He uses a belly putter — quite effectively given his record — and figured out a long time ago how to beat whatever ban might be forthcoming from the game’s governing bodies.
The Gardendale pro won last year’s Fort McClellan Credit Union Pro-Invitational at Cane Creek and two Emerald Coast Tour events this year with a rather unconventional-looking approach. While he uses a 43-inch belly putter, he makes his stroke with a claw grip and the butt end extended away from his body — nowhere close to the anchoring that has created such a stir.
His is one of the styles the USGA and R&A would consider legal under the rules change it announced Tuesday — effective in 2016 — and the PGA Tour is considering ignoring.
“I’m 100 percent indifferent to what the PGA Tour goes with,” Sapp said Saturday after his third round in the NGA Tour event in Knoxville. “I’m not changing that.
“I’m tall enough I use it like a normal putter. I get the best of both worlds from it. I get how heavy the belly putter is and using the claw to take my right hand out of it. I never liked putting it in my belly; that never worked for me.”
Putting has always been the best part of Sapp’s game and it needed to be, considering the big hook he used to hit off the tee, which often got him out of position.
But now that he’s comfortable with the swing change that helped him win last year at Cane Creek, it all seems to be coming together for the former UAB player. He is currently the ECT’s leading money winner.
“I’ve always known I had more in me than what I was getting out of golf,” he said. “I just had to figure it out. Now that I kind of have both — the good ball-striker I didn’t used to be and still the putting — it’s a good combination all of a sudden. I feel like I’m going to be in contention most of the time just because of this new confidence.”
As defending champion, Sapp will be one of the favorites when the FMCU Pro-Invitational returns for its fourth incarnation this weekend at Cane Creek.
The pro field could be larger, but the dates, while conducive for the amateur players, make it difficult for the pros. The NGA Tour is off, which normally would help the draw, but pre-qualifying for the PGA Tour stop in Memphis is Friday and the next stage of U.S. Open qualifying is Monday.
The ECT has an event in Troy the following week and already has 40 commitments (including Sapp), Tour executive director Geno Celano said.
Among those expected to play here are inaugural winner Jamie Lett, local products Nathan Bennett and Brennan Clay, and ECT regulars Nate Rau and Jimmy Brandt.
Rau, you might remember, was involved in that bizarre search in last year’s second round that involved garden implements after his ball rolled into a burrowing animal hole in the 18th rough.
The amateur field is expected to draw more than 60 players of all skill levels. Entries close Wednesday at 5 p.m.
• MORE LONG REACTION: Two-time Sunny King champion Marcus Harrell, arguably the most successful long-putter player in town, told The Star the anchored putter ban will force him to “go back to the drawing board” with regards to his putting stroke.
Clay Calkins, another prominent local player who uses the long putter, has mixed emotions about the ruling but respects “the traditions of the game” and intends to comply with the change when it goes into effect.
That doesn’t mean he has to like it.
He argued “tradition isn’t the best argument for not allowing them” — citing several historical references — and notes statistics don’t show a distinct advantage through anchoring. He said the R&A hasn’t stepped in on other enhancements that have made the game “easier to play and more spectator friendly,” but doesn’t believe different sets of rules for the pros and amateurs is “good for the game.”
“I don’t agree with the ruling, however, I will conform to the rules as they are written and approved to govern this game I love,” he said. “So, I will give it some time and see if there are appeals to the ruling and if the R&A makes any changes to this rule prior to 2016.
“If not, then I will buy a short putter, practice, practice, practice and become the best putter and player I can be within the approved rules of the game.”
• ACES IN THE CROWD: Derrick Cotton had one of those holes-in-one that reminds you of the kid on the USGA commercial they show during the U.S. Open.
You know the one where the kid is playing in the early morning, the smoke is rising from the pond, he holes out and then, realizing what just happened, looks around an empty landscape hoping there was a witness to see it. Then all of a sudden the superintendent wheels around the corner and the two share a celebratory cold drink.
It wasn’t so lonely when Cotton scored his first hole-in-one Wednesday at Stoney Brook Golf Course, but it was early enough the dew was still on the ground. Cotton holed out a 9-iron from 169 yards on hole No. 2.
No doubt he knew it went in — all he had to do was follow the trail in the dew. The shot was witnessed by Danny Craven, Milton Harris and Brady Turner.
That wasn’t the only 1 at No. 2 at Stoney Brook last week …
Brice Hay made his second ace there Monday. He used an 8-iron from 169 yards. The shot was witnessed by Terrance Black, Hal Childs, Steve Poe and Paul Ward.
• Jeremy McGatha scored his sixth hole-in-one when he jarred an 8-iron from 155 yards on No. 6 at Cane Creek. The shot was witnessed by Brennan Clay, Grant Hockman and Bubba Munn.
The sharp iron play continued Saturday when he holed out from 90 yards on No. 13 at Cherokee County CC where he and partner Jaylon Ellison led after the first round at the club’s two-man scramble.
“It comes in bunches,” he said. “Weird.”
• Ken Green aced Backbreaker No. 5 at Silver Lakes during a fundraiser for the Pleasant Valley golf team. The hole played 130 yards. The shot was witnessed by Bill Austin and Steve Green.
Sports Writer Al Muskewitz: 256-235-3577. On Twitter @almusky_star.