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The Greatest Putters in Golf
We all know that putting is a game within a game and those who manage to excel at the black arts are usually the ones to go home with someone else’s money in their pocket
Willie Park Jr famously said that the man who can putt is a match for anyone and in the rarefied atmosphere of today’s pro Tours that has never been truer. Players can hit the ball so far, with such accuracy, that the man who can putt the best settles tournaments and championships on the greens. It has always been so but never more than today, when everyone, it seems, is a peerless ball striker. Moderate players can have a hot streak in which the hole is as big as a bucket and the ball drops with relentless certainty but those streaks don’t last and the golfer who wants to build a long career needs to be able to putt consistently well.
So here we present the definitive list of the greatest putters that ever lived, with two deliberate exceptions. Women are excluded because women cannot putt. And anyone who wields a long putter is excluded because they have already conceded, by having the monstrosity in their bag, that they are fallible on the greens (and because it’s not golf to use one).
25. Billy Casper
The 1959 US Open champion of whom Gary Player once said, with just a tiny hint of irony: ‘I feel sorry for Casper, he can’t putt a lick. He missed three 30-footers out there today.’ Casper hated analysing his play and once when asked about technique, replied: ‘How does a seagull fly? How does a centipede get all those legs working at once?’
24. Ken Brown
One of the qualities that many people in this list have is that they moved with an unhurried, tranquil slowness – and there was never a slower player than Brown. Best friend Mark James wrote: ‘When he stood over a putt you were never sure which would come first, his backstroke or darkness.’ But the painstakingly deliberate method helped Brown sink more than his fair share.
23. Phil Mickelson
One of only two left-handers in the list (along with Bob Charles), he’s always good but often inspired. At last year’s US Open he and Retief Goosen putted the lights out on some of the hardest, fastest and lumpiest greens ever produced for a Major, and of course at the Masters he simply looked as if he knew he would hole everything he looked at. And he did.
22. Nick Faldo
Especially in his younger days, Faldo was remarkably gifted, with the same sort of free-flowing, rhythmical action that characterised his long game and he himself said in his autobiography that in those days he didn’t think he would ever miss. When he re-built his swing over two long years he neglected his putting but then re-dedicated himself to that as well, with six Majors being the result.
21. Lee Trevino
Unorthodox in everything he did, Trevino grew up poor and his real education in golf came in money matches that he could ill-afford to lose and against opponents to whom it was unwise not to pay up – few things will find the faults in a putting stroke quicker. In consequence the Mexican genius developed a sound, consistent, repeatable action that wouldn’t work for everybody but certainly did for him.
20. Jose Maria Olazabal
Ollie’s driving problems have been an almost perennial part of his career but so, thankfully, has one of the most effective putting actions in the world. You only need to get two things right to hole a putt – pace and direction – and this man gets them right a helluva lot of the time.
19. Walter J Travis
Golf writer Charles Price summed up the Australian who played through the turn of the last century with the words: ‘Travis holed out from such immeasurable distances that his opponents claimed he could putt the eyes out of a chipmunk.’ He didn’t take up the game until he was 37 and three years later won the US Amateur.
18. Isao Aoki
The popular Japanese player probably had one of the most idiosyncratic actions of all but, awkward though it looked, it was effective. He would address the ball with the toe of the putter pointed skywards, in a way that made you scared he would dig the heel into the ground during the stroke – but he never did. The first Japanese superstar led the way on the greens.
17. Brad Faxon
Some say that if Brad couldn’t putt he probably wouldn’t be on Tour but he is blessed with one of the smoothest, most effective putting strokes ever seen, and you don’t make two Ryder Cup teams on putting alone. He is consistently rated number one by his fellow pros – most of who would sacrifice their first-born for Faxon’s stroke – and they should know.
16. Walter Hagen
The Hague virtually owned the USPGA Championship when it was matchplay, and it’s matchplay where the best putters dominate. Which also explains his Ryder Cup record of played 9, won 7, halved 1 and lost 1. He had all the gamesmanship and psychological tricks but they don’t work if you can’t back it up, and he could.
15. Ernie Els
Despite those two woeful misses on the 18th green in last year’s Open, over the course of his career Ernie has been a textbook putter. His reading of greens is superb but, as with so many other truly greats, it is the smooth and unhurried but accelerating rhythm of his stroke that elevates him to the ranks of the very best.
14. Loren Roberts
It was Loren’s caddy who first christened him with the dreadful monicker ‘Boss of the Moss’ but the nickname has more than enough grounding in truth to have stuck. Along with Faxon and Crenshaw has consistently been the man most envied by his peers and least likely to break a putter over his knee.
13. Hale Irwin
Yes, he famously missed a one-inch putt to get into a playoff for the 1976 Open but that was through carelessness. And yes, with the exception of that famous 1990 effort on the 72nd hole of the US Open at Medinah, he’s not renowned for making bombs. But he is the master at getting the job done – three-putting rarely, leaving himself anxiety-free second putts, and holing out when he has to.
12. Paul Runyan
Still remembered on the US Tour as the sort of opponent that everyone hates. He was a short, slight man who was consistently out-driven by everyone – often by a huge margin – but could get up and down better than almost anyone who ever lived. Won the USPGA in 1934 and ’38 when it was still matchplay and when the quality of opposition was awesome.
11. Greg Norman
People remember the numerously inventive ways he found to finish second in Majors but none of them came on the greens, where he was as good as anyone. He sank a 40-footer on the last green in the ’84 US Open to force a playoff with Fuzzy Zoeller, knowing that he had to make it, and that takes bottle and technique. And when he got hot, no-one could scorch round a golf course better.
10. Ben Crenshaw
Widely regarded by his peers as the best they have ever seen, Crenshaw’s smooth, unhurried rhythm was the key to his success. Tom Kite, who grew up with Crenshaw in Texas, once said of him: ‘I don’t remember Ben ever missing a putt from the time he was 12 until he was 20.’ He didn’t miss too many after that either. Inevitably his only two Major successes came at Augusta, where putting is the first game you need to bring.
9. Bobby Jones
The Master stayed faithful to his putter ‘Calamity Jane’ throughout his career, and she remained faithful to him, helping deliver a remarkable string of success. Between 1923 and 1930, when he retired, Jones played in 23 of the Majors for which he was eligible, and won 13 of them – a strike rate of 62%, which no other player has come near matching. And a lot of it was down to putting. In almost every regard he was, simply, the Greatest.
8. Seve Ballesteros
Missing a putt, to Seve, was a personal insult, and he hated to be insulted. From the marvellous fist-pumping excesses of St Andrews 18th green when he beat Tom Watson in the ’84 Open, to the miles and miles of putts he holed in the Ryder cup to beat the hated Americans, Seve played on the green exactly as he did everywhere else on the course, with no fear. He was aggressive, bold and even towards the end of his career, never frightened of the one coming back.
7. Tiger Woods
When Phil Mickelson was asked in March this year by US magazine Golf, who he’d pick to make a five-footer for his life he said: ‘Tiger, because he’s made more clutch putts under the gun than anybody I have ever seen other than maybe Nicklaus.’ He went on to cite the sliding 5-footer against Bob May at the 2000 PGA Championship, and the putt he made in the Presidents Cup in the dark from 15-18 feet. As Phil said: ‘He’s made a lot of ’em.’ Great putters make them when they have to and there has probably never been anybody more consistent from 10-feet and under when it counts.
6. Jack Nicklaus
His awkward, crab-like stance, hunched over the ball, right knee bent and all his weight on the left side, never looked to be the most aesthetically beautiful thing in golf but few actions were as effective. His finest day came in the ’86 Masters, his last Major, when he wielded an over-sized MacGregor Response putter to devastating effect over the back nine to pinch the green jacket from under the noses of Seve Ballesteros and Greg Norman, but that was only the most recent of many memorable days of the short grass for the Daddy of them all.
5. Peter Thomson
The Australian who took five Open championships, three of them in a row, is probably the most neglected multiple Major champion in golfing history. His quietly spoken, relaxed demeanour disguised the depth of his bloody-minded determination to win and he probably had the smoothest and best-looking putting stroke of anyone on this list. It wasn’t quite as effective as some but was a thing of beauty, and it got the job done.
4. Young Tom Morris
Bob Ferguson, who himself won the Open three times in succession, said of the man who was first to achieve the feat: ‘Tom Morris would putt and before the ball was halfway to the hole, turn away and say to the boy carrying his clubs: ‘Pick it out of the hole, laddie.’ And this was in the days when greens resembled sheep-grazing tracks (which, incidentally, they often were) and clubs were made from the jawbone of an ass. It is important, though, to make the distinction between Tom Morris Jr and his father, who couldn’t putt a tennis ball into the Grand Canyon.
3. Sir Bob Charles
The first left-hander and New Zealander to win the Open (in 1963), Charles is now 65 and has just announced that next season will be his last as a golf professional, after almost 50 years of showing his fellow pros how it should be done on the greens. So good and consistent has his putting stroke remained that he won 23 times on the US Senior (Champions) Tour, at an age when many others are fighting the yips, and he has 70 professional wins in total. First came to prominence as an 18-year-old amateur prodigy when he won the NZ Open and he hasn’t stopped winning since.
2. Bobby Locke
The South African was unconventional in everything he did. He wasn’t even named Robert but was christened Arthur D’Arcy – the Bobby came from his habit of bobbing up and down in his pram. He familiarly wore a white cap, shoes and shirt (including necktie) and dark plus fours, in which he carried his portly frame down the fairways with such ponderous elegance that his passing could have been likened to that of a royal barge on the Thames. His golf game was also out-of-the-ordinary, and involved sending every shot at least 40-yards right of target and hooking it back it into play. But it was on the greens where he broke people’s hearts and he always maintained that any round of golf involving more than 28 putts was a bad one. He won four Opens and when he went to America they laughed, until he won six times in a short space of time with such dominance that the ever-insular US Tour changed its rules so that he couldn’t go back. One of the Americans he beat, Lloyd Mangrum, said in 1982: ‘That son of a bitch Locke was able to hole a putt over 60-feet of peanut brittle.’
1. Sir Michael Bonallack
Quite simply, in the eyes of many, the former secretary of the R&A is the best putter there has ever been. As a lifelong amateur he was never tested against the very best pros but many of those who witnessed him in action agreed that he was peerless. Like so many masters of the green, he stayed faithful to one putter and had an idiosyncratic style that was all his own. Peter Alliss said of him: ‘Michael Bonallack was a remarkable player. He had a magnificent short game that was all of his own making. When putting he took up a big, wide stance with his nose almost sniffing the ball and had a short, jabby swing but all the putts went in the hole.’ Sir Michael’s honours in the amateur game are far too numerous to mention but include five amateur championships and four English amateur titles. In the 1963 English Amateur at Burnham & Berrow, he got up and down in two 22 times in 36 holes against Alan Thirwell. Far too modest to agree with this assessment, he nevertheless was the best.
Definitely not on the list
Ivan Gantz; early US Tour pro who was famous for hitting himself in the head when he missed a short putt, and once even knocked himself out.
Larry Nelson; who once said with commendable honesty: ‘I play along every year, waiting for one week, maybe two, when I can putt.’
Clayton Heafner; of whom fellow American pro Cary Middlecoff said: ‘The only time he could putt was when he was mad enough to hate the ball into the hole.’
Had it but lost it
Tom Watson; Fearlessly aggressive in his early days and never minded knocking it five feet past because he would always get the one coming back.
Now he doesn’t
Ben Hogan; Still a fabulous swinger of a golf club well into his 50s but couldn’t putt for his life.
Tony Jacklin; Never the same after Lee Trevino broke his heart and picked his pocket for the ’71 Open by chipping in from everywhere.
Peter Alliss; Lost it at the Italian Open when he retired mid-round after missing a two-footer.
Sam Snead; Rescued himself for a while by putting sidesaddle but when that was outlawed he was back to the yips.
Bernhard Langer; for having, and overcoming, the yips three times, which is just about unique at the highest level.
Almost made it into the top-25
Arnold Palmer; Always wonderfully aggressive but his collection of more than 80 putters reveal how he struggled at times.
Retief Goosen; One of the most consistent holer-outs in the world and his two US Opens are a measure of his ability.
David Toms; Rarely three-putts and WGC Matchplay win might just propel him to the next level.
Potential to join the greats
Paul Casey; The combination of Luke Donald’s iron play and Casey’s putting wrapped up last year’s World Cup of golf.
Adam Scott; At his best a wonderful putter but not at his best often enough yet.
Stewart Cink; Rolls them in from everywhere
Mike Weir; Won the Masters on the greens but not yet truly consistent enough.
Sergio Garcia: Currently worried about his inconsistency but has the stroke and imagination to be a world beater.
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