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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 2)

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.

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