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Long putter issue refues to go away

Golf's governing body, the Royal and Ancient Golf Club (R&A), may have no immediate plans to outlaw long-handled "belly-putters" but the controversy over the club refuses to go away.

Several leading players believe such putters should be banned, with South Africa's world number three Ernie Els last week the most recent to voice his criticism.

His compatriot, Trevor Immelman, used one on the way to victory at the prestigious Tournament Players Championship of Europe on Sunday before expressing his irritation at the spotlight being aimed at the belly-putter.

"There were 13 other clubs in my bag, and you've got to hit the ball well too," the 24-year-old told reporters.

"The best player in the world right now (Vijay Singh) uses a belly-putter, a lot of players have won with one, and I haven't seen any reports about them."

Nevertheless, Immelman's improvement with a belly-putter has been dramatic in 2004. Prior to his using one in the British Masters two weeks ago, his Reuters Stats average on the greens on the European Tour was over 30 putts per round.

Since then, it has plummeted to just over 27 -- a difference of 12 shots a tournament and enough to divide an also-runner from a champion.

Colin Montgomerie, who switched to a "broomhandle" in 2002, has called for long putters to be declared illegal. However, such a move would almost certainly administer the kiss of death to the careers of more than a handful of top players.

World number two Singh has been the game's hottest player over the last nine months and his long putter has helped him retain his place at the top of the PGA Tour money list this season with earnings of $4,409,136.

If the tall Fijian has displayed a weakness in recent years, it has been on the greens. He is the only top player on the U.S. Tour to use a belly-putter and would feel highly aggrieved should the club ever be outlawed.

As with most controversial issues, there is no easy answer.

The use of an extended putter seems to be totally at odds with the spirit of the game, but it has played a key role in reviving the careers of several players who have suffered from the yips -- or the putting twitches.

The broomhandle or belly-putter, pioneered by 2002 European Ryder Cup captain Sam Torrance among others during the late 1980s/early 1990s, are tucked under the chin or into the belly.

They are swung in a pendulum fashion, and crucially makes demands on a different set of small muscles and nerves.

"Anything that helps people play the game you might say is good for the masses of golfers but is perhaps not providing such a strong test for top players," R&A secretary Peter Dawson told Reuters last week.

"However it does seem to make people who've perhaps passed their best days at putting better putters again.

"The advent of the belly-putter has brought the whole subject back up for further discussion and that's happening but it's at a very early stage. There's nothing imminent," he added.

For three-times major winner Els, the issue is clear cut.

"I'm not interested in the belly-putter. It should be banned," he said. "I think nerves and skill in putting are part of the game and you should take a tablet if you can't handle it.

"It's become such an easy way to putt. You push the putter into your body and then you can make a perfect stroke.

"I've seen Vijay, who's a very good friend of mine, using it when we've practised together and it just doesn't seem right."

Seven-times European number one Montgomerie, who switched to a belly-putter after watching American Fred Couples using one towards the end of 2001, agrees.

"Though it is hardly in my interests to say so, I think that all long putters -- yes, all of them -- should be declared illegal," he said in his autobiography The Real Monty, published in 2002.

"Long putters -- be they anchored to the chin, the chest or belly -- all give the player the three pivotal points of two hands and the body rather than just the two hands.

"You would never be allowed to have a brace that helped to keep your right arm on target when throwing a dart. Nor would you be allowed anything to steady the moving arm in snooker.

"It is extraordinary, to me, that golf officialdom has not acted on this score."

The subject of long putters is clearly an emotive one and for a majority of players such clubs offer more than just an easy way out on the greens. For the time being, though, they remain legal.

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