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Sunday, 19 July 2015

Short Putts

Putting was once again a big part of the story at the Open this year.  It usually is.  In fact, this year's Open may be remembered as much for the number of makeable putts that were missed, as it will be for long putts made.  That is a bit of a shame, but that's golf.  That should also in no way deter from Zach Johnson's victory.  He went out there and won it, and he deserves all the credit in the world.

Putting can drive you nuts.  I've had times when I could have happily quit the game, I was so disgusted and demoralized by my poor putting, especially on the short putts.  I've never been officially "diagnosed" with the yips, but I've been afflicted with nerves bad enough that the shortest of putts have sometimes looked impossible to make, and often were.  I still occasionally have that little internal flinch, that momentary queasy feeling, when I hit one stiff for a birdie, or chip one close to save par, because experience has taught me that they're almost all missable, and I hate to miss putts I know I really should make.  I often think I'd rather have a six footer for birdie than a three footer.  Doesn't make a lick of sense, I know, but I also know from bitter experience that missing a three footer feels much worse than missing a six footer.  That's just how messed up I still am.  

I am putting much better now, having found that putting looking at the hole is very helpful for someone in my condition.  It was Bob Rotella, not Jordan Spieth, that turned me on to looking at the hole, and I'd recommend it to anyone.  I suspect Jordan Spieth's success using that method on his short putts will have everybody trying it, although Jordan would likely admit that his putting let him down this week. 

I couldn't help but notice that Spieth doesn't look at the hole on all his short putts.  I have to wonder whether he wouldn't do better to always do it, rather than changing it up depending on how he's feeling.  I also observed that Louis Oosthuizen got himself in the hunt at the Open, putting exceptionally well on Sunday, looking at the hole.  But, he went back to looking at the ball in the final round, missing some key putts down the stretch.  I think, once the round is underway you have to pick your poison and stick with it in golf.  You've already got more than enough to worry about when standing over a putt, with speed, and line, and sometimes grain, without trying to decide whether or not to look at the hole as well.

They say only good players get the yips.  However, whoever they are, they might have been afflicted themselves and were just trying to make themselves feel better.  It is true, however, that the yips tend to afflict better players.  A friend of mine, who once won four club championships in five years, is now so rattled by short putts that he can barely imagine making a putt from more than a few inches away when it counts.  I met him the other day after he'd played and lost another match against a fellow who, although good company and a pretty fair player, couldn't have hoped to have beaten him before he succumbed to the yips.

We had a beer and he recounted the numerous missed putts that resulted in him losing, including a four putt from twelve feet when he had been just hoping for a two putt to win the hole.  He says that the damnedest thing is, when he practises, he putts fine.  But, just have the putts count for something and watch him start to twitch and jerk.  He literally looks like he's being zapped with electricity as he strikes the short ones.  He'll often have a three footer for par, and find himself looking at a six footer coming back for bogey.  He's a desperate man.  He'd probably quit if he didn't love the game so much.  I have suggested, as a fellow, though not nearly as chronic, sufferer, that he might try looking at the hole when he putts.  He is reluctant to do it, but I've suggested that he really hasn't got much to lose at this point.  He can't putt any worse, and perhaps there is some comfort in that, though I doubt it.  There's no way but up, I suppose, once you've hit rock bottom.

I don't know whether Bobby Jones ever got the yips, but he certainly understood the affliction.  In fact, he devoted a chapter of his book Bobby Jones on Golf  to those blasted short putts. Among other things, he wrote:

"To miss a putt of a yard length seems the most useless thing in the world... The mental attitude in which we approach a short putt has a lot to do with our success.  When we walk up to a putt of ten or fifteen feet, we are usually intent upon holing it; we know we shan't feel badly if we miss, so our entire attention is devoted to the problem of getting the ball into the hole.  But it is quite different when the putt is only a yard long.  Then we know that we ought to hole it easily, and yet we cannot fail to recognize the possibility of a miss.  Instead of being determined to put the ball into the hole, we become consumed with the fear of failing to do so.  Our determination, if we may call it such, is negative.  We are trying not to miss the putt rather than to hole it.

A good many short putts are missed because of rank carelessness; the thing looks so simple that it is hard to view it seriously.  Yet it will be observed that comparatively few very short putts are missed in the course of a friendly informal round.  This would argue that tension and anxiety cause more misses than lack of care, and we might be convinced of this were it not for the diabolical perversity every golfer knows to be inherent in a golf ball.  A casual tap with the back of the putter is enough to hole any short putt when no one cares whether it goes in or not, but once large issues are placed upon the result, two hands and a world of pains are required to steer the ball into the hole.

There is nothing so demoralizing as missing a short putt.  Many times I have seen a man's entire game, from tee to green, destroyed in the course of a few holes as a result of one little putt.  One missed, the next one looks doubly hard; that cast away, too, then the approach putts begin to stop at all distances from the cup, applying the pressure with ever greater force, soon putting becomes impossible, and the player begins to force his long game, trying to place his second shots so close to the hole that he will have to do little putting.  A rapid progression through these stages before long can result in utter rout.

I do not need to recount the matches in important championships that have been turned by the missing of a tiny putt.  Every man who has played golf knows how quickly the tide may turn on such a thing; for the miss not only destroys the player's confidence, it also inspires his opponent.

Long ago I learned that no putt is short enough to take for granted.  I have long since recognized the folly of one-handed, backhanded, and all other kinds of disgusted efforts.  When it mattered at all whether or not the next stroke went in, no matter how short the putt might have been, it received from me as close attention as I was able to give.  I always took a stance and address, even when the ball was lying on the very edge of the hole.

I shall never forget my feeling as I prepared to hole my last putt at Scioto, in Columbus, Ohio, to win the United States Open in 1926.  The thing could not have been over three inches in length.  Yet, as I stepped up to tap it in, the wildest thought struck me.  'What if I should stub my putter into the turf and  fail to move the ball?'  I very carefully addressed the putt with my putter blade off the turf and half-topped the ball into the hole.  Sounds a bit psycho, doesn't it?  But golfers can get that way."

So, in view of what Bobby Jones said, I guess we shouldn't feel too bad if we suddenly find ourselves trembling over a short putt.  It just means we care, and we know, if we aren't careful, we just might miss the damned thing.  I must admit, I'll probably always tremble, at least a little, at the three footers.  I doubt it ever really goes away completely.  In fact, I think they should put on my tombstone, "He never saw a short putt he really liked."