring it back? Some prominent players, like Adam Scott, will soon need a new crutch.

Michael Arace is a sports reporter for The Dispatch.

marace@dispatch.com

@MichaelArace1

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