Golf: Long division adding up

Tim Glover finds the pendulum is swinging against the broomhandle
When Bernhard Langer was asked recently if he would have been better off using a long putter on that fateful five-footer in the Ryder Cup at Kiawah Island six years ago, he replied that it would have made no difference. There was nothing wrong with his putting stroke, but Europe were condemned to a 141/2-131/2 defeat by the fact that the German's ball hit a spike mark and was deflected.

However, the broomhandle putter has made a big difference to the careers of several top players, Langer included.

The word yips will not be found in a medical dictionary, but it is a deadly mental-physical putting disease. The victim loses control of his hands and arms and the simple act of tapping a ball into a hole is akin to crossing Niagara Falls on a high wire while suffering from vertigo.

Langer is one of the world's leading authorities on the yips, being afflicted on at least four occasions. Towards the end of last year, and without a victory in Europe, he experimented with the long putter. This month he won the Italian Open and the B & H International and heads the Volvo rankings.

The putter is now the longest, not the shortest, club, in Langer's bag. He grips the top of the club with his left hand which rests on his chest just beneath his chin and, with his right hand, which holds another grip on the middle of the putter, he takes it back and releases in pendulum motion, his feet only a few inches apart. It works, but is it golf?

It is a question that has been worrying the purists on both sides of the Atlantic and the R & A, who, with the USGA are responsible for the rules, have belatedly decided to address the issue. "There is growing concern," Michael Bonallack, secretary of the R & A, said. "When they first appeared we thought that if they helped people get over putting problems and enjoy the game, then OK. We didn't think they would ever be used by top professionals."

The suspicion is that in letting the weight of the putter do the work, Langer, or Sam Torrance, another successful exponent, may be contravening Rule 14 in not executing a proper stroke. There is also a rule about unusual equipment. In 1967, the American Dean Refrum putted croquet-style and four weeks later the centre-shafted club was banned. If the R & A take action, they would not do so without talking to players, manufacturers and, above all, lawyers. The governing bodies are still counting the cost of losing a court action against Ping, the American manufacturer, when they outlawed square grooves, which appeared on the company's irons.

"I don't think they will ban it," Langer, wielding a Ping broom-handle in the Volvo PGA at Wentworth, said. "If I gave people a long putter, a lot of them wouldn't be able to use it. But if I gave them a long driver they'd hit the ball 30 yards further." That is questionable, but in any case there is no suspicion with a long driver that a proper stroke is not being employed.

Bonallack was first introduced to the broomhandle by Harold Swash in 1989. Swash is a 64-year-old engineer from Southport whose natural habitat is the practice green. Applying science to the art, he is known as the "putting doctor", and his car registration number is H18 PUT. Twice he has completed a round of golf with only 18 putts.

"I showed Michael a prototype of a putter I was making for Sam Torrance," Swash said. "And he took the view that if it allowed people to get over their putting problems and continue to play, then so be it. It is a crying shame if somebody has the yips and can't get out of it."

Swash, who is about to launch a conventional putter called Swashbuckler III, has a handicap of four but does not use a long putter. "I would defend the broomhandle on the grounds that you've still got to hit the ball with the right weight and select the right target," Swash said. "But I don't think it's as good as an orthodox club. You can't hit the ball as if you're rolling a rubber tyre along the ground."

Torrance's career has been transformed by the long putter, but he is in a minority. Several have tried it and abandoned it, including Ian Woosnam, Mark James, who has won tournaments using both styles, and Rodger Davis. "I couldn't get used to it," Davis said. "I'm a traditionalist and I'm surprised they were allowed. Now that they have been, it's going to be very hard to stop them."

Raymond Burns stopped using one four weeks ago. "I was putting very badly and needed a quick fix," Burns said. "It's probably not fair because with the original putter a stroke was meant to be made with two hands together. If the broom-handle makes a bad putter become really good, then it's not right, but then you could go on about metal drivers."

Philip Walton, a Ryder Cup hero in 1995, began using a long putter in 1993. "I had the yips and when Sam showed me how to use the pendulum it saved my career. I'd love to go back to a normal putter, but if I missed a short one it would be the end of me. I don't think it would be fair to ban them. They are not 100 per cent yip-proof."

Wilson have stopped making them. After Nick Faldo won his second Masters, they sold 50,000 of the Faldo model; in the same period, they sold 3,000 broomhandles. "Rather than devalue the market by selling them cheaply, we destroyed them," David Watkinson, of Wilson, said. "There was a stigma. Basically, if you are using one you're knackered."

There is something else about the broomhandle. If you're taking a drop within two club lengths, the length of the putter could take you clear of trouble. However, short of Tiger Woods adopting one, its days look numbered. And that would annoy Carl Mason for one. "They're ideal," he said. "For practising with a fag in your hand."