Augusta greens a true test of your nerve and skill
Graeme McDowell tells Dermot Gilleece about the importance of putting at Augusta
It's not often you hear a tournament professional enthuse about a stroke with the blade as "the prettiest putt." But that was how Ben Crenshaw, in irrepressible form, described a 15-footer for birdie on the 71st green in 1995 when he captured the Masters for a second time.
Since then, the greatest putter to tread the hallowed turf of Augusta National has passed on his priceless wisdom to Graeme McDowell (pictured), who is set to make a third Masters challenge having been tied 17th last year.
The most feared element of Augusta is unquestionably its sloping greens, where speed is the key. And to emphasise their pursuit of the most treacherous surfaces imaginable, Augusta officials experimented in 1978 with changing the greens on their par-three course to bentgrass, which most experts believed couldn't survive so far south.
But they made it work. And in the autumn of 1980, the Bermuda greens of the Masters course were replaced by considerably slicker bentgrass surfaces. The effect was to raise the winning aggregate of 1981 by five strokes over the previous year and by nine strokes in 1982.
In the way of things, however, competitors adjusted and aggregates came tumbling down once more. Yet it is interesting that only three players won on both surfaces -- Tom Watson in 1977 and 1981, Seve Ballesteros in 1980 and 1983 and Jack Nicklaus, who gained the last of his six Masters titles in 1986. Modern agronomy and machinery have resulted in green speeds probably twice as quick as in Ben Hogan's era, 60 years ago. Indeed Augusta's slopes are so severe that simply the touch of the putter-blade could send the ball careering yards past the target. Which prompted me to ask Nicklaus if putting of this nature actually constituted a golfing stroke in the strict meaning of the term. Typically, his answer was unequivocal.
"Certainly," he said. "Putting should be as much a test of nerve as of skill." The extent to which these greens tear at a player's nerves, was probably best exemplified in the gathering gloom of an April Sunday evening in 1989, when Scott Hoch faced a 30-inch winning putt on the first play-off hole.
Seeing him bend to remove something from the line, Crenshaw, who was watching the drama on television in the clubhouse, recognised the danger. "Jesus! Hit it!" he screamed. But hesitant Hoch was beyond help and eventually missed, opening the door for Nick Faldo's first triumph. Augusta's notorious greens had claimed yet another victim.
On his Masters debut in 2005, McDowell had Crenshaw as one of his playing partners. "It highlighted for me how far my short game had to advance before I could become a major winner," he said with admirable candour.
"With four three-putts, I was eight over after my opening 10 holes, which was a real shock to the system. Faced with severe pins, I really struggled with the pace of the greens and shot a 79. The problem was 50 per cent technical and 50 per cent mental.
"So I was grateful for advice afterwards from Ben Crenshaw. He's got the silkiest putting stroke I've ever seen and he pointed out a few things in my putting that he would like to see me improve on. Mainly a set-up issue; pushing my hands more forward at address.
"I remember early on the back nine of the second round saying that he'd have to show me how to putt those greens. His response was to point out how everything broke towards Rae's Creek (the stream which flows at the back of the 11th and in front of the 12th green and 13th tee)."
By way of preparation for this week, McDowell has been sharpening his putting at Isleworth, close to his home in Orlando, where the greens are "especially quick". "As close to the lightning pace of Augusta as you're likely to find," he added.
He also had 36 holes at Augusta last week before taking a few days' rest ahead of the big event. "It's obviously very special," he concluded. "You never see bad players winning the Masters."