Dermot Gilleece: Mystery of putting divides and confounds
No other aspect of golf has elicited more theories and methods
It wasn't difficult to imagine the crushing disappointment for Pádraig Harrington and Darren Clarke in South Africa last weekend, when careful close-season preparation was undone by dismal putting in their first tournament of the new year. Getting the infernal pill into the hole remains golf's great conundrum.
While Harrington yearned for sadly departed trust and confidence, his slimline colleague couldn't seem to see the line. And, worst of all, Clarke kept missing the ones back.
For many, it is an area of the game which seems to defy reason. Arnold Palmer probably captured the challenge best when he remarked: "Putting is like wisdom -- partly a natural gift and partly the accumulation of experience". Small wonder that when asked to explain how he four-putted the short 16th in the 1986 US Masters, Seve Ballesteros memorably replied: "I miss the putt; I miss the putt; I miss the putt; I make."
Despite significant changes in the quality and speed of greens over the decades, there remain two basic approaches to putting -- the 'dying ball' and the 'hit-it-in-the-back-of-the-hole' method. In theory, the first of these gives you four ways of entering the 4.25-inch hole -- front, back, left side and right side -- whereas the only entrance for the other method is the front of the cup.
The game's first great putter Bobby Jones was an advocate of the dying ball, as were Bobby Locke and Harry Bradshaw. And Sam Snead once remarked in exasperation about Locke: "I could beat him 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 halfway he'd be tipping his hat to the crowd. He wore out his hats tipping them."
Meanwhile, three-time Open champion Henry Cotton described The Brad as "the only top-grade golfer who looks at the ball on the green, keeps his head down and listens for it to drop". That was the era of tap-putting on relatively slow greens, where the clubhead was taken back in a short arc and the ball was struck sharply before the stroke stopped about three or four inches past the position at address. Nowadays, the emphasis is on smooth acceleration.
Reading greens, however, has always been a crucial part of the process and has led players to explore the 'Plumb Line' method which seems to lack widespread appeal, perhaps because it requires patience and application rather than offering an instant remedy.
Legendary scribe Henry Longhurst once wrote of it: "I cheerfully admit to being at a loss to know what the dickens those golfers are up to, so commonly seen on the telly, even among the ranks of the mighty who shut one eye and dangle their putters in front of them in order, allegedly, to detect the line to the hole."
Longhurst went on to ask: "How can the line of sight, through the air, possibly indicate what goes on on the ground? For all the putter-shaft knows, there may be no ground at all between the ball and the pin. There might be one vast crevasse; or a waterfall; or a ski slope. Yet the people who swear by this method of telling the line to the hole are no fools." Indeed not. Joe Carr, for instance, won quite a few of his 40 important amateur championships with the aid of plumb-line putting. So, how is it done?
Patiently, Carr explained to me the need, first of all, to determine which is your stronger eye. Then, standing a few feet behind the ball, you dangle the putter freely between thumb and forefinger while getting a straight line between eye, ball and hole. You then move the club until the ball is obscured. After that, you look towards the top part of the shaft and if it passes to the left of the hole, the putt breaks right. If it passes to the right, the putt breaks left.
"The first person I saw using it was Gary Player, who showed me how it worked," said Carr. "I found it to be a wonderful help, especially on strange greens and I have since taught it to anyone who was interested." One of Carr's outstanding pupils was Kilkenny's Páraic O'Rourke, whose place among the country's finest putters was reflected in three South of Ireland Championship victories.
"Joe taught me when he was Irish team captain, more than 30 years ago," said O'Rourke, who still putts well, off three handicap. "I swear by it, particularly on raised greens which can create an optical illusion."
But what of those players whom we see on television holding a putter firmly in front of them and then looking along it with serious intent? "I don't know what those guys are doing," said O'Rourke. The dominant putting topic of the moment, of course, is the so-called anchor ban which comes into effect at the beginning of 2016. And while tournament professionals are accepting the inevitable, their brethren at club level are being called upon to intervene on behalf of rank and file amateurs.
So it is that at their annual meeting on February 8, the USGA will have a request from the PGA of America to consider a 'grandfather period' before the broomhandle ban is enforced for 'recreational amateurs'. In a letter to PGA members, president Ted Bishop points out that when a groove change was introduced in 2009, the USGA permitted a 15-year transition period for amateurs.
"We believe our request for a 'grandfather period' can further assist you, the PGA professional, in transitioning recreational golfers who do anchor, to the approved method," Bishop told his members.
Finally, I give you, in order, the five greatest putters I have ever observed: Tiger Woods, Ballesteros, Jack Nicklaus, Harrington and Nick Faldo.