Thursday 21 September 2017

One hit wonders can't hold a candle to modern breed of power players

Successful golfers need the right blend of driving, approach play and putting, writes Dermot Gilleece

'Though much was made of some remarkably long driving from Day, notably an effort of 382 yards on the long 11th, he was the best putter last Sunday’
'Though much was made of some remarkably long driving from Day, notably an effort of 382 yards on the long 11th, he was the best putter last Sunday’

Dermot Gilleece

A significant milestone was reached at Whistling Straits last Sunday in a controversial issue which has troubled golf's legislators for 30 years. Though the last 11 Major winners, including newly-crowned PGA champion Jason Day, have all putted conventionally, this was the last occasion when anchored strokes were permitted at this level prior to a rule change in January.

The number 11 refers to the total of Majors to have been played since May 21, 2013 when an anchor ban, incorporated into Rule 14-1b, was announced by the R&A and the US Golf Association. After some theatrical stalling, the PGA of America endorsed the change a month later.

Four notable 'anchormen' to have pre-empted change were Keegan Bradley (2011 PGA), Webb Simpson (2012 US Open), Ernie Els (2012 Open Championship) and Adam Scott (2013 US Masters).

In the wake of a thrilling finale to the PGA, an American television pundit noted the impending rule change with the observation: "Nobody has got better since changing back [to the conventional method]."

This may be true of specific American practitioners but is certainly not the case for Ireland's Des Smyth, who achieved his greatest tournament successes after temporarily abandoning the broomhandle. It happened during the 2005 season on America's Champions Tour, where Smyth decided on a change back to a conventional putter with a variation of the so-called claw or saw grip.

"It was definitely a significant factor in my win," he recalled of a breakthrough victory in the SBC Classic in California on March 13 of that year. He then employed the same method for an even bigger victory in the highly-regarded Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf Tournament in Savannah a month later.

Remarkably, he switched back to the broomhandle, with which he tied for the Senior British Open at Royal Aberdeen the following July, only to lose a play-off to no less a figure in the game than Tom Watson. Smyth then went on to complete the 2005 season with victory in the European Seniors Tour Championship in Bahrain. "I just didn't feel comfortable with my putting in Savannah, so I changed the following week," was his simple explanation.

What we're talking about here is essentially mind over matter, which affects putting more than any other aspect of the game. Though a number of the earlier professionals were forced into premature retirement from tournament play because of putting problems, full-time practitioners who came on the scene about 60 years ago felt compelled to seek solutions to their woes.

So it was that in 1965, a US patent for a body-pivot putter was issued to Richard T Parmley. And in January 1985, Johnny Miller unveiled a 48-inch long version of the implement which he rested against his left forearm when being tied 50th in the Los Angeles Open.

The most crucial development, however, occurred in February 1986 when Charlie Owens, a US army paratrooper turned professional golfer, won the Treasure Coast Classic on the Senior Tour using his own creation, a 52-inch putter anchored to his sternum. The following year, Miller won the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am with his long putter, and in July 1989, Orville Moody famously won the US Senior Open using a 50-inch putter tucked against his chest, just under the chin. The genie was well and truly out of the bottle.

All of which was effectively relegated into ancient history by the quality of the conventional putting we witnessed last weekend. Though much was made of some remarkably long driving from Day, notably an effort of 382 yards on the long 11th, he was, in fact, the best putter in action last Sunday, with 3.2 strokes gained on the remainder of the field.

This statistical exercise essentially measures the quality of a golf shot, as in one with positive strokes gained, based on a better-than-average shot for a PGA Tour professional. Suppose the PGA Tour average score for a difficult par-four is, say, 4.2, an average drive would reduce by one the average strokes to hole out, from 4.2 to 3.2. But if a player hit a long drive onto the fairway, where the tour average strokes to hole out were 2.9, then the gain would be 0.3 strokes compared to the tour average. Still with me?

On this basis, Jordan Spieth's wedge play delivered an advantage of two strokes per round on the field, from short-game shots alone. But Day was a far more dominant performer, beating the field by an average of 5.4 strokes per round, or 21.6 strokes for the tournament, rather than the 3.7 strokes per round or 15 strokes per tournament by which a PGA Tour winner typically beats the field. Last weekend, Spieth's advantage over the field of 4.6 strokes per round, or 18.4 strokes for the tournament, would normally have been good enough to win, but not on this occasion.

It came as no surprise to learn that Day's dominance stemmed from the strength of his driving and approach shots. He led the field in strokes gained driving, achieving an advantage of nearly two strokes per round on the field with the big stick. He was ranked second in strokes gained from approach-shots and led the field in putting in a final round of 67.

So, unlike 2004 Whistling Straits winner Vijay Singh, whose success was based essentially on long driving and precise irons, Day's driving, iron-play and putting were all of the highest quality. Which is what we get from Rory McIlroy, when at the peak of his powers. And as Day proved last weekend, the productive putting stroke reigns supreme, testing as it does both nerve and skill.

I remember when discussing with Pádraig Harrington the notion of selecting players for a penalty shoot-out in soccer, he said: "What you want are five guys who are trying to score, rather than five guys who are trying not to miss." He added: "By the same token, good putters are trying to get the ball in the hole, whereas bad putters are trying not to miss."

Sam Snead emphasised the value of good putting when reflecting late in his life on numerous duels with Bobby Locke. "I didn't win too many of them," he said ruefully. "I could beat him down from tee to green, 15 times out of 18, and still lose. He was the greatest putter I have ever seen in my life. He'd hit a 20-footer and before the ball got half way, he'd be tipping his hat to the crowd. He wore out his hats tipping them."

For his part, Spieth has brought hope to the game's average players, not least by the fact of becoming the youngest after Tiger Woods to be crowned world number one. By his own admission, his best wasn't good enough this time around, but you can't help picturing many occasions down the line when it will see him home - comfortably.

Meanwhile, the notion that you drive for show and putt for dough, often attributed to Snead, gained a new dimension last weekend. On being asked if he had put a little bit extra into an effort of 402 yards which he hammered past the target at the 400-yard 13th, Bubba Watson replied: "Nah. Just a 100 per cent driver I guess you could say."

The bold Bubba's clearly no show-off.

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