LOS ANGELES >> With only a few weeks left before a decision on long putters, British Open champion Ernie Els hopes that golf officials change their minds.
The U.S. Golf Association and Royal & Ancient Golf Club have proposed a new rule that would outlaw a stroke in which the club is anchored to the body. Els used a belly putter when he won last summer at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, becoming the third winner in the last five majors to use a belly putter.
“Hopefully, they don’t ban it,” Els said Wednesday at the Northern Trust Open. “There’s no data that really confirms that they have to ban it. If there were 90 percent of the guys using it, or if the guys using it were top of the putting ranks, guys making more putts from 20 feet, more putts from 4 feet … give me something to go by to really make me believe that you have to ban it. But I can’t see them having a really great way of explaining to me why they would want to ban it.”
The topic is so sensitive that the governing bodies allowed for a 90-day comment period on the proposed rule. That period is over at the end of the month.
The PGA Tour hasn’t said whether it would go along with the rule, which would become effective in 2016.
When they announced the proposed rule Nov. 28, USGA executive director Mike Davis and R&A chief executive Peter Dawson have said there was no empirical data to suggest a long putter made golf easier. They said the ban wasn’t related to performance, rather defining what a golf stroke should be — swung freely, away from the body.
Their research showed a spike among PGA Tour events of players using a belly putter or broom-handled putter that is anchored to the chest, with as many as 25 percent of the players using the long putters in some tournaments.
Els believes his win at the British Open, just a month after Webb Simpson won the U.S. Open with a belly putter, was a huge influence on the proposed rule.
“Before Webb Simpson won — you guys correct me if I’m wrong here — but I saw a quote of Mike Davis saying that they don’t see the great benefit … that they don’t see that there’s any importance of banning the putter,” Els said. “And then Webb wins, and I win, and then the next thing is they want to ban the putter. So in all honestly, I’m not too sure what their whole reason is behind this whole thing. Because as I say, there’s a handful of guys using it. It’s helped some careers. Some guys cannot putt another way, so there’s some stuff that you have to follow through.”
When he was appointed executive director in April 2011, Davis said about belly putters during an interview with Golf Channel that the USGA “don’t see this as a big trend.”
“It’s not as if all the junior golfers out there are doing this,” he said in the April 2011 interview. “No one’s even won a major using of these things anchored to themselves. So we don’t see this as something that is really detrimental to the game.”
Four months later, Keegan Bradley became the first player to win a major with a belly putter at the PGA Championship.
Adam Scott was runner-up in the British Open, losing a four-shot lead with four holes to play. Since changing to a broom-handled putter two years ago, Scott has been runner-up in two majors, won a World Golf Championship and returned to the top 10 in the world.
“I don’t think it’s the best decision to make,” Scott said.
He said he used a conventional putter during a pro-am round in the Australian Open in December “just to rile people up.” He had his long putter at Riviera.
Els said on his website last month that he was against the ban, but did not indicate he would fight it. “Whatever they say the rule will be or might be, I’ll go with it. I’m a golfer. I’m not making the rules. I want to honor the game, wherever it takes us.”
He said using a belly putter did not enable him to start making putts, though he has become comfortable with it in the last year. And if the rule goes through and he has to make a change, the Big Easy did not seem bothered by the prospect of change. He pointed out that he has won 69 times around the world, 68 times with a short putter.
“I’ve done it before and there’s no reason why I can’t do it again,” he said. “I’m just thinking about the long-term deal of this thing. If they ban it now, they take a way of putting out of the game where guys would love to play the game in a fun way. You take a way of playing the game out of their hands, you know, it’s kind of unfair when it’s been part of the game now for a long time. And to take it away now, it seems a little unfair.”