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On Short Putts: The Thrill is Gone

March 18th, 2013 · 7 Comments

I have a long history watching golf, having begun my career as a fan and player in 1960.

During the Nicklaus Era I remember that short putts were full of suspense. While Jack Nicklaus seemed to make every one under three feet (something that Deane Beman swears to), other top pros routinely missed these shorties.

Byron Nelson once said that “Putting affects the nerves more than anything. I would actually get nauseated over three-footers, and there were tournaments when I couldn’t keep a meal down for four days.” His peers,

Sam Snead famously missed a 30 incher on the final hole of a playoff in the 1949 U.S. Open to lose to Lew Worsham. Nine time major winner Gary Player tried take the break out of the short ones by jamming them into the cup, but was susceptible to power lip outs. Tom Watson’s winning days ended because he regularly choked on 2-3 footers. Everyone remembers Doug Sanders’ miss on the 72nd green of the 1970 British Open which he went on to lose in a playoff to Nicklaus. Poor Ed Sneed three putted the last three greens to blow his lead at the 1979 Masters.

And the list of historic missed short putts goes on and on – in the good old days when fans moved to the edge of their seats to watch these pressure packed putts.

Today, pro’s missing putts of 3 feet and under has become as rare as the dodo bird. For the entire 2012 season, 52 players on the PGA Tour made 99.5% of their putts under three feet, and 133 players made at least 99% of these shorties. In 2012,  from 3-4 feet, the pros made 90% or more of these putts. While there are no stats from the 60s and 70s for short putts, I would bet that the make percentage for most players from 3-4 feet was closer to 80%.

While many correctly bemoan the souped up golf ball, equally tragic it the death of The Choked Short Putt, which has taken so much of the suspense from the game, and made what should be an enjoyable shot a moment of extreme boredom.

So, while most of the suspense has been wrung out of what was once upon a time golf’s most dramatic shot, the last thing the game needs is anchoring, which would, in time, turn five footers into gimmies.

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7 responses so far ↓

  • 1 BD // Mar 18, 2013 at 11:15 am

    I would imagine there are 4 major reasons behind the apparent improvement in short-putting. First, the balls are more consistently in balance. Second, the greens roll more consistently. Third, putters are more scientifically engineered than in the past. And fourth, the players are just better at putting than they were a generation or two ago.

    The fourth factor should come as no surprise, as putting technique has been studied and researched ad infinitum over the years and a lot of that work has taken place in the last 30 years. It only stands to reason that players at the elite level are getting better at it.

    You make a very good point in relating this phenomenon to the discussion about long putters. To make a general point that has been nagging at me recently, there seems to be a tendency on the part of LP proponents to make arguments in defense of the broom that are simply ahistorical. Specifically, a lot of these people are arguing that we need anchored putters in golf because people aren’t playing nearly as many rounds as they did 50 years ago. (Or, they argue we need bifurcation on this rule and perhaps even OTHER rules for that same reason.) But this makes no sense, historically, because people weren’t using LPs 50 years. (Nor was there bifurcation.) If you want to restore golf to the standing it enjoyed 50 years ago, then logically you start by restoring the game itself to where it was 50 years ago. The fact is, the increased usage of the LP has correlated with a DECREASE in rounds played.

    Now, I’m not suggesting that recreational golf today is less popular today because of the LP, but nor is it possible to argue that the LP has made the game more popular. Any suggestion along those lines appears to rely on anecdotal evidence and wishful thinking.

    (Common sense suggests the main reasons people are playing less golf are (a) time and (b) money. A third factor is probably just the availability of other recreational/leisure pursuits brought about by technology. Obviously, every minute somebody is playing a videogame is another minute they are not on the golf course.)

  • 2 Phil Capelle // Mar 18, 2013 at 12:00 pm

    Hi BD, The reasons you list and a few more are, indeed, responsible for improvements in putting. Today’s players may be better, but they should be given the many advantages they enjoy. I think the fast greens have enabled them to use better and more consistent techniques, which has added to their accuracy. I have a theory on the force required to putt from various distances, and I think it was much tougher to make a 5 footer 40 years ago in large part because it had to be hit a lot harder. I agree that the levels of participation in golf have suffered because of competition from other pursuits – I have seen this in pool, my other sporting love. I think those in the golf business are more interested in making money than in the game itself.

  • 3 BD // Mar 18, 2013 at 4:07 pm

    It definitely required more force, because the greens were slower and the putter heads were lighter. I’m not sure that made it harder to sink 5-footers, however. I would think nerves would come into play more as the force required to reach the hole decreases.

  • 4 Phil Capelle // Mar 19, 2013 at 10:40 am

    BD – I must disagree. The more force required, the more chance for error. Today’s stroke for short putts is a precise tap with no wrist action that is designed for pool table greens. In the Nicklaus Era, player had to use the wrists to get the ball rolling and to the cup on greens that stimped at 6-7, and on which even well hit putts might fall victim to the less well kept up greens, and to grain. Today’s player’s should make more short putts, and they do, because the very nature of short putting has changed.

  • 5 BD // Mar 20, 2013 at 11:54 am

    I doubt the greens were so slow that players HAD to use wrist action to power the ball 5 feet. And I disagree that “the more force required, the more chance for error.” It seems pretty obvious that the margin of error for getting the speed right would be a lot slimmer when putting on greens that are rolling 13 on the Stimp than on 6-7-Stimp greens. On the former, a slight miss could easily result in the ball sliding by 4 feet past the hole.

    Ot look at it this way: If you have to swing the putterhead only 1 inch back and through, then your margin for error in getting the right speed might only be 1/4 of an inch. If you’re swinging the putterhead 4 inches, the proportionate margin of error would be an inch.

    I agree today’s green are probably more consistent and this helps account for some of the improvement in putting. Even without better greens and better equipment, however, top players would be better at putting today than 50 years ago because we’ve had 50 years longer to study and teach good putting technique and because there are more and more players competing for more and more money to become the very best in the world.

  • 6 Phil // Mar 22, 2013 at 10:52 am

    BD – That “some improvement’ is huge. Luke Donald, for example, has made 168 of 170 putts under 5 feet so far this season. This is only possible because he is putting on a pool table. You need to watch some of the old tapes of the televised matched from the 60s and 70s. I guess we will have to disagree on the margin for error as well. A short tap just has to be more consistent than a longer and harder stroke – that is why player’s are more accurate, relatively speaking, with a wedge than a driver. For example, a player might hit a 300 yard drive 120-150 feet off line. That same player will almost never hit a 100 yard wedge 40-50 feet off line.

  • 7 Phil Capelle // Mar 22, 2013 at 11:26 am

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q8glUmA-NX0

    Here is a link to a hole from Hogan vs. Snead in 1964 for Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf. Snead hammered his approach putt and still came up short. Hogan also came up well short from only 20 feet.

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