When we look at how golf has changed over the past 20 years, technology usually gets most of the attention. Of course there is no doubt that the changes in technology--from the perimeter weighting and grooves on irons to the oversized drivers and of course the newer golf balls--have changed the nature of the game dramatically. The golf ball now flies straighter and longer and golf courses need to be adapted to accommodate super long hitters.
I think that the biggest evolution over the past 20 years is the radical shift away from traditional putting style and technique.
Indeed, the different styles of putting that we now see among the better players mark a greater change from tradition than does the changes in technology.
If you were to ask a tour professional what he would wish for most, I can almost guarantee the answer would be to make a few extra putts per round. The vast majority of tour professionals are more than content with the way they hit the ball.
Most of the professionals are looking more for a way to sink those crucial putts than anything else.
In an effort to master what has become known as "a game within the game," concern about traditional styles and techniques has been thrown out the window.
Unique putting styles are not completely new. Sam Snead was the first to really break from tradition, adopting a putting style that would obligate the USGA and Royal and Ancient to alter the rules for stance.
Before Sam Snead started standing on both sides of the ball, it was never a written rule that you could not straddle the line of play. Now that stance is written into the rules of golf.
In response, Sam adopted a particular style that he used until he retired: the side-saddle.
For a long time the most non-traditional style of putting was very simply the reverse-grip, or left-hand down low for the right-handed player.
Several players adopted this style of putting and were quite successful. Fred Couples and Bernard Langer come to mind. Arnold Palmer even mentioned that the reverse-grip would have added years to his career. This style of gripping is in no way part of the rules of golf.
The reverse-grip remained an exception to the rule in a game that is governed by tradition. One of the reasons is that these styles carried the stigma of a player that had "lost" his putting. This is the main reason that players avoided such unique styles in the past: to not show a weakness.
The acceptance of non-traditional styles of putting began one April weekend in 1993 when Bernard Langer won the Masters with the most unconventional putting style to date.
In efforts to gain control of the yips, Langer gripped the putter down low with the left hand and then anchored the putter shaft against his left forearm, keeping the left arm and putter shaft in perfect alignment. Ever since that weekend, some of the strangest styles--like the claw, the saw, the belly putter, the long putter under the chin, the long putter at the chest and more--have now become common among tour players around the world.
What does all of this mean? To me it indicates a radical shift in the psychology of putting. Whereas putting had always been considered a game of nerves, modern players are trying to take the nerves out of putting and don't hesitate to adopt any style to do so.
Should the USGA intervene? What could they do?
The general consensus of a ruling change would be based on the argument that the club should not be anchored in any way to the body. Based on such a decision, a penalty could be given for any shot played while the club is “anchored” to the body in any fashion. This rule would be clearly written and easily enforced.
Of course, it would not be very popular because so many players have become dependent on such techniques, and not just the old guys. More and more juniors can be seen using the different putters.
Does it work?
The question for me becomes "does it work?" Can one solve the problems of nerves by relying on technique?
With the U.S. Open coming up, I took a look at winners of the majors in the last 20 years to see what putting styles have been used by the winners.
Of the nearly 40 different winners since 1992, here is a short list of winners using a non-traditional putting style:
Reverse Grip Pádraig Harrington Jim Furyk Fred Couples Bernhard Langer
Belly Keegan Bradley
Evidence shows that if you have moved to a non-traditional putting style, then you're putting is not where it needs to be in order to win a major.
Here is a list of the top players (with putting style in parentheses) who have switched to a non-traditional putting technique:
Sergio Garcia (flavor of the day)
Adam Scott (long putter)
Webb Simpson (belly)
Charles Howell III (belly)
Matt Kuchar (belly putter with grip braced against left arm)
Ernie Els (belly)
Stuart Appleby (belly)
KJ Choi (way oversized grip)
Can any of these players listed below stand the pressure of the U.S. Open at the Olympic Club this month or have they definitively "lost their nerves?"
Stephen Moskal is currently the Director of Instruction for Golf Swing Exchange, an innovative on-line coaching platform whose goal is to revolutionize the ability for people to learn golf. A former professional golfer in Europe, Moskal turned pro in 1993 as a member of the French National Circuit and also spent time on the United Kingdom Mastercard Tour and the European Challenge Tour. Following a seven-year professional career, Moskal turned to teaching full-time in 1999. A 1990 graduate of Furman University with a degree in philosophy, Moskal was a four year letter winner with the Paladins and was a member of the academic honor roll. Most recently, Stephen studied under Top 100 instructor Mitchell Spearman, best known for working with major champions Nick Faldo and Ian Baker Finch. Stephen is also the Head Golf Coach at Marymount University in Arlington, VA.
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