Magical thinking about the belly fat putter

by Al Pastor

What? No precision milled specs?

What? No precision milled specs?

How dire are golf’s fortunes? So bad that Donald Trump has been enlisted. The litigious and bankruptcy-happy megalomaniac mogul, noted for bullying rural Scots and for his devotion to conspiracy theories and failed presidential aspirations, is the absolute last persongolf needs. To those struggling for answers, The Donald must seem like a ray of sunshine. The most recent bad news: 2013 marked the eighth year in a row where course closings outpaced course openings. It wasn’t even close: 14 openings to 157 closings, a rout.

The Donald appeared as part of the PGA of America's "Forecast Appears Brighter" panel.

The Donald appeared as part of the PGA of America’s “Forecast Appears Brighter” panel.

An everyman of the people like The Donald would naturally be sympathetic to the plight of public golfers. The National Golf Foundation also noted that 66 percent of the closings were those charging $40 green fees or less – the bottom end of the public golf pyramid. As with those at the economy’s upper end, private golf bastions at the game’s pinnacle, the Oakmonts, Baltusrols, Olympic Clubs, Champions, etc. will ride out the rough seas. It’s the bottom end that bears and will continue to bear the brunt of golf’s malaise.

One notable deck chair on golf’s Titanic is the continuing debate over the fate of the belly or anchored putter. PGA president Ted Bishop renewed calls last week for the repeal of a proposed ban on the club that Adam Scott deployed most notably in winning last year’s Masters. Let’s review:

As our mission is to grow the game, on behalf of our 27,000 men and women PGA Professionals, we are asking the USGA to seriously consider the impact this proposed ban may have on people’s enjoyment of the game and the overall growth of the game.

Would someone please trot out the golfer who has quit golf because he was denied the use of a club deemed non-conforming? There isn’t one. Not a soul, certainly not enough to statistically reverse golf’s declining fortunes. And will these tormented, distressed and aggrieved golfers, those denied the enjoyment to which President Bishop refers, be entitled to redress for “pain and suffering?”

No one “needs” the belly putter to enjoy golf. And no one under the age of, say, 84-and-a-half should be allowed to use it. I once shared a round with a man on a lovely city course in Portland who putted croquet style. He’d taken lessons from one of the style’s last proponents, Bob Duden.

“I thought that was illegal,” I said to him. “Who cares?” was his entirely proper response. He was not competing, nor establishing a handicap, nor playing the game by the game’s established rules. He played for his own amusement and recreation, and showed no outward signs of anarchy or revolutionary spirit. Might we add that with respect to any club wielded by those paying a green fee, or, in this case, the belly fat putter, no official ban will deny anyone its use. Sadly, for the aggrieved, if you choose to play by the rules you will have to do so.

Obviously, there is no shortage of putter options. Choice is hardly an issue. Garages are filled with putters that were once thought to be imbued with magical qualities. Room will soon be made for the belly fat putter once its time has passed. The proposed ban has absolutely nothing to do with ‘growing the game’ and nothing to do with making golf “fun,” the latter a perplexing way of describing golf that would surely have confused its early proponents.

But, if indeed golf is to be “fun,” whatever that means, looking to the future I would suggest two words: miniature golf. Can we agree that children enjoy mini golf? Have you ever heard a child complain that his putter was not milled, face-balanced or properly fitted? That the game was less enjoyable because his putter contained no thermoplastic elastomers or heel and toe circular sole weights?

If children can enjoy diverting themselves with the most modest equipment, the argument that golf is not “fun” without a club that the USGA, the game’s steward, finds inconsistent with golf’s spirit and standards falls apart. Denying the use of the belly putter has nothing to do with anything other than magical thinking and profit.

The way to improve golf, to help it grow, is simply to make those new to it welcome. This continues to be a major failing, neatly described in what has been described as the “intimidation factor.” New golfers must be taught how to swing and chip and putt. More importantly, they need to be shown the courtesies, responsibilities and traditions that have made golf a social activity for centuries. The emphasis on making golf easier or more fun is, to my way of thinking, misplaced. The only way for golfers to find their way and their place in the game is to understand what is expected of them. Only then can the delights of the game be revealed. The equipment is incidental.

Rather than enlist Donald Trump, the PGA and others concerned would do far better than to listen to one of their own. Jack Burke, the celebrated Masters and PGA Champion, a Ryder Cup captain, and the son of Texas’s first golf pro, has long advocated on behalf of the amateur golfer.

He wrote that good players inspire others, particularly the young. “They add immeasurably to the atmosphere,” he writes in ‘It’s Only a Game.’ “Usually the top players are aware of their standing and live up to it in the way they dress, their behavior, their modesty, and their good sportsmanship. They set a positive tone for everyone.”

Something else that should be digested by all those bleating about any perceived injustice regarding the belly fat putter: “A good putter can putt with anything.”