Commentary: Success on Tour comes down to putting

Phil Mickelson warms up on the practice putting green prior to playing in the first round of the Deutsche Bank Championship at TPC Boston on September 2, 2011 in Norton, Massachusetts.

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Deutsche Bank Championship

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NORTON, Mass. – No trip into this part of the country to watch a PGA Tour event would be complete without a few moments to reflect upon a gentleman named Paul Harney. Seeing as how Harney, the best Massachusetts-born golfer, passed away just a few weeks ago makes it even more timely to give him some thought.

It wasn’t so much that Harney was accomplished enough to win seven times on the PGA Tour or that he was such a source of historical flavor, given that he had won pro tournaments in Egypt and Los Angeles and had been invited by none other than Ben Hogan to take part in the Colonial. No, it was more Harney’s dignity and depth, for while he was devoid of ego, he possessed nothing but respect for the game.

Thoughts flood forth when Harney is remembered, but in light of the latest rage over a player using a long putter – Phil Mickelson, no less – it serves a purpose to recall a question and answer session with the great man. No, he did not play much, at least not into his 70s, but he explained that he enjoyed teaching the game to youngsters and those new to the game. But when asked if he taught aspiring professionals, Harney stopped, thought, and offered a soft sight.

“The first thing I do,” he said, “is take them to the putting green and watch them putt. If they can putt, fine. If they can’t, I tell ‘em to forget pro golf.”

Surely, it could come across as truly deflating advice, but shouldn’t guidance of that magnitude be truthful, no matter how much it hurts? Even further, consider this: Harney was telling the truth. For all the sex appeal of 300-yard drives and guys who routinely reach par 5s and hit driver, 6-iron into 500-yard par 4s, isn’t it the shortest shots that determine who wins and who doesn’t?

It is.

And isn’t putting the most impossible aspect to golf?

It is.

On a brilliant morning for golf, with a touch of New England fall giving way to late-summer warmth by lunch, the first round of the Deutsche Bank Championship was spent watching players putt. The endeavor merely convinced me that there is no way to explain putting and nowhere does a blueprint exist to say it must be done this way.

A quick look at Vijay Singh was proof of that, because for all the stories about players wielding long putters, isn’t he the poster boy of those who continually treat putting with a fickleness? Sure he is. He’s employed dozens of putters – long and short – and so many techniques that it’s impossible to document. In Round 1 of the Deutsche Bank, Singh had the long putter but he split his hands, had the left one low and the right one turned in such a position that it appeared as if he were throwing a punch.

That description made Chad Reynolds smile. Now on Nick Watney’s bag, Reynolds for years caddied for Singh and he saw a steady procession of putters and styles put in use by the big Fijian. Yes, even to the point where Singh at times putted with eyes closed shut.

“Actually did pretty good, too,” Reynolds said.

Now it is accepted as golf fact that Singh is not a very good putter, but you will never convince me of that. Not when the man’s resume includes three major titles and a whopping 34 PGA Tour victories, and Reynolds agrees that Singh is better than people give him credit for. “He actually reads greens very well,” said Reynolds.

You’re probably safe in saying, though, that Singh thinks he should make more putts or that he should putt better, and if that’s true, it puts him in the company of just about every other guy who claims PGA Tour membership. To meet that challenge, Singh feels comfortable to tinker with different putters of different lengths and with different grips, but to prove that the game is purely about individual feel, there was a pleasant study of Steve Stricker. Paired with Singh, Stricker might be the most classical putter around, a guy with a stroke that should be emulated and one that many a teacher would point to as textbook.

Now Stricker made just two birdies, used 27 putts, and shot 69, while Singh made four bogeys, used 27 putts, and shot 75.

Which means what?

Basically that if you think you can explain the game, you’re being dishonest. And nowhere does that premise shine through more than with putting, which mirrors the game in one key aspect – it’s all about feel. That’s not to say techniques can’t be taught and theories aren’t useful and long putters perhaps are more effective than conventional ones, but when you start with good putting, sorry, but to me it starts and ends with feel.

That point was driven home one day out at Pebble Beach when Stan Utley, a wonderful teacher of the short game, asked Brad Faxon if he could walk along. There was already a small army of friends, Faxon being Faxon, and one more was welcomed.

“I teach what you do,” Utley explained and Faxon nodded.

Three steps later, Faxon turned and asked: “What is it I do?”

He was being serious, because as great a putter as he is, Faxon is lost to explain the secrets. Oh, he has style tips and philosophies, and surely he can offer advice on technique, but stripped to its barest of bones, Faxon has a wonderful feel about putting and my guess is, he’d be that way wielding a 34-inch putter or a 45-inch putter.

Of course, there is no slowing down the long putter’s momentum. It has been around for decades and will only get more popular, but let’s not forget what has been around even longer and will never go away at the pro golf level. That is, the sour taste of a good day that could have been great.

Watney was one who authored just such script in Round 1, because while he hit 9 of 14 fairways and 15 greens, he only made three putts that left him smiling. Two birdies, one eagle, but mostly he thought of the ones that got away.

“I played pretty well,” Watney said, after signing for a 4-under 67, “but I would have liked to have got a few more under.”

On this day, like every day of golf, that was a familiar sentiment, and from those employing putters of every possible length.

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