One local player said he’d give up the game altogether if the Royal & Ancient and U.S. Golf Association adopted a rule that took the extended putters out of the game.
At least four of the top players on the Calhoun County Golf Tour this year use a belly or long putter to negotiate the greens — perhaps none more notably than Marcus Harrell – and all have said it adds to their enjoyment and success in the game.
Harrell wielded his long putter Saturday to set a County Tour single-round scoring record with a 10-under-par 62 in the opening round of the Pine Hill Country Club Invitational. The score – one shot off the course record he shares with course pro Cory Etter — helped open a five-shot lead over Ott Chandler going into today’s final round.
The old Tour single-round record was shared by Garrett Burgess (Cane Creek 2008) and Jaylon Ellison (Indian Oaks 2010). Ellison holds the 36-hole tournament record (16-under 128).
The other County Tour players who use the longer putters are Cole McNeal and Adrian Geeting — both of whom are playing in this weekend’s event — and Clay Calkins, who is not.
Harrell went to the long putter to help with stability and said he would be at a loss without it.
“Of course I hope they don’t get rid of it,” he said. “It’s definitely helped my game a lot.”
Those who use the extended putters swear by them, saying they help their scores and enhance their enjoyment of the game.
The purists in the game swear at them, saying they break rules of golf and, currently unchecked, are tantamount to sanctioned cheating.
R&A chief executive director Peter Dawson told The Associated Press last week golfers could expect the governing bodies to say “something about it one way or the other in a few months, rather than years.”
The use and success of the longer putters has been growing, among amateurs and recently on the PGA Tours, to a degree it might be difficult to overturn their use. Three of the last four major champions used longer putters, as did British Open runner-up Adam Scott who used his long putter to open a four-shot lead with four holes to play before giving it away to belly-putter-brandishing Ernie Els.
There were 27 long putters and 16 belly putters in the 156-man British Open field, the R&A reported.
“A lot of Tour players use it now, and that’s why it’s so hard to change the rule,” Harrell said. “You’re probably hurting at least half the field between a belly putter and that long putter.”
“I just don’t think it’s the right thing to do,” McNeal said. “It’s messing with the game. It’s like not telling NFL players to hit as hard as you can.”
McNeal, the long-hitting left-hander from Alexandria, put the belly putter in his arsenal only last week, but already considers it the greatest thing since sliced bread. He traded a friend a high-end Scottie Cameron putter for it.
“The belly is the best thing that happened,” he said. “The speed’s so much better. It’s so much easier to control. Especially on 10-footers and in, it’s deadly.”
McNeal shot 77 in Saturday’s opening round, but he had only 25 putts. He had been averaging 30.56 putts per round in the five previous Calhoun County Tour series events.
“I just think it’s a mental thing,” he said. “You still have to read the putts, hit the ball square and on the line; it’s not like it’s making it for you. It’s not like it’s a cheating thing at all.”
Geeting has been using the belly putter for two months and says it has improved his game by at least three strokes. He had 30 putts in his even-par 72 Saturday, and had been averaging 30.5 per round.
He called himself a “decent” putter with the conventional flat stick, but has become so taken with the devices, he bluntly says now if the governing bodies outlaw them “I will quit golf.”
“It makes it a lot more fun when you can five-footers 10 out of 10 times,” he said. “You cut those putts out – really, make them 98 percent of the time compared to 80 like I was doing before – it makes a big difference; a huge difference.
“I’ll tell you, when I’m putting good, really good with it, I do feel kind of like I’m doing something cheating. When you make six or seven putts in a row and you normally don’t make them, you feel like you’re doing something bad, but it’s legal right now so I’m going to play with it.”
Harrell played a round recently with a conventional putter to see if he could return in the event of a change and played well enough to believe he could go back, but he’s gotten so comfortable with the long putter – winning two Sunny King Classic and two events on the County Tour this year – he wouldn’t prefer it. He has had only four three-putts in nine Tour event rounds this season.
He said if the putters rule change in 2016 – the next time changes in the Rules of Golf could be updated – he would continue using the long putter until then.
“(Talk of a change) did bother me towards the first of the year when it really started happening, and once Tiger Woods tried to get it banned the talk became a lot more serious,” Harrell said, referring to Woods’ suggestion that the putter be no longer than the shortest club in one’s bag. “It crossed my mind that what if I do have to change? Am I still going to be able to putt? Will I have to just quit playing as good? It worries me some.
“I’ve gotten so used to the long putter and I’ve fallen in love with it. If they never change the rule, I’ll never go back. The only way I’ll ever go back is if I have to.”
Al Muskewitz covers golf for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.