The last straw was a tap-in birdie.
Joe Adams, a Lincoln native who spent his professional career in Florida, was playing a Saturday morning round 15 years ago at his home club.
Adams' partner was Errie Ball, the last surviving participant in the original Masters tournament, a Welschman pushing 90 who easily shot his age.
Adams wasn't too bad himself. He carried a 10 handicap. He would've been better, but in his mid-40s, he had developed a serious case of the yips.
“A 3-foot putt,” he says. “I could not get through the ball. My whole body would stop right at the point of impact.
“Guys would say, 'Hey Joe, you're just not finishing the stroke.' I'd say, 'It's not that I'm not trying, fellas.' It stops right there. It's an awful feeling.”
That morning on the par-5 17th, Adams stripped his second shot to 2½ feet. He and Errie were gonna make a little money. Then Adams stepped to the ball and the nerves squeezed his hands. He left the putt a foot short.
“Errie goes, 'Ooooooh Joe, how you do that!'”
Adams wanted never to do that again. Shortly after, he was in a golf shop spilling his frustrations when the owner handed him a long putter. He anchored it to his sternum and — poof — the yips were gone.
A few years later, he retired, moved back to Nebraska, started playing more often, started missing 3-footers less often and squeezed his handicap all the way down to a 2. Now he's 60 years old playing out of Firethorn, regularly breaking 80.
At least until the golf lawmakers take away his golden flat stick.
Last fall, the United States Golf Association and the Royal & Ancient Golf Club proposed a ban on “anchoring” the putter to the body, effective in 2016. It applies to the traditional method for broom-handled putters like Adams' and the shorter but trendier belly putters.
Why do the USGA and R&A suddenly care about Joe Adams? They don't. But three of the past five major champions anchored their putters. And 15 percent of PGA Tour players used an anchored putter in 2012, up from 6 percent five years earlier. It isn't just frustrated old guys. At the Masters this week, Chinese 14-year-old Guan Tianlang wields a belly putter.
According to Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, among others, the anchoring method violates the spirit of the game. The putter should swing freely away from the body, they say, rather than pivoting like a hinge.
In other words, golfers are supposed to beat the yips on their own, not find relief in a magic wand.
Opponents of the ban — which include the PGA Tour and the PGA of America — won't argue that golf would be simpler without long putters. But how can the USGA and R&A reasonably go back now? Especially when there's little evidence that long putters provide an advantage. Moreover, if you're trying to restore tradition, shouldn't you start by scaling back the monster drivers and rocket balls that render many of the world's classic courses obsolete?
The debate rages in pro shops and snack shacks across the country, including in Omaha, where most club pros oppose the ban. It creates a mess for recreational players, says Jon Petersen, teaching pro at Tiburon.
“I can only imagine at Omaha Country Club or Happy Hollow you're a 69-year-old man who wants to play in a club championship,” Petersen said, “and some other member goes, 'Hey, Joe's got that belly putter. It's illegal. He can't go with it.'”
Ryan Vermeer, teaching pro at Oak Hills Country Club, understands both sides of the issue.
He sees Ernie Els win the British Open with the belly putter. He sees Adam Scott, “one of the worst putters on the planet,” rediscover his game after going to the broom. Clearly, it gives some guys an edge and it's not a traditional stroke, Vermeer says.
“For that reason, I think, yeah, it probably is something that shouldn't be allowed in the game,” Vermeer said. “The only problem is they've been using them for 30-some years now.”
Said Lincoln pro Jim White: “I probably would've supported the ban had it happened 20 years ago. Now it's like, 'C'mon, really? You let it go for this long and now you're going to take it out of people's hands?' It doesn't make a lot of sense.”
The anchored putter has grown in popularity, but only two of the top 30 putters on the PGA Tour in 2012 used a long putter. What does it mean? Anchoring generally doesn't make a bad putter a great putter. But it can make a bad putter into an average one. That's enough for a great ball-striker to start winning trophies.
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Some opponents of the ban say it's OK to require Webb Simpson and Keegan Bradley to putt with a short stick. But when you're trying to build interest in the sport, why make it harder for amateurs?
Putting is like free-throw shooting, Adams says. It's more mental than physical. Miss a few and the hole looks the width of a ketchup bottle. Every golfer knows that feeling. But the frustration is especially intense for a good, middle-age player who suddenly can't control his speed on a short putt.
“The mind takes over and brings about some pretty God-awful looking strokes,” Adams said. “There's nothing worse than 3-jacking from 10 feet. Or you hit a great approach shot, you walk up to the green with a 3-footer for birdie and you're sitting there wondering, 'How can I possibly make this?'”
For Adams, anchoring the putter grip to his left hand — and holding his left hand to his chest — allowed the putter to swing naturally on an arc.
“The putter definitely saved me,” Adams said.
But for how much longer?
Petersen, who has used a long putter for 19 years, thinks golf has opened the door too wide to close it now.
“I really think this whole deal is gonna go away,” he said. “I am going to make a friendly wager with you that they'll never pass it. It'll go away and they're gonna leave it as is.”
But if the USGA goes forward with the ban and the PGA stands in opposition, golf could be looking at bifurcation: two sets of rules, one for USGA and R&A events, one for everybody else. You think that's messy? How about the European Tour supporting the ban, while the PGA does not?
Adam Scott's putter could be legal on one side of the pond and illegal on the other. He might use it for the Masters and the PGA Championship, but not the U.S. and British Opens. Ugh.
The more logical compromise may be a system in which professionals are prohibited from anchored putters, while amateurs are free to experiment.
Pro baseball players hit with wooden bats; amateurs use aluminum. The 3-point arc in the NBA is 3 feet deeper than it is in college.
Jim White has no problem with more stringent rules for the world's best players. Others disagree — vehemently.
“To me,” Vermeer said, “that's the dumbest thing you could ever do in golf.”
If used properly, Vermeer said, the handicap system levels the playing field so that anybody can play against Tiger Woods. Tweaking that foundational principle changes the fabric of the game.
Big decisions are coming. And thousands of players with long putters await word on their Saturday morning fortunes.
“It's either long putter or bowling ball for me,” Adams jokes. “And I'm not a very good bowler.”
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