The Masters: The putter, the belly, the intrigue

But guys with roman numerals on their birth certificate have to eat, too.

So, early last year, he cast aside old-fashioned ways -- along with his conventional putter -- and joined the ranks of those who sweep the greens with veritable broomsticks and hoe handles. Now, with the XL putter rising from his bag like a CB radio antenna, Howell is back at the Masters after a three-year absence.

Asked if he believed the gods and ghosts of Augusta National would allow someone using such a controversial tool to win a Masters, Howell stiffened and through pursed lips answered, “I would think so.”

His defense of the long putter, whether it is the brand that a player anchors against his gut or higher against his sternum, is pointed and passionate.

“You still have to putt, still have to read the putt, still have to hit the putt at the right speed,” Howell said. “It’s definitely not cheating. I can assure you of that.

“It’s still hard. The golf course is not easy. Putting [on Augusta’s quick, tilting greens] is not easy. I don’t care what you putt with.”

A Masters champion wielding a long putter would be the greatest leap of legitimacy yet for a stick that some still brand as contrary to the very kinesiology of the game.

For years, the long putter was seen as little more than a crutch, a remedy of last resort for players whose putting touch had turned to stone. The mainstreaming of the club has accelerated recently with a group of younger players adopting it while their backs are still strong and their nerves still steely.

At last year’s PGA Championship at the Atlanta Athletic Club, Keegan Bradley became the first to win a major with a belly putter, making him the Neil Armstrong of oversized golf equipment.

Long putter advocate Adam Scott darn near won last year’s Masters before Charl Schwartzel seized Sunday. It would seem inevitable that as more young, talented players go long, one of them is bound to win here. Then, suddenly, the long putter takes on the cachet of Gene Sarazen’s 4-wood.

Tiger Woods added new fuel to the controversy in February when he came out against any putter anchored against the body. It violated, he said, a basic tenet of golf by allowing a player undue control over the putting motion. Golf, he declared, was “the art of controlling the body and club and swinging the pendulum motion.”

His recommendation for the lads at the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, keepers of the game’s sacred scrolls, was simple enough. The putter should always be the shortest club in the bag. Period.

Others on the far side of the age rainbow are, as you might suspect, born traditionalists. Arnold Palmer, for one, recently said, “I just think that there shouldn’t be a place in the game for anchoring a club against the body.”

But he also gave voice to the competitive conundrum that each player faces: If it comes to a choice between principle and winning, principle might get lost in the high grass.

“I am against it,” Palmer said. “But would I use it if it were going to enhance my game during competition? I might.”

A player who is not here this week is a walking contradiction. James Driscoll uses a long putter and uses it well enough to currently rank 10th in the PGA Tour’s primary putting stat (strokes gained, putting). But even he came out with the opinion the thing should be banned.

“It’s clearly an easier, better way to putt,” he confessed last year.

Martin Laird, who is on the grounds this week, does his work on the greens with a belly putter. The Scot is a little looser than Howell when asked how he is received back home, golf’s ultimate bastion of tradition, when he goes all tripod on the greens. “It’s not like I get back there and they don’t let me in the clubhouse because I have a belly putter,” he said with a laugh.

Laird doesn’t exactly believe the belly putter is poised to take over golf.

“I don’t think there’s a huge issue until maybe you look at the top 10 guys in the putting stats and seven of them are using belly putters," he said. "I bet if you look in the top five, there might not be one of the guys using a belly putter right now." (There isn’t.)

“I’m not under the belief that some people think that you take a belly putter and you automatically become a good putter. Because if that was the case, everyone would use one.”

Seven of the top 10 in PGA Tour putting are at this Masters. Only one, Ben Crane, uses a long putter. But there are players along the lines of Bradley, Webb Simpson and Scott who could show awfully well here this week.

The confidence those kind of players have gained by using the long putter is every bit as useful on Augusta’s greens as any mechanical edge, Howell said. “Getting comfortable [on these greens], that’s the trick to the place,” he said. “If you can get comfortable before you even get out there, that’s a massive advantage.”

The R&A and the U.S. Golf Association are continuing to weigh the ethics of the long putter, but any action becomes more difficult as the club becomes more engrained.

Meanwhile, the main rule in force is: If it feels good, putt with it.

And the day draws nearer when a champion will pass through here without ever having to stoop to serve the Masters.

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