by Graham Otway
WHEN The Royal and Ancient Golf Club announced in 2013 that from the start of this year the anchoring of broomhandle putters would be banned, they gave their users ample time to adjust to playing with more traditional equipment.
However, the sad sight of Ernie Els, four times a Major winner, taking six putts on his first hole at this year’s Masters was shocking evidence that the transition has been far from a 100 per cent success for all those affected by the rule change.
Even Australia’s Adam Scott, twice a winner this season on America’s PGA Tour, and German veteran Bernhard Langer, who at the ripe old age of 58 was in contention to win at Augusta National until his disappointing final round, admit they have struggled with the switch.
As Langer said last weekend: “Most of us really don’t understand why they banned it, but that’s a different story.
“Because if it was that much of an advantage, everybody would have used the anchoring style of putting, and only about 10 or 15 per cent of all golfers did. So there’s still a huge question mark for many people.
“I don’t talk to everybody about my putting, but I’ve tried all sorts of putters, different lengths, different grips. I probably have tried out 30 new putters at home the last three months with different grips. I tried this way, I tried that way, regular, cross-handed, and some of them work pretty decent.
“I have put so many hours into it, it’s difficult to change something that quick.”
At least Langer and Scott have enjoyed some success recently. For Els, though, the game has turned into a huge headache at a time when the mental side of his golf is in turmoil.
Twenty-four hours after his putting nightmare, Els was still acutely uncomfortable about the experience. “I walked on to the range and the players and caddies, they kind of just looked at me as if I didn’t have pants on or something,” he said.
However onlookers could never know the extent of the hurt that Els feels inside since the death in December 2013 of his mentor, the Belgian mind guru Jos Vanstiphout. Since then, the former world No.1 has slumped to 218th in the rankings with very few signs of that trend reversing.
From the pages of A Man for all Seasons, a book about Vanstiphout’s life published privately by his family for close friends and his golf clients, it was clear that he gave Els some extremely valuable putting advice during their 12 years together.
In that time, the South African won 38 tournaments worldwide including the Open in 2002 and 2012. And from his share of the Big Easy’s winnings, Vanstiphout, born into poverty, was able to afford an art collection that included the works of Dutch Masters.
His putting mantra was: “I could not give advice on how to read putts because that is a skill that takes many golfers years to acquire, particularly at the professional end of the game where players are travelling around the world and playing on courses with so many different types of grass with grain which can affect the way the ball rolls.
“What I could pass on was a mental approach to the way he actually lined up a putt. Rather than aim at the hole in general I told him to pick a small spot like a particular blade of grass on the edge of the hole.
“The idea was based on a simple calculation. If he just aimed the ball at the hole in general and slightly mishit the shot on the wrong line the chances were that he was going to miss. But aiming at just a single blade of grass would give some room for error.
“Since the size of the golf ball is about a third of the size of the hole if the ball was rolling just a small bit off line from the selected spot it could still drop into the hole.
“Later with Ernie I began to expand on the theory depending on the lie of the land. I told him that, faced with an uphill putt, the spot chosen should always be on the far side of the cup so that the ball would always be hit with enough pace and not come up short.
“In reverse for a tricky and fast downhill putt the selected point should be at the front of the hole to avoid making too strong a contact and being left with an awkward length return putt.”
Last year, after reverting to a shorter putter, there was none of that clarity of mind present as Els missed cuts at many tournaments even though there did appear to be some light at the end of the dark tunnel in early February at the Dubai Desert Classic.
After shooting opening rounds of 68 and 67, he was only one shot behind Spaniard Rafa Cabrera Bello on the halfway leaderboard. “It’s great, I’m loving putting again,” he enthused.
“I feel like I’m looking forward to the weekend. I’m not dreading the greens which is where I’ve been for the last two or three years since I won the Open Championship.”
But two months down the line at the Masters, Els touched rock bottom and admitted to being embarrassed by his nightmare on the first green.
“A lot of people have stopped playing the game (due to the yips), you know, it’s unexplainable,” he said.
“I couldn’t get the putter back. I was standing there – I’ve got a three-footer, I’ve made thousands of them, and I just couldn’t take it back. And then I just kind of lost count after and the whole day was a grind.
“I tried to fight. I’m hitting the ball half decent and I can’t make it from two feet. When you count them up, it’s too many shots out there, just on the greens. So it’s very difficult. I’m not sure where I’m going from here. So, I don’t know. We’ll see.”
Any suggestion that Els might retire and consign his clubs to the garage of his home on the Wentworth estate is surely a huge worry for a game that needs its characters.
A small part of the R&A’s thinking in 2013 was that players anchoring broomhandle putters was unsightly and not good for the image of the sport.
But if Els does indeed call it a day because of the ruling by the St Andrews powers-that-be, then his many fans all over the world will be deprived of the sight of their hero bestriding the fairways just three years before he is due to grace the senior tours.