Back in the mid-1980s, Dave Pelz patented an odd-looking putter with three white golf-ball-size domes lined up directly behind the clubface. His efforts to gain USGA approval for the club, however, were rebuffed. "I wrote letters, but the only explanation I got was that the putter was not 'plain in shape,'" he says. "They acknowledged it was subjective."
Though Pelz has since achieved fame as a teaching guru, back then he was a struggling designer; the USGA's recalcitrance put him under. ("It was probably the best thing that ever happened to me," he admits.) Pelz's spurned putter went into a drawer—until 1998, when Callaway Golf came calling with a proposal to license his design. Pelz negotiated a lump payment, and the three-ball morphed into the 2-Ball.
How did Callaway get the 2-Ball approved?With a few key changes to Pelz's design (two balls instead of three, flat discs instead of domes) and by working with the USGA and the R&A to meet the "plain in shape" standard. The USGA's Dick Rugge denies there has been any change as to what constitutes a plain-looking club—"at least not consciously," he says. But it's undeniable that the success of the 2-Ball has opened the floodgates to putters that, at the very least, are nontraditional in shape.
SCOTTY CAMERON BY TITLEIST FUTURA
Phil Mickelson was among the first to use this doozy on Tour, and Scott Hoch won with it at Doral. The appeal of the Futura ($285), except perhaps to fans of old sci-fi movies, is not in its appearance. Even Hoch said it looked like "a potato masher." Rather, it's the feeling of rear-weighted stability and the preponderance of alignment cues—the heavy half ring at the back, the three holes in the center channel, the shaft that visually melds with the leading edge at address—that all seem to be pointing to the cup and whispering, "You can't miss." Although the USGA approved the Futura's design last year, the R&A needed until February of this year to come around to the point of view that the putter was "plain in shape." Made from aluminum and steel with tungsten weights. Call 888-324-4766 or visit scottycameron.com.
ODYSSEY DFX 2-BALL
Building on the success of its White Hot 2-Ball, Odyssey (a division of Callaway) now offers center-shafted, midlength and long versions of the original, as well as the DFX 2-Ball ($215), the only 2-Ball model with the company's Stronomic insert, which feels and sounds much firmer compared with the white-urethane inserts of the other 2-Balls. The DFX model also comes with a darker finish to the stainless steel, which reduces glare in bright conditions and puts the two alignment discs in sharper relief. Otherwise, the DFX is a dupe of the original, whose extreme popularity (one of every four putters sold in the U.S. is a White Hot 2-Ball, according to Callaway) primarily stems from golfers' ability to line up putts squarely using the two discs and the putter's low center of gravity, which helps in curtailing backspin. Call 800-228-2767 or visit callawaygolf.com.
NIKE GOLF BLUE CHIP OZ MALLET
In the new field of large-headed nontraditional putters, Nike wins the beauty prize with its BC Oz Mallet ($159). The Oz is one of three Blue Chip models from Nike Golf that mark the company's debut in putters. All feature blue inserts made from an especially soft grade of aluminum, imparting a cushy, unmuffled feel to putts. In the looks department the heel-toe and midmallet models are merely standard, whereas the Oz is sleek and curvaceous. True, sticking out of your bag, it might also be mistaken for an antenna, but these putters aren't for everyone. At address the Oz's D-shaped head—made with a lightweight aluminum front portion and a heavier, stainless-steel ring at the rear—lies naturally flat on the ground and sets up easily. The look, feel and alignment features of the putter would seem to favor those with an instinctual, rather than a mechanical, putting style. Call 800-922-6453 or visit nikegolf.com.
BOBBY GRACE AMAZING GRACE MOI
With his latest putter, designer Bobby Grace sought to maximize forgiveness on off-center putts, as measured by the degree of MOI (moment of inertia). To do this he built a triangular framework of lightweight aluminum with a weighted plug at the very rear. The Amazing Grace MOI ($250) that resulted is a marvelous putting contraption. The golf-ball-cover-like insert gives soft, excellent feedback, and putts hit even far out on the toe or the heel roll surprisingly straight. We were a little put off by the many odd angles of the superstructure, which cast distracting shadow patterns that changed during the stroke. Also available in belly ($290) and long ($345) lengths. Call 727-572-9165 or visit bobbygraceputters.com.
BEN HOGAN BY BETTINARDI BIG BEN
After an almost-ten-year absence, Ben Hogan reenters the putter business with the introduction of numerous models, both traditional in appearance and non, designed by Bob Bettinardi, the formerly independent putter maker known for his precision engineering and high-end elegance. The most striking of these is the Big Ben ($270), a sculpted hourglass design with "beehive" holes bored through the milled, aluminum-block head. The holes push more of the clubhead's total weight away from the face, improving stability at impact. As with all the Hogan by Bettinardi putters, a jeweler's tool creates a face with a patented Honeycomb finish void of any measurable concavity. The Big Ben appears a bit bulky at address but feels light in hand. Also available in belly and long (both $300). Call 800-772-5346 or visit benhogan.com.
Pixl Golf president Art Chou likens his club-design process to "putting a new engine in an old chassis." In the case of the new Pixl S4 Irons ($850 steel shafts; $1,050 graphite), the chassis is a forgiving clubhead that should remind some of the popular Ping Eye2 Irons, and the engine consists of between 175 and 200 hexagonal cylinders, or pixels, implanted into the clubface. The theory behind the pixels is that at impact each rebounds independently, like the individual coils of a mattress, resulting in less lost distance on off-center hits compared with traditional clubfaces. Also, since the titanium pixels are stronger but lighter than steel, more of the clubhead's total weight can be pushed to the perimeter, further enhancing forgiveness. It may sound a bit gimmicky, but Pixl's putters and wedges have proven very popular, and we certainly liked the solid feel of these irons. Call 888-474-9546 or visit pixlgolf.com.
Ecco, the high-end Danish footwear company known for its unusually comfortable and cushiony shoes and boots, quietly rolled out its first golf products in 2001. But the company waited until this year to open the spigots into the American market big-time—in part because it wanted to get things right. The new Ecco Casual Saddle GTX ($180) qualifies as right. Completely waterproof thanks to its smooth, specially treated, full-grain leather uppers and a breathable Gore-Tex membrane, the shoe impresses most with its stability. A sturdy heel contour matched with a foot-conforming insole and the strong but supple leather keep the foot snugly in place. As designer Per Aagren puts it, "The Ecco story is not one of comfort but rather the absence of discomfort." Walking four rounds in two days with these shoes, we found Aagren's comfort comments to be true, if not an understatement. Call 800-886-3226 or visit ecco.com.
For the swing nerd in all of us, the Player's Image ($79.95) is one satisfying tool. Essentially it's a mirrored board painted with alignment aids. With your feet on one side of the board and your ball on the other, you peer down into the mirror to check your head, hand and shoulder positions both at address and at various points during the take-away and downswing. After viewing the included how-to video featuring Rick Smith, you will finally comprehend such terms as "laid off" and "in the slot" and be able to see these flaws in your own swing—and even correct them! We found practicing with the Player's Image to be fun and highly instructive. Available in right- or left-hand, in three sizes, depending on height. Call 866-549-4900 or visit playersimage.com.