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Pushing Ernie’s Belly Buttons

PACIFIC PALISADES, CALIFORNIA | Ernie Els is the unlikely advocate. And he knows it. He’s Tony Bennett singing rap. TMZ selling discretion. Donald Trump with a crew cut. “You’ve got to watch what you say in this game. You never know. It might bite you, and it has,” Els said last week at Riviera Country Club, where he made his 2013 PGA Tour debut in the Northern Trust Open. Els was talking about the belly putter he’s been using since April, 2011, when he surrendered to his pride and swallowed the wisecracks he’d made about golf’s great alternative. All he’s missing are teeth marks. Several years ago after playing a round with Trevor Immelman in Germany, Els shook his head at the belly putter Immelman was using. He called it “such an easy way to putt” and rightly pointed out that nerves and skill are part of the game. “Take a tablet if you can’t handle it,” Els said. You might remember that Els won a second claret jug and fourth major championship last July at Royal Lytham, riding a putting stroke made young again by a belly putter. Awkward. Whatever self-consciousness Els felt eating his words was more than offset by the peace of mind that came with seeing four-footers turn from rattlesnakes to routine again. As the designated period of discussion about the proposed anchoring ban approaches its deadline, Els didn’t hesitate to add his input last week, saying the USGA and R&A don’t have enough relevant statistical data to support outlawing anchored strokes. To his point, the rules makers aren’t basing their action so much on statistics as the notion of what a true stroke should be. There is also the unspoken concern that regular-length putters might eventually go the way of VCRs and just as quickly. Without intending to be an activist, Els may symbolize the complicated feelings on the issue at hand. He initially was against anchoring and, even after making the change, Els felt uncomfortable. Now that he feels competitive again, Els is admittedly surprised to hear some of the things he’s saying. “I’ve kind of contradicted myself a little bit,” Els said, smiling. Haven’t we all at one time or another? It’s hard to blame a man who has been tormented by the dark art of putting. It has broken more spirits than unrequited love. At Harbour Town in 2011, Els made the switch to the belly putter and it didn’t go well at first. He had 34 putts his first round on the tiny, relatively flat greens and was the definition of grumpy when he finished shooting 75. Asked by reporters how it went that first day, Els looked at me, having seen me following his group on the course, and growled, “You saw it, tell them.” Els looked like a man reluctantly swallowing bitter medicine, gravely doubting its curative power. Part of Els’ problem was hearing his own words echoing in his head. It’s hard to find a quiet place when your own voice is banging around in your noggin. For a man accustomed to playing golf in front of thousands, Els felt like a Kardashian. Everyone, it seemed, was looking at him but, unlike any of the Kardashians, he didn’t like it. “That was part of the problem,” Els said. “I had to mentally make the switch and be comfortable with it and move on. It took me (about six months) to get used to it.” He even joked in late 2011 that he would continue “cheating like the rest of them” as long as anchoring a belly putter remained within the rules of the game. It has been suggested that Els’ victory at the Open Championship last summer convinced golf’s ruling bodies that it was time to act against anchoring. Maybe so. Since then, he has talked to R&A executive director Peter Dawson about the issue, each offering their opinions. It’s safe to assume they’ve agreed to disagree. Els hasn’t spoken to USGA executive director Mike Davis but he has talked to fellow tour player Tim Clark, the PGA Tour’s leading advocate to keep the status quo, enough to know where the USGA stands. “Hopefully they don’t ban it because… I really don’t think that it’s that big of a deal to really look at the data,” Els said.

“There’s no data that really confirms that they have to ban it. “Give me something to go by to make me believe that you have to ban it. Then ban it. But I can’t see them having a really great way of explaining to me why they would want to ban it.” The Claret Jug now in Els’ possession is anecdotal evidence. So is Keegan Bradley’s PGA trophy and Webb Simpson’s U.S. Open trophy. Bring together enough anecdotes, tie them together with a common thread and you have a story. Els finds himself a character in this story, playing a role he never imagined.


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