From Touring Pros to Weekend Hackers, Rolling the Ball into the Hole Is More Art than Science
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"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.
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."
Bernhard Langer missed the single most important putt of the late twentieth century on the 18th hole of the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island. The 1991 Ryder Cup had come down to his singles match with Hale Irwin, the last match of the competition. Irwin had missed the green to the right, chipped poorly, and then putted to within a foot. Langer conceded the putt for a bogey. Langer had a 45-footer for birdie that he ran six feet past the hole. If he makes the six-footer for par, Europe wins the Ryder Cup. If he misses for bogey, the match is halved and the United States wins the Cup. With hearts pounding and lungs idling worldwide, Langer's putt fell off to the right just short of the hole. "The sphincter factor was high on that one," is how Irwin would describe it later.
Only Langer's substantial inner constitution kept him from going batty over putting. He tried everything: putters, stances, grips. He finally came up with a long-handled putter that he held tight to his left rib cage, and in 1993 he won the Masters for a second time.
Then there's Doug Sanders. You may remember him as one of the most flamboyant characters in the game, and, sober, he could also golf his ball pretty well. People remember him for his peacock clothing, for having 30 different colors of slacks with 30 different shoes to match, and enough sweaters to insulate the Vatican. But if you remember anything about his golf game, it's the 30-inch putt he missed on the 18th green of the Old Course at St. Andrews in the 1970 British Open. He needed that par putt to win. As his putter was about to strike the ball, however, his body seemed to go into spasm. He all but lunged forward, staggering as if he had just finished off his 15th pint. The ball never had a chance. The bogey dropped him into a tie with Jack Nicklaus, who won a playoff the next day. After winning 19 PGA tournaments, Sanders would win only one more, in 1972. His putting got the worst of him. "That's the putt that everybody remembers," Sanders often says. "That's the putt I remember, too."
You will remember the putt that won Phil Mickelson the Masters this year. He made a number of brilliant shots along the way, but it was the putt on the 18th that put a green jacket on his shoulders and took the monkey off his back in major tournaments. That's the thing about putting. It's the last thing we do before we sign the scorecard, just like the pros. It's the one thing we have in common with them, the ability to say, "If I could have just made a few more putts…"
Jeff Williams is a sportswriter for Newsday on Long Island.