By Mark Lamport-Stokes
PACIFIC PALISADES, California (Reuters) - Having been on both sides of the 'long putter' debate, former world number one Ernie Els can see no good reason why putters anchored to the belly or chest should be banned by golf's rulemakers.
In November, the game's governing bodies proposed a ban on players anchoring putters to their body, saying they wanted to outlaw the practice by 2016 in order to preserve the "skill and challenge" of putting.
Players and the golfing community were then given 90 days in which to discuss that proposal by the Royal and Ancient (R&A) and United States Golf Association (USGA), a period which concludes at the end of this month.
"Hopefully they don't ban it, because I really don't think … there's any data that really confirms that they have to ban it," British Open champion Els, 43, told reporters at Riviera Country Club on Wednesday.
"If there were 90 percent of the guys using it or if the guys using it were top of the putting ranks, guys making more putts from 20 feet, more putts from four feet...
"Give me something to go by to really 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."
Els, a four-times major champion, famously criticized his fellow South African Trevor Immelman for using a belly putter for several years. However, he has since changed his tune, having switched to a long putter himself toward the end of 2011.
"As long as it's legal, I'll cheat like the rest of them," Els, popularly known as the 'Big Easy', joked at the time about his putting U-turn.
On Wednesday, he added: "I said it in jest but I have to stick with what I said back then. Then 10, 12 years later, I'm using it so I kind of contradicted myself a little bit if you want to take it like that.
"But I've putted great with the short putter. I wouldn't say that I'm putting exceptionally great now with the long putter, but I'm starting to feel comfortable. I've been on it now for a whole year and obviously won a major with it.
"It's helped me from short range a lot. But still, it's not like it's an automatic thing. You're not just going to stick it in your belly and make every putt you look at it. It takes a lot of time and a lot of effort to learn that way of putting."
When Els triumphed at last year's British Open, he became the third player to win a major using a putter anchored to the body in a very short span, following Keegan Bradley (2011 PGA Championship) and Webb Simpson (2012 U.S. Open).
Asked whether he felt that had been the tipping point for golf's rulemakers to propose a ban, Els replied: "In all honesty, I'm not too sure what their whole reason is behind this whole thing because there's (only) a handful of guys using it.
"It's helped some careers. Some guys cannot putt another way so there's some stuff that you have to follow through.
"Because of those last two majors, going with Webb and going with myself, I think that had a huge influence in their decision."
The R&A and USGA say putters should swing freely and not be anchored to any part of the body, and that swinging a club freely has been the essence of the 600-year-old sport.
(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes; Editing by Frank Pingue)