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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

(continued from page 1)

Jack Nicklaus pushes the ball. Lee Trevino blocks it. Arnold Palmer powers it. Billy Casper wrists it. The South African Bobby Locke was the ultimate hook putter, bringing the club so far back inside that if he didn't "hook" it at impact (merely squaring up the face), the ball would have to go 10 feet to the right of its target. Locke was considered one of the best putters of all time, and he put forth an interesting notion: "All putts are straight putts." His idea was that in calculating the break of a putt, he aimed for the point where it would begin to turn, hitting the ball straight toward it. To Locke, that notion made all putts straight.

Trevino was fond of describing Nicklaus as the greatest streak putter of all time, a streak that lasted more than two decades. In winning his 18 major championships, Nicklaus had the ability to hole every important putt. He was probably the best putter from 10 to 15 feet who ever bent over a ball and looked just a little silly doing it. Nicklaus's putting style was decidedly his own. He used his right arm as a piston, bent at nearly a 90 degree angle. He pushed the putter with the palm of his right hand. You don't see anyone teaching the Nicklaus style, anyone emulating it. Nicklaus was the inspiration for many contemporary PGA Tour players, but they didn't want to putt like him.

"Jack had a style of his own and it worked for a hell of a long time," says Trevino. "But I couldn't putt like that. It doesn't fit my body, doesn't fit my eye. That's why putting is such a personal deal. I don't read putts like someone else reads putts. I don't see my line like other guys do. Heck, they have robots they use to test putters, same stroke every time, and they can't make them all."

You won't find even the greatest of players describing themselves as great putters. It's even difficult for their lips to form the word "good" when it comes to describing their putting ability. Players at the highest level expect to make every putt under 20 feet (well, maybe not at Augusta National), and when they don't, there is disappointment. But what sets the great putters apart is not only their ability to make putts, but also their understanding that they will miss them. "There's just so much that goes into making a putt, and obviously the farther away from the hole you are, the greater these factors become," says Pelz. "Great players are able to add up all these factors instinctively and that's why, even when they miss, they can come so close. Remember, it's not that you will make every putt, but it sure helps when you miss to have a tap-in coming back."

Pelz has gone so far as to describe 15 factors that go into successful putting, from the physical—aim, touch, green reading—to the mental—attitude, routine, ritual. Not that he would want you to be thinking about all of them as you lined up the crucial putt for a $5 Nassau with your Sunday morning group. One of the best all-time putters is Champions Tour player Dave Stockton, who wasn't much more than an adequate ball striker. Yet he could perform magic tricks worthy of a Las Vegas nightclub act with his putter, winning two PGA Championships during his prime. Putting was all very simple to Stockton.

While Pelz, in his clinics conducted at his Austin, Texas, base, will take you through all his personally researched elements of the good putting stroke, Stockton is likely to stick a tee in the green maybe 15 inches past a hole and tell you to make sure that you never go past the tee. "To me, it's all about getting the right pace on putts," says Stockton. "I don't try to ram the ball into the hole, because if you do and you miss, then you have a sizable putt coming back. If a ball dies around the hole, it has a chance to go in, and you don't have to worry about the second putt if it doesn't."

Stockton is one of the best examples of how willpower is the driving force of putting, how thinking you will make a putt increases your chances of doing so. "I always expect to make putts," says Stockton. "I'm always a little surprised when I don't." The science of the game is embodied in the 13 other clubs in your bag. The art is in the putter—make that the head of the putter. "There's no doubt that putting is a creative process, an art form," says Pelz. "There are technical aspects of the putting stroke that allow you to make a good stroke all the time, impart the proper force and get the ball rolling well. But there's a lot of creativity to reading greens and having the ability to see the putts going in before you've made the stroke. Not all players will read them quite the same. Just because a putt breaks left doesn't mean that every player will play for the same amount of break to the left. It depends on the pace of their putts. Everything is different about everybody. That's what make this game so fascinating."

A big part of the head game of putting is the choice of the deadly weapon itself. There has been an explosion in the variety of putters in the last 20 years. Once they were roughly divided into the blade and mallet head styles. Now you have putters with two balls trailing the face, putters that look like branding irons, putters with synthetic faces for such a soft feel that the ball seems like a bar of soap when you hit it. There are putters that come up to the belly and putters that come up to the chin.

Consider this: Arnold Palmer may have used as many as 2,000 putters in his career. He played head games with his putters and they played head games with him. Arnie has barrels of them, enough to stock golf stores from coast to coast. It wasn't unusual for him to change putters during a tournament, and more than once. By contrast, Tiger Woods has used just five putters over the last dozen years. When he began the 2004 season at the Mercedes Championships at Kapalua, he was using the same Scotty Cameron Titleist putter that he had been using since the 1999 Byron Nelson Classic. "I don't change very often," said Woods. "I know if I'm not making putts, it's a good chance it's me and not the putter."

Which is both true and not true, depending on the state of your head. "The weight of a putter is important to your ability to feel the putt, and the face and head are important to your ability to align it and strike it properly," says Pelz. "And that's different for every person."

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