Watching Padraig Harrington use a belly putter for the first time is a bit like watching Picasso use a paint-by-numbers kit to produce Guernica - you know it’s wrong but you just can’t look away.
Yesterday, less than 12 months after declaring his fervent opposition to a putting method that governing bodies plan to ban from January 2016, the 41-year old Dubliner took the brave step to do something about the balky putting stroke that has left him winless on the game’s top two tours for more close to five years.
His bravery went unrewarded as he crashed to a horrible, eight over par 80 in the opening round of the Wells Fargo Championship - his worst round on US soil since he shot 80 in the 2007 US Open - where Rory McIlroy was at his imperious best with a 67 that gave him a seven way share of the first round lead.
The golfing gods took their revenge for Harrington’s “sacrilege” as he putted poorly, taking 32 swipes with a TaylorMade putter anchored in his mid-riff. Crucially, he missed three times inside four feet.
In truth, it was his long game rather than his long putter that really let him down as he made nine bogeys and tapped for his only birdie of the day from three feet at the par-five 15th. Apart from an 11 footer for par at the 18th, the longest putt he had holed before that was a five footer for par at the third.
After watching Harrington hit just two fairways and one green in a six over par outward half of 42, AP golf reporter Doug Ferguson tweeted: “Strange to see R&A ambassador Padraig Harrington using a belly putter. He should try driving with it.”
Harrington quickly dismissed his ambassadorial role for the R&A - the real driving force behind the move to ban anchoring — as a contradictory element in his decision to swallow his pride and take a putting laboratory experiment onto the golf course this week.
In short, he takes his lead from Open champion Ernie Els who used a belly putter to win his fourth major at Royal Lytham last year.
“As long as it’s legal, I’ll keep cheating like the rest of them,” Els had joked.
“For the game, I definitely don’t agree with anchoring at all,” Harrington said after finally taking the step all good putters dread. “I think it’s bad for the game of golf. But I’m going to use everything if something’s going to help me for the next two and a half years [until the ban is official on 1 January 2016], I’m going to use it.
“It’s the same as the box grooves [ban]. It’s hurt me deeply having the box grooves banned, but I knew it wasn’t for the good of my game; it was the good of their game.”
Rejecting the belly putter at Augusta last year, where poor putting arguably cost him a chance to win the Masters, Harrington said: “I am against them. I don’t like the idea of attaching something to myself. I just doesn’t sit well with me.”
Yesterday, he explained his about turn and what must have been a painful decision. Indeed, despite his poor day on the greens, he plans to stick with the belly putter for the foreseeable future.
“I’ve been working hard on my putting stroke for a good while,” he said. “But the last month I’ve been with the putting lab device that measures your putting, so I’ve been working on that for a good while and my putting stroke has been coming around.
“I was bored last Monday week, and I was like, ‘Oh, I wonder what that looks like,’ and I was surprised to see everything was better. In terms of the mechanics, it was a far better stroke.
“It wasn’t very good today in terms of feel, but I will use it again tomorrow, no doubt. I just wasn’t quite as comfortable which I kind of knew was coming.
“Obviously, I’d still be lacking a bit of feel with it, but in terms of if you were to measure your putting stroke, everything is better with it.”
As for his role as an R&A “Working For Golf” Ambassador, Harrington sees no conflict.
“The R&A support the rules of golf, and it’s well within the rules,” he said. “If I hit it into the middle of the trees and I’m stuck behind it and I’m in trouble and I get free relief off the cart path, I’m going to take it, there is no doubt. So I’m 100% I don’t support the belly putter.”
His move will likely give the R&A and USGA another reason to justify the ban — it makes putting easier.
“I’m surprised,” Harrington said. “I had picked up the belly putter in the past and have always hated it, but when I put it on the analysis, everything came out better. So that encouraged me to get over the thought that I don’t like the feel of this. Because I accelerate better, and I do so many things better with it.”
Harrington’s 80 left him 13 strokes behind McIlroy, Ryan Moore, Nick Watney, Robert Garrigus, Derek Ernst, Daniel Summerhays and Monday qualifier Nate Smith on a course where the poor state of the greens has been the week’s biggest talking point.
The seven leaders posted five under 67s to lead by one from a group of six players including Boo Weekley and major winners Phil Mickelson, Zach Johnson and Lucas Glover.
McIlroy was arguably the most impressive of the lot, bashing seven drives over 300 yards in a round that featured a purple patch of six birdies in a seven holes - he made four in a row from the fifth and sandwiched back-to-back birdies at the 10th and 11th between birdies at the ninth and 12th.
The world No 2 had myriad chances to pick up shots coming home but failed to convert chances between five and 18 feet at the 15th, 16th and 17th before reducing the 18th to a 301 yard drive, a 162-yard approach and a nine foot putt.
“I just wanted to keep going,” McIlroy said of his mid-round birdie blitz on a course where he grabbed his maiden win in 2010 and finished second to Rickie Fowler last year.
After taking advantage of a rain-softened course and windless conditions in his first start since the Masters, he told the Golf Channel: “I played well, gave myself plenty of chances and I’m really happy with my day. I thought the scores this morning could have been a little lower than five under but it was definitely soft.
“I took two weeks off after Augusta and didn’t touch a club. I flew back to Florida last Friday and did some really good practice and feel good about my game. I knew that if I could take that from there to here then I’d do okay.”
Harrington, meanwhile, finished the day dead last as the only man in the 156-strong field who failed to break 80.
Yet with the anchoring ban not set to come into effect for another two years and seven months - Harrington miscalculated and set the date at three and a half years — he still had the good humour to crack a joke about his predicament.
“You know, three and a half years is a long time in golf, 15 majors. I could have Jack’s record by the end,” he said, prompting gales of laughter from a knot of reporters.
“Why do you laugh so loud at that?” Harrington enquired in mock horror.
“I’m just saying I don’t think you’re going to win the next 15,” a reporter replied. “13, maybe.”
“But you don’t have to laugh so deep — from your belly.”