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The Cruelest Part of the Game

From Touring Pros to Weekend Hackers, Rolling the Ball into the Hole Is More Art than Science
Jeff Williams
From the Print Edition:
Sharon Stone, July/Aug 2004

"Prayer never seems to work for me on the golf course. I think this has something to do with me being a terrible putter." —The Reverend Billy Graham

Putting seems too simple. Getting a golf ball airborne, with the proper trajectory and correct compass heading, is the most difficult aspect of the game. Striking the ball is the athletic part of golf, the coordination of arms, shoulders, wrists, hands, hips and legs to impart force to a ball and launch it toward an area of closely mown grass marked by a handkerchief waving from a tall rod.

And then there's putting, which requires about as much athleticism as rolling over in bed. Less, actually.

But putting is the cruelest part of the game. A three-inch putt counts as much as a 300-yard drive. Two putts from five feet added to two strokes from a quarter of a mile make a total of four. You're a chop when you can't hit a wedge 100 yards; you're a chump when you can't make an eight-footer. Most of us would rather be a chop than a chump, because from 100 yards you have excuses. From eight feet you are just pathetic.

Did you know that Ben Hogan, one of the game's all-time greats, once suggested that putting count less than full strokes? He was being serious, as Hogan always was about golf. In Hogan's classic book, Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf, written with Herbert Warren Wind, Hogan did not see fit to count putting as fundamental. The small, beautifully illustrated book dissects the Hogan swing in all its elemental glory. Nowhere is he sketched hunched over, muscles on idle, brain on addle, about to roll a ball. To Hogan, golf was about sending a ball through the air, not about rolling it across the ground, so he just ignored it. But just like every 36-handicapper, he had to add his putts into his final score.

Hogan would not have won nine major championships without being a very good putter. That didn't mean he had to feel good about putting; it was just something he had to do after playing his immaculate shots. As with all great champions, like Jack Nicklaus, Sam Snead, Byron Nelson, Walter Hagen, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Lee Trevino and Tiger Woods, Hogan hit the ball close enough to that four-and-a-quarter-inch-diameter hole in the green to increase his chances of making his putts. No part of golf causes greater consternation, depression and self-deprecation than the inability to roll a ball into a hole. The wondrously named Ky Laffoon from Zinc, Arkansas, was a professional golfer of note in the middle part of the twentieth century who was equal parts talent and out-of-control temper. He was a great character who loved canary yellow slacks and matching shoes. He was good enough to play the PGA Tour, win a few tournaments in the 1930s and contend in a couple of majors. But his putting would often get the best of him, bringing out his worst. Missed putts inflamed his legendary temper. He just couldn't stand it when he missed a makeable putt, an attitude you might decipher when you understand that his nickname for any of his putters was "my son-of-bitch."

His anger was such that he would violently abuse his putter, or himself. After a particularly bad bout of choke-and-puke putting in a tournament, Laffoon drove to the next event with the putter tied to the rear bumper of the car. Another time, after missing a short putt, he threw his putter in the air, positioned himself underneath its downward flight and, instead of catching it, allowed it to hit him in the head. He once became so enraged at missing a short putt that he slugged himself in the chin, knocking himself out.

Former touring pro Tommy Valentine, driving from one event to another in Florida, held his putter out the car window and cursed at it. Then he threw it into a swamp. "I wanted it to suffer a little before I killed it," said Valentine. Current touring pro Mark Calcavecchia once threw his putter in a water hazard after missing a short putt and finished out his round putting with an iron. "It had to die," was Calcavecchia's explanation. Putting does this to grown men. "Putting is something that is very easy to do, but not easy to do well," says Dave Pelz, a man who has made his career out of teaching putting and the short game. "It's much easier to do than hit a golf ball 200 yards. Therefore, the expectation level of success is higher. But the fact is, there are a lot of variables that go into making a putt, and if you get one wrong, you don't make it. But because you really expect to make it, it gets frustrating."

The simple fact about putting is this: you could take someone who has never played the game, never considered playing it, never once held a club in his hands, give him a 30-second primer on the basic putting stroke, line him up for a 20-foot putt, and he would have a chance to make it. Take that same person, put him in a fairway 150 yards from the green, give him the same basic lesson for a full swing, and he would have almost no chance of hitting the green. Tiger Woods would have a thousand times better chance of hitting the green from 150 yards, but only four or five times better chance of holing the putt.

When they speak of golf being a six-inch game played between the ears, mostly they are talking about putting. At any one time, a player will tell you that he can't hit a driver, that his middle-iron play is impossible, that he can't play sand shots, all because his head won't let him. Yet at the end of the day, what is the one phrase uttered commonly by chops and by pros: "If only I could make a few putts…"

"It's a mental thing, putting, mainly," says Ernie Els, one of the top five players in the world right now. "You've got to get over the fear of not making a putt, just maybe not giving a damn, play like you used to play when you were a kid." That sometimes takes a while. Consider an 83-year-old who came to Pelz for lessons. "He had played all his life and had always blamed his putting for not being a better player," says Pelz. "The putting surface is not perfect. The putting surface is continually changing. People don't understand that, but it's the nature of the game. When he understood the green is not a perfect surface, it relieved him; that he, personally, was not responsible for every putt he missed. Then he went out and won a tournament."

Putting is the most intensely personal aspect of golf. Swings may differ, but good swings don't differ by a lot. Jim Furyk's loop-dee-loop is an aberration but it won him a U.S. Open. At least it put him in position to win the U.S. Open at Olympia Fields last year. He finished off the job with his crosshanded putting style, his left hand below his right on the grip. Conventional putting has the right hand below the left on the grip for a right-handed player, but then there is nothing particularly conventional about putting. If you were to line up the great players through the ages on a practice green, you might be amazed at their different approaches to the putting stroke. Jack Nicklaus doesn't look anything like Arnold Palmer who doesn't look anything like Billy Casper who doesn't look anything like Gary Player who doesn't look anything like Bobby Jones. And remember that Sam Snead, who possessed one of the most beautiful classic swings of all time—one that any player would like to emulate—ended his career by putting ugly, using a "sidesaddle" putting stroke after the United States Golf Association outlawed his croquet-style approach.

Players use push strokes, pop strokes, wrist strokes, pendulum strokes, hook strokes, cut strokes and any combination thereof. And how they stroke the ball has an effect on how they line it up. Tiger Woods has a classic pendulum stroke, a back and forth motion with the impetus coming chiefly from the shoulders. He'll never forget when he played his first round of golf with Ben Crenshaw, who is considered to be one of the best putters of all time. Crenshaw combines a pendulum stroke with what is a called a hook motion.

"Linn Strickler was caddying for him and they were reading the putt, and I had exactly the same line from about 10 feet," recalls Woods. "Linn tells Ben, 'Outside of the right edge.' I swore it was not outside the hole. He made it. I look at the putt and say, 'It's inside the hole. I don't know where [Linn] saw this.' But Ben's one of the best putters ever. I said, 'OK, if [Linn] said it was outside right, then it must be. I missed it outside right. Linn came up to me on the next hole and said, 'Whenever you hear us read putts, don't listen, because he hooks every putt. I've seen him hit so many putts that I read them that way for him.' "

When Steve Williams left Raymond Floyd to caddie for Woods, he had to get used to Woods's putting style, which is taking the putter straight back and straight through the ball. Sounds simple enough, but not all strokes are that simple. Floyd "cut" the ball with his putting stroke, taking the putter back outside the line and coming back inside, as opposed to the hook stroke with the putter coming back inside and moving to the outside.


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