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Putting ban, not slow play, the biggest threat to Guan

ESPN staff
April 24, 2013
Guan Tianlang faces the prospect of re-learning his putting stroke with a short putter © AP

Guan Tianlang is the reason why golf is set to ban long putters - well, part of it - and he may just be the player most likely to be affected by the impending rules revision.

Guan, rested and recovered from what was little short of an heroic debut at the Masters earlier in the month, is in the field for this week's Zurich Classic, courtesy of a sponsor's invite. While slow play might be at the heart of any discussion about the Chinese this week, it is his putting that might actually hold the key to his long-term future at the highest level of the sport.

Come 2016, when anchored putting strokes (and therefore most long putters) will be banned across the globe, Guan will have to ditch his own 40-odd inch flat-stick for a conforming model. For other anchorers - Adam Scott, Keegan Bradley, Ernie Els - such a switch will be hard; for Guan, it may be next-to-impossible.

The teenager has hardly any experience of using a conventional putter, preferring to perfect his technique with a longer club that rests against the abdomen from the earliest of ages - a quest he has undoubtedly fared well with, as he did not three-putt across four rounds at Augusta National.

Guan, indeed, is one of the main reasons the rule is being changed. The R&A and USGA admit that the change of heart is not based on performance (i.e. that the club helps hole putts, although many believe it does), but to return to golf's traditional view of what constitutes a stroke.

Where long putters were invented to aid older players with back problems, the rise in young players using them in preference to conventional models led the game's governing bodies to make a firm decision.

"Although anchoring the club is not new, until recently it was uncommon and typically seen as a method of last resort by a small number of players," the R&A said in a statement announcing the planned ban. "In the last two years, however, more and more players have adopted the anchored stroke. Golf's governing bodies have observed this upsurge at all levels of the game and noted that more coaches and players are advocating this method.

"The decision to act now is based on a strong desire to reverse this trend and to preserve the traditional golf stroke."

That change remains controversial, some say unethical.

"There are many young players who have grown up with the belly putter, never even using traditional methods," former US Open champion Tom Lehman is on record as saying, although not specifically about Guan. "To tell them it is illegal or against the spirit of the game is way late, very unfair and in my opinion unethical."

The fears are that it will take time for players to acclimatise to using short putters once more - after all, the aim is the same, but the technique is considerably different. Adam Scott, the Masters champion who is now the poster boy for the divisive instrument, admitted it took him weeks to learn the art of the long putter back in 2011 - even though his form with the shorter club was woeful prior to that.

Guan still has a long way to go to reach the level of Tiger Woods or Dustin Johnson © Getty Images

"I had to re-learn the rhythm of a putting stroke because mine was so off with the short putter," Scott revealed. "[But] you could have given me a hockey stick and I would have used that."

US Open champion Webb Simpson and Bradley are two other players who have used the club for many years. Grown used to the comforting feel of having the putter stabilised against part of their body, they may need months to get used to losing that.

If Rory McIlroy was affected by a change in equipment at the start of this year, you have to wonder what a change of equipment and technique will do in the most critical aspect of the game.

Scott does not believe it is 'easier' to putt with a long putter, which is why he remains in opposition of the ban. He thinks good players using long putters were always going to win majors - because that's what good players invariably do.

Scott said: "You know my feeling on it all; that it was inevitable that big tournaments would be won with this equipment because, you know, these are the best players in the world and they practise thousands of hours. They are going to get good with whatever they are using. It's inevitable."

As such the ban is unfair.

But anchor putters generally do use it for one reason - because they lack confidence with the shorter model. Good players don't win without confidence on the greens. Just ask Sergio Garcia.

Any number of things could derail Guan's golfing career - injury, slow play, burnout, lack of growth, loss of desire - but his impending change in putter might just be the biggest.

Without a belly putter, he may never be confident on the greens again.

And if he loses confidence on the greens, he will simply never be a great player.

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