REARDON: Searching In The Dark
ST. LOUIS (KMOX) — I did something unusual for me a week ago. I bought a new golf club. That may not sound out of the ordinary in a sport where changing equipment is like changing socks to some. But for me it was the first purchase of a ‘new’ club in more than thirty years. Then again this isn’t going to be about my new club – a trendy white Taylor Made Rocketbalz driver. It is about the previous purchase.
On a weekend stay with my then fiancée at Lincolnshire outside Chicago I saw a putter I liked on the rack, and after rolling in a monster putt on the practice green, I added my Ping Eye 52 to my bag. It has been there ever since, and barring forgetfulness, it will be there in the future. Then again this discussion isn’t about my vintage putter. It is instead about the art of putting and the current tools of the trade.
Quickly answer this question. Who is the best putter in the game today? Or even tougher, who do you rank as the top five? Statistically, using the PGA Tour’s new strokes gained putting, number one is Zach Johnson, with Aaron Baddeley, Brandt Snedeker, Luke Donald and Ben Curtis rounding out the field. Are any of these players, good though they may be, historic putters? Would you include them in the conversation with Bobby Locke, Billy Casper, or Ben Crenshaw? My answer is an emphatic “No!”
At the recent Open Championship, won by a belly putter over a sternum putter, the conversation from Peter Dawson of the R&A suggested the days of the long, anchored putters are definitely numbered. I staked out a position against anchoring over a year ago in this space, and I am flattered the leading minds in the rules of the game are joining that position. But this discussion isn’t even about anchored putters. I would argue they are symptoms, not the disease.
I think the disease is the art of putting is a dying art in the game. Its demise is puzzling given the foundation of the scorecard is built around the putt. Par is arrived at by the inclusion of two putts on a green. It is where scoring begins and ends.
Short game expert Dave Pelz has killed a forest of trees over the years publishing books on what it takes to be a master on the greens. I once asked him if putting is sensitive to age or strength or any of the usual separation physical gifts so common in sport. His answer was a good short game, including putting, is within the physical reach of any normal human being.
Yet here we have the greatest practitioners of golf unable to generate a single member of their ranks who will be respected as a great putter for years to come. And why? Just look in the bags.
Golf has been overrun by technology, and we all have benefitted for the most part. Forgiving irons, giant drivers like my hoped for new white savior, balls that launch like two tiered rockets have made the game more acceptable to the gifted and the average. My three decades old Ping was the progeny of the genius of Karsten Solheim who figured out toe-heel balance like never before and forever changed the game.
We have traveled a long way since that first chiming Ping. Putters today have three balls, two balls and milled faces. We have heads that look like mockups of Klingon space craft. Every conceivable and exotic concept seems to have made it onto the greens. I sat on a shuttle bus at the U.S. Open while an innovator whispered on his cell phone about glowing reactions to a prototype putter he had teased to players during the week. He told his accomplice on the other end that his biggest concern was getting the new club to the market before an enterprising competitor copied his breakthrough and solved the mystery of mastering the short grass. Another fad gadget for the ranks of the desperate.
If I had a grandson, and I was starting him the game, I would give him my old Bullseye putter from my basement rafters and demand that he use nothing else for at least the first three years of learning the game. No toe-heel. No branding irons. No sighting fans tails. Certainly no crutch length putters pivoting off his body. I would show him how to dangle the club gently from his fingers and tap the head to find the sweet spot where the club doesn’t turn. I would tell him find a stroke that makes that club work for him and lock it in for life.
Billy Casper told me a few years back that he became a good putter for life, because as a young boy he used to spend his final hours on a local golf course putting well into the darkness. He learned to feel what a good putt felt like even when he couldn’t see the result. It may not have been a Bullseye he used to develop his mastery, but it most certainly was a putter that posted a grade for him on every stroke.
Today, that sensation has been innovated away. Today, we don’t see players developing the ability to hit the sweet spot. We see them ‘shopping’ for an implement that will deliver that result regardless of the preciseness of their stroke. I don’t for minute doubt the new toys deliver a truer impact every time, but it is an ill-gotten gain.
I have a friend who covers golf for Sports Illustrated and is one of the finest golfers in the writing ranks. Whenever we talk about his game he updates me on the latest evolution of his attempts to solve his putting woes. He has changed clubs. He has gone left hand low. He has gone claw. He has gone belly. He has gone sternum “with” the claw. Whenever we have this conversation, I always joke that he’s running out of places to go. I should have gotten the number of that guy on the shuttle bus. Or maybe just told him about Billy in the dark.
Dan Reardon is Golf Editor at KMOX in St. Louis. He can be heard throughout the week on America’s Sports Voice.