The art of cheating? Or just a tall tale?

The high profile faces of the long putter debate - British Open winner Ernie Els, US Open winner Webb Simpson, US PGA winner Keegan Bradley and Australia's Adam Scott.
The high profile faces of the long putter debate - British Open winner Ernie Els, US Open winner Webb Simpson, US PGA winner Keegan Bradley and Australia's Adam Scott.

I always figured that cheating would feel more glamorous than this.

Sure, cheats almost always get caught. But they usually get to live it up a bit first.

Lance Armstrong hooked up with Sheryl Crow and spent the best part of 15 years rolling in money. Ben Johnson had about the most exhilarating 9.79 seconds you could imagine and, even after he fell from grace, still got to race against a couple of horses and a stock car.

Me? Well, I'm just trying to keep an awkwardly long broomstick putter anchored to my chest while simultaneously attempting to nudge a white Titleist golf ball somewhere remotely near a hole about six feet way.

And, as the video above attests, I'm wearing a pretty ordinary looking pair of pants while I do it.

Of course, there remains the issue of whether I really am cheating - not only the most contentious question in golf right now but also one of the most vexing in international sport.

For the first 30 or so years of their existence, elongated putters were a tolerated eccentricity. Weird-looking instruments that came with no guarantees of success.

But in the past two years, Keegan Bradley (US PGA), Webb Simpson (US Open) and Ernie Els (British Open) have all won majors with tall putters which they anchored to their bellies.

And suddenly the length of putters - and the way they are being used - has become a subject that divides the golfing world.

The 2010 US Open champion Graeme McDowell and European Ryder Cup star Ian Poulter want anchored putters banned.

Tiger Woods has suggested authorities change the rules to ensure a player's putter is no longer than the shortest regular club in his bag.

Els, a vocal critic of longer putters before jumping on the bandwagon for a fourth major win, says he plans to "keep cheating" while he still can.

The consensus is that, later today, the Royal and Ancient Golf Club and the US Golf Association will announce a ban on long putters.

But exactly what physical evidence is there that broomstick and belly putters do provide an unfair advantage?

How much weight do you give to the fact Els and his belly putter only emerged triumphant in July's British Open because Adam Scott and his broomstick went stone cold over a disastrous last four holes.

And if long putters are such a significant advantage, how come only a combined three of the top-10 putters on the USPGA and European tours used them this year?

The Senior statesman

It's pretty much impossible to write any article about long putters without speaking to Peter Senior, who pioneered the broomstick in Australia with spectacular success in the late 1980s.

In the space of four brilliants weeks in 1989, Senior - who first picked up a broomstick in Europe earlier that year - won the Australian Open, the Australian PGA and the Johnnie Walker Classic.

"And all anyone wanted to talk about was my putter. No-one said anything about how well I was hitting the ball," Senior said.

"I don't think I broke 30 putts in any of those rounds so that gives you some idea of how I was striking it. But the putter got all the attention."

Nearly 25 years later and Senior, currently in Perth for the ISPS HANDA Australian Senior Open, is still wielding his broomstick to good effect.

He won the PGA again in 2003 and 2010 and two weeks ago, at the ripe age of 53, finished sixth behind Scott in the Australian Masters.

Still, he's never bought into suggestions that long putters are cure-alls for ailments on the greens.

"I've had good weeks with it and I've had bad weeks with it. I keep using it because I'm most comfortable with it," Senior said.

"It won't work for everyone. Phil Mickleson tried using one for a few weeks, didn't like it and said 'you can have that back'.

"And it won't work if you don't read the speed and the line of a putt correctly. I think in this whole debate, some people are forgetting that you've still got to putt the ball."

54 shades of freedom

The layman's theory about the advantage of the long putter - and the cause of much resultant criticism - is that it allows the user to wedge the butt of the club into some part of the abdomen, creating a more stable environment from which to make a pendulum-like swing.

The biomechanical truth behind that assumption? No-one really knows because detailed, published scientific research into the long putter doesn't yet exist.

You can, however, take an educated guess (provide you are educated enough!).

Remember when University of Western Australia reserachers stuck a whole bunch of electrodes to Muttiah Muralitharan and came up with an answer the naked eye refused to provide - that the Sri Lankan spinner didn't throw?

Australian Catholic University PhD student Matt Sweeney recently submitted a thesis that revolved around similar experiments on the driving strokes of a collection of elite amateur golfers (handicaps less than five).

Sweeney found the golf swing had "54 degrees of freedom" often linked by "compensatory synergy". Translated to water cooler speak: there are a lot of places a good golfer's swing may deviate from the textbook before being sub-consciously self-corrected at some other stage of the process.

Given traditional putting involves pretty much the same basic motion, Sweeney suspects it incorporates similar deviations and self-corrections.

"You might assume Tiger Woods stays really still through his putting motion and limits the movements in his arms - because he's such a good putter," Sweeney said.

"But the reality is that he might well have degrees of freedom and the compensatory synergies that help balance them out."

So if a player anchors his putter to part of his body but has "kinks" in other parts of the stroke, he could be losing whatever advantage the longer blade is supposed to be providing?

"It's a possibility," Sweeney said.

75 and still swinging

Half-way through his eighth decade, Nedlands Golf Club's Neil Watson belongs to the one group that Sweeney believes could definitely derive immediate benefit from long putters - the older golfer.

Human motor neurone skills, Sweeney explains, disintegrate with age and the anchoring of a putter is an automatic counterbalance to "the shakes".

Watson doesn't look at it that technically: all he knows is that he wants to use the putter that feels most comfortable to him.

At 75, Watson makes for an interesting study.

He's played for 60 years - the first 40 with a standard putter, the last 20 with a broomstick. His lowest handicap (four) came when he was playing with a traditional blade but the longer putter now helps him keep a very respectable mark of 12.

He will also, if the expected ban comes into place, likely have to make the switch back to a short putter within the next few years.

"If they make that change, I'm going to have to live with it," Watson said.

"But in my opinion, it [the broomstick] is just another putter. There is no magic to it.

"You've still got to work on your technique and find out what suits you. Plenty of times over the years I've had people I've been playing with ask me to have a go with my broomstick.

"Almost all of them have given it straight back and said 'I don't know how you putt with that thing'."

Social stigma, retail non-factor

Broomstick and belly putters have become so prevalent in professional ranks that Senior reckons he's seen tournaments in the US where a third of the field is using them.

But the amateur ranks - and particularly non-club golfers - have never embraced longer putters in the same way.

"There's definitely a stigma there for social golfers," Drummond Golf's marketing director Ravi Abeyaratne said.

Abeyaratne says long putters account for only 1.5 per cent of all putter sales at Drummond's more than 50 stores across the country.

A year ago it was just 0.5 per cent - the major success of belly putters has had some impact - but it's still a very small portion of the market.

It's a similar story at the GolfBox's six stores around WA, where about 20 standard putters sell for every elongated one.

Pro shop staff at Wembley Golf Course and Collier Park in Perth's suburbs estimate bellies and broomsticks make up somewhere between five and 10 per cent of their putter sales but again it's a market skewed towards the far more serious golfer.

At Collier Park, long putters might comprise only one or two per cent of "cheap" putter sales but as much as 20 per cent of the premium market (and remember, putters can set you back as much as $500).

Where to from here?

Sweeney hopes his next major project will take the research techniques from his driving study and apply them to the putting stroke.

Players will be tested with both long and short putters and the research may help to provide a definitive answer as to what advantage - if any - is supplied by bellies and broomsticks.

By the time that research takes place, Senior may already be back using a short putter. He says it won't be a huge issue - he still practices with one for "touch" reasons - but Peter Senior without a broomstick is going to be a strange sight for many golf viewers.

Watson is likely to get a reprieve, as long putters aren't expected to be banned from amateur golf until 2016. After that, by which time he'll be ticking on towards 80, Watson too will have to go back to the traditional putter.

The golf retail sector is best placed to carry on without skipping a beat. But not even commerce is immune to sentinment.

"It's not going to make any real difference to our bottom line," Abeyaratne said.

"But I think it's a bit sad that some people, who might have the yips with their putting, aren't going to be able to enjoy their golf without broomstick or belly putters.

"You want to see people play golf for as long as humanly possible. And there are people who are going to quit the game because of this."

This story The art of cheating? Or just a tall tale? first appeared on WA Today.