Karen Crouse’s excellent New York Times feature in advance of the opening rounds in the Accenture Match Play Championship points out the putting difficulties that Tiger Woods has been having. The solution that putting guru - and two-time PGA Championship winner - Dave Stockton offers is that Woods should putt like a kid again. Other golfers, including Johnny Miller, who battled mightily with the yips and won the 1994 Crosby - now the AT&T National Pro-Am by pretending he was one of his sons on the greens - offer much the same solution.
The answer is correct, simple, and obvious. The route to the answer isn’t.
“Putt to the picture,” Woods’ first coach, his late father Earl, always advised him. That is, as Crouse writes, “Visualize the ball rolling into the hole and then step up and make it happen.” Mechanics played a small role. Making putts was being a kid again. You can’t think and putt at the same time.
But that’s far easier said than done. Once the feel goes, well, where does it go? The feel becomes phantom, hard to grasp, and, anyway, the idea isn’t to grasp it but to let go and just putt to the picture. Putting coaches make oodles of money advising players to do this. Mental coaches such as Bob Rotella, Joe Parent, Gio Valiante and others want experienced golfers to rely on instinct and not mechanics.
Woods wasn’t thinking mechanics when he holed a 15-footer for birdie over bumpy ground on the 72nd hole to get into a playoff for the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines in San Diego. And you knew it was going in. He knew it was going in. Mike Weir wasn’t thinking mechanics when he rolled in a seven-footer on the 72nd hole for par to get into a playoff for the 2003 Masters. He drained it. Weir and Woods won their respective playoffs and majors.
Tom Lehman, the 1996 Open Championship winner, put it this way about Woods’ putt to get into the next-day playoff against Rocco Mediate: "I don't think there was a person on the planet who was watching who didn't think he was going to make it. I was thinking that Rocco should be getting his beauty rest because he'll be in a playoff."
So be a kid again. Sure. Why not? Who wouldn’t want to be a kid again on the greens? Brad Faxon was once putting on a practice green, and it appeared he was hitting putts without thinking. Asked what he was doing, he said he was practicing not caring. Letting it go, that is. Finding his own signature, being himself. Just the Fax, please.
Woods has been advised to, and has tried, to recall putts he’s made in pressure situations. He’s made a million, right? The idea is that by recalling his successful past on the greens, he’ll be able to put his current putting problems, well, into the past. But what’s past, immediately past, is what counts. What’s past is prologue, truly. Ah, Shakespeare knew his putting. It’s nearly absurd to ask a golfer to believe he’s going to make a putt that matters when he hasn’t made one in some time. Where’s the truth in that?
Tom Watson used to make everything when he was younger. The term “Watson par” entered the golf lexicon. It referred to Watson’s ability to make a par when he’d been in trouble. His pars ended with a putt that he’d hole. Everything was going in. He knew it. His opponents knew it. It wasn’t a surprise when he made a putt. It was a surprise when he didn’t.
But then Watson started missing putts. He was told to remember when he made them, as if that would help him make putts. Watson said that he couldn’t fool himself into being confident. How can you pretend you’re a great putter, or even, a good putter, when you’re not making the key putts anymore?
Perception is everything here. George Knudson was one of golf’s finest ball-strikers. Golfers who watched him maintain that he ranks right up there in ball control with Ben Hogan. He won eight PGA Tour events and finished second in the 1969 Masters, a shot out of a playoff. Knudson wasn’t much of a putter. He looked uneasy on the greens. From the fairway, he saw nothing but the flagstick and the ball flying towards it. On the greens, as he told me, he saw different colours of grass, specks of turf that would surely disrupt the ball’s roll.
So yes, putt to the picture. Practice not caring. Be the ball. Go easy. Be a kid again. But nobody should be fooled into believing that just because a golfer was once a killer putter, he’ll ever be that way again.
Putting ages the nerves, it comes and goes, and it can go forever. Most matches this week will come down to the hot putter. All you can do is wish each golfer, Woods included, good luck.
Putting’s a mystery. Simple as that. And as complicated. Get the picture? So putt to it. As I say, good luck.
Lorne Rubenstein has written a golf column for The Globe and Mail since 1980. He has played golf since the early 1960s and was the Royal Canadian Golf Association’s first curator of its museum and library at the Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ontario and the first editor of Score, Canada’s Golf Magazine, where he continues to write a column and features. He has won four first-place awards from the Golf Writers Association of America, one National Magazine Award in Canada, and he won the award for the best feature in 2009 from the Golf Journalists Association of Canada. Lorne has written 12 books, including Mike Weir: The Road to the Masters (2003); A Disorderly Compendium of Golf, with Jeff Neuman (2006); This Round’s on Me (2009); and the latest Moe & Me: Encounters with Moe Norman, Golf’s Mysterious Genius (2012). He is a member of the Ontario Golf Hall of Fame and the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame. Lorne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . You can now follow him on Twitter @lornerubenstein