At the 2000 Sony Open in Hawaii, Paul Azinger won with a belly putter, popularizing the long wands for the next wave of touring pros … until one of them had the nerve to win the British Open
The greatest moment in Hawaiian Open history is open to debate.
Older viewers certainly remember Isao Aoki holing a 128-yard shot from the rough in 1983 to beat a stunned Jack Renner, who heard the roar outside the scoring tent, realized what it meant and suddenly looked ill.
It would be hard to beat the 2000 Sony Open in Hawaii for significance, though. It was the feel-good moment of the new year when Paul Azinger won by seven shots and looked something like the 1993 PGA Championship winner and the best American player before lymphoma knocked his career for a serious loop.
The victory was big because Azinger was a personality who was popular with fans, fellow players and the media. However, he was reduced to an afterthought when golf morphed into an All-Tiger-All-The-Time frenzy after Tiger Woods won that year’s last three major championships.
Azinger changed the game that week at Honolulu’s Waialae Country Club. He came up with a different way to putt to resolve issues with a once-great stroke that had gotten shaky. His method became known as belly-putting. He anchored the putter handle in his belly button and instead of making a traditional hands-and-arm stroke, found that he could rotate his mid-section to hit putts.
Long-shafted putters already were popular on the senior tour then and were just starting to be used by players on the regular tour who had putting woes. But the belly putter had an advantage over the so-called broom-handle putters. The learning curve, the amount of time it took to get confident on the greens, was much shorter with a belly putter.
Azinger probably deserves to be considered the inventor of belly-putting. According to some old clippings, Phil Rodgers won twice in 1966 using a longer putter model that he pressed against his stomach. Rodgers learned that trick from old-timer Paul Runyan, who’d experimented with something similar a few decades earlier. Belly putters or long putters didn’t catch on after Rodgers or Runyan, but they did gain acceptance not long after Azinger’s performance. So even if he wasn’t technically the first to use a similar style, Azinger was the first to make it stick.
Belly-putting was a happy accident for Azinger. He was struggling with his putting and was rummaging around in the golf shop at his home club in Bradenton, Fla., going through a rack of clubs.
“I found this putter that some short guy had been anchoring under his chin,” Azinger said. “I was tall enough that I could stick it in my bellybutton. I starting fooling around with it. Every putt I hit on the shop carpeting hit the leg of the chair I was aiming at.”
He took it outside to try on the practice green and, he remembers, “I was immediately better.”
Azinger gave the putter a tryout when he played in a mixed-team event, and he rolled in putts with ease. So it was on to his 2000 season opener at the Sony Open in Hawaii and he won by seven. He rode the putter to a dominant win, had some good finishes and earned a spot on the 2002 Ryder Cup. But instead of being the start of a second act, the victory would be Azinger’s final win.
His improvement was evident. Azinger ranked 111th in putts per green in regulation (then the best available gauge of putting) and 150th in three-putt avoidance in 1999. With a belly putter the next year, Azinger was fourth in putts per green hit in regulation and third in putts per round.
The belly putter wasn’t accepted immediately. Azinger remembers Woods laughing at him when he saw his putting style at the ’02 Ryder Cup. But belly putting had wide-ranging implications. Other top players, such as Ernie Els, Fred Couples and younger stars Keegan Bradley and Webb Simpson, started trying it.
“People really started to take notice,” Azinger said.
The whole era of long putters probably came to a crashing end at the 2012 British Open. That’s where Els, wielding a belly putter, outdueled Adam Scott, using a long-shafted putter.
There had been no great outcry or groundswell of opinion on these modern putting styles until then. Peter Dawson, head of the R&A and effectively the czar of global golf, was understandably a traditionalist and not a fan of other assorted Americanizations of golf (such as rangefinders). When two players using non-traditional putting styles duel for the Claret Jug in his backyard, well, you can look up when the drumbeat began that anchored putting methods should be outlawed. It was shortly after that Open.
The announcement that anchored putting was banned came in 2013. The ban was enacted in 2016.
“For 12 years, the rap was that if you used it, you must be putting awful,” Azinger said. “It was like guys who putted crosshanded or used the long putter. But when Ernie won the British Open, it suddenly became an issue.”
Belly putting was born on tour in early 2000 and died on tour at the end of 2015. Other alternatives are now used, such as the Matt Kuchar method in which he presses the putter handle against the inside of his left forearm. Long putters, such as the Champions Tour’s Scott McCarron and Bernhard Langer, simply have stopped anchoring the shafts to their chests.
Everybody has moved on. Golf didn’t give them a choice.
But this week’s Sony Open in Hawaii is a good time to remember the player who found an innovative new way to get the ball in the hole and dust a PGA Tour field by seven shots. Azinger will be in the NBC telecast tower this week as the network’s color analyst. This is a continuation of his first season as Johnny Miller’s replacement. If Azinger’s NBC gig lasts as long as the belly putter’s 15 years, it will have been a pretty good run.