It’s highly unlikely there has ever been a piece of golf equipment that has divided opinion as dramatically as the belly putter. It is marmite with a clubface.
For some, it’s the cure for a host of career-endangering ailments, from bad backs to the dreaded ‘yips’. For others, it’s the weapon of choice for cheats and largely annuls the need for skill, touch and feel amongst those who use it.
For Richard T. Parmley, however, it’s something very different - it’s his baby.
This year marked the 50th anniversary of the Californian being granted a patent for the ‘Body-Pivot Golf Putter’, a piece of kit widely acknowledged as the first known example of a belly putter.
Now 83, and speaking exclusively to bunkered, Parmley recalls how the idea for the club came to him back when he was in his twenties.
A talented golfer, he was a regular at Bonneville golf course in Salt Lake City, Utah, where he played frequently with his friends. Tee to green, he could hold his own with most people, but his scores were being let down by his inconsistency with the shortest club in his bag.
"I thought to myself that if I could find a way of fixing the club against my belly, that might improve my stroke.”
In Parmley’s search for a solution to his putting woes, the belly putter was born.
“The idea came to me when I had been having some problems with my putting,” he recalls. “I was quite a good player when I was at college but I started to struggle with putting and needed to find a solution.
“I didn’t want to bend my wrists so I thought to myself, ‘What part of your body doesn’t move during your stroke?’ The answer was simple: your belly. So I thought to myself that if I could find a way of fixing the club against my belly, that might improve my stroke.”
Energised by that realisation, Richard made a first prototype club by attaching the clubhead of his putter to a driver shaft. The results, he freely admits, were almost instantaneous.
“I started to putt really well,” he says. “Particularly on short putts. My longer putts improved, too, but I felt as though I could hardly miss with my shorter putts. My friends were a little bit sceptical about it at first but they soon came around and took more of an interest in it after I started to drop a lot of putts!
A SHORT HISTORY OF LONG PUTTERS
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“People ask me how much of a difference it made to my game. Well, I got down to scratch using it, so quite a lot! It definitely helped me improve as a golfer.”
Experiencing the benefits of the prototype putter for himself, Richard subsequently set about developing his idea further and, in October 1961, he submitted a patent application for what he called ‘Body-Pivot Golf Putter’.
On the application, which you can see below, he described how the club “involves a new concept of putting and structure for carrying out such concept”.
His description went on: “Conventional putters require golfers to swing without support other than that afforded by the shoulders. Great skill is required to achieve the desired objective of sinking the ball in the cup.
“It was a principal object of this invention to significantly reduce the difficulty of putting accurately, without eliminating skill as a factor in the game.”
Tellingly, he added: “Another object was to accomplish the foregoing without any radical departure from conventional club configuration, so as to gain prompt acceptance by golfers generally and arouse no official disapproval.
“These objects have been attained by providing for pivoting the upper end of the club against the abdomen of the golfer during the swing. From a structural standpoint, this involves making the shaft of the club for any given golfer longer than it would be if such club were of conventional size.”
Almost four years after the application was submitted, the patent was granted. Richard explains he applied for it as his original intention was to bring his new product to market.
“It never ended up happening, though,” he says. “I guess life just got in the way.”
Still, that wasn’t to be the end of the belly putter. As it turned out, it was just the beginning. Some years later, after his original patent expired, Richard was surprised to see his invention - at least, a refined version of it - in the hands of some of the game’s top professionals.
“I suppose it came as a little bit of a shock at first,” he admits. “But I didn’t feel any annoyance or anything like that. I was just pleased to see people benefitting from it.
“I do slightly regret not taking the idea further myself nor, for that matter, pitching it to an equipment manufacturer but that’s just the way it goes. Nobody ever approached me and I never approached them.
“The way I feel about it is that it has pretty been incredible to see so many great players using the belly putter over the years. I can’t quite believe how big an impact it has made on the game.”
Like so many around the world with an interest in golf, Richard followed the debates over the use of the belly putter with interest and admits he was slightly saddened when, in May 2013, the R&A and USGA announced that the controversial practice of anchoring clubs to your body - the technique for which the belly putter was, of course, invented - would be banned under an amendment to the rules of golf from January 1, 2016.
“I switched to a conventional putter some time ago.”
“I was a little bit disappointed at first but if the R&A and USGA feel that it gives players an unfair advantage, then okay,” he concedes. “However, since anyone can choose to use it, I never felt it was unfair. I know from my own experiences that it does help and, in the end, it’s up to the people who make the rules to do what they think is right.”
What of Richard himself? Married with three children - none of whom, he says, play golf - he explains that inventing the belly putter was the extent of his ’career’ in the golf industry.
“I’m a retired research scientist,” he says. “My field was cryogenics, so I wasn’t ever really involved in golf in a professional capacity. I still played regularly up until a few years ago, but I have some physical problems, which forced me to give up.”
Here’s the real question, though: did he continue using the belly putter right up until he had to quit the game?
“I’m afraid not,” he laughs. “I switched to a conventional putter some time ago.”
"I invented the belly putter" • bunkered issue 138
This feature first appeared in issue 138 of bunkered (Mar-Apr, 2015)