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A Growing Sensation on the Green


February 4, 2012

ORLANDO, Fla. — Had Heath Martin not been lodging the butt-end of a Titleist Scotty Cameron putter against his paunchy midsection, he might have sounded as if he were reciting his jacket size.

“I’m a 39 short,” he said. “When you’re low to the ground and got a gut like mine, it’s not going to be very long.”

Martin, a club professional at Deerwood Club in Kingswood, Tex., was among the thousands of P.G.A. pros and golf shop merchandisers at the P.G.A. Merchandise Show here last week, who sought out what many consider will be the hottest product in golf equipment this year — the belly putter.

Following the lead of a growing number of touring pros, many recreational golfers are clamoring for a putter with an extended handle that sticks into the stomach, sternum or, as some prefer, the chin. Golfers are making the switch because it promotes a more consistent setup and removes the wrists from the stroke while still allowing for a pendulum motion.

The potential for gangbuster sales has those in the golf business jumping for joy. Sales of putters have decreased for the last nine years, according to the research firm Golf Datatech. In 2003 putter sales in on- and off-course shops were about $200 million. In 2011, that figure had dropped to $141.3 million, down 4.1 percent from the previous year. But those in the golf-equipment industry say belly putter sales could invigorate the category.

“The belly putter is the great white hope,” said Steve Boccieri, the maker of the Heavy Putter.

He noted that early last summer, he struggled to sell his belly putter models to major retailers, who deemed the club “inventory poison” for its tendency to sit on shelves for months.

Then the belly putter boom began in earnest in August when Keegan Bradley won the P.G.A. Championship, becoming the first golfer to win a men’s major while using a belly putter. Odyssey Golf, the maker of Bradley’s 43-inch White Hot XG Sabertooth belly model, reported belly putter sales skyrocketed more than 400 percent last year. A combined nine tour victories with belly or long putters legitimized the clubs in the eyes of many. The veterans Ernie Els, Jim Furyk and Phil Mickelson also experimented with belly models in tournament play.

Suddenly, Boccieri found himself writing orders in October for 800 putters from the golf retailer Golfsmith and 1,000 from Golf Town, Canada’s largest golf-specialty store.

“That’s more bellies than I had sold in a year,” he said.

The consumer frenzy caught equipment makers and retailers flat-footed. Larry Hirsch of Villanova, Pa., an avid golfer fiddling with a Scotty Cameron belly model at the Titleist booth, said he shopped at several stores before he located a belly putter, then bought the only model on the shelf.

To match the growing demand, the leading shaftmaker True Temper has increased its production of belly and long putter shafts to 120,000 last year from 60,000 in 2010. The company says it expects to produce more than 500,000 shafts this year.

Chris Koske, the global director of Odyssey Golf, said the company sold 8,000 belly putters in 2010 and more than 34,000 units last year. He has high hopes for this season.

“I’d like to get to 100,000,” he said. “I think it is completely doable.”

When Paul Azinger notched the first win with a belly putter in 2000, demand for the club surged temporarily. The putter-maker Scotty Cameron recalled inserting a chopstick in the grip hole of Azinger’s putter as a practice device. Soon after, while browsing at a pro shop, Azinger toyed with lodging a long putter cut down for a shorter man in his belly button. After holing a string of putts, he bought the club, changed the grip, got it approved by the United States Golf Association, and rolled to a seven-stroke victory at the Sony Open. Sales spiked again in 2003 when Vijay Singh, dogged by a balky putter, conquered his woes and won several events wielding a belly putter.

Recreational golfers often avoided the belly or long putter because they were considered an old-man’s crutch, an act of desperation for a golfer with a bad back, or a case of the yips. But when younger players like Adam Scott, Webb Simpson and Bill Haas won on tour with a long or belly putter, the stigma disappeared.

Dave Pelz , a renowned short-game coach, said he had used long and belly putters for instruction purposes for more than 20 years and coordinated trials involving students from his six teaching schools to try and determine which putter generated the most accurate stroke. Pelz found that 60 percent of his students putted better with a belly model.

“I’m not endorsing it,” he said. “I’m saying test it.”

A lingering question is whether the long and belly putter should be allowed. The U.S.G.A. considered a proposal limiting the length of a putter in 1989, but decided longer putters were not detrimental to the game.

But to many golf purists, using a belly or long putter is akin to cheating.

“My best friend said he wouldn’t play with me anymore if I used one,” Hirsch said.

While equipment makers and golf retailers attempt to capitalize on consumer interest, a bigger question than legality is whether the belly putter craze will last this time.

Tim Reed of Adams Golf introduced several belly putters under the company’s Yes! Putter brand at the P.G.A. show. How convinced is he that the belly putter is here to stay?

“Well, I named one of the belly models after my wife,” he said.