Putting is one of the most elusive undertakings within the broad sphere of sports. A putter can induce a sense of invincibility in its golfer while it’s hot when the putts drop, but once it runs cold a golfer never knows if or when that warmth will return. Robin Barwick searches for some kind of secret to putting success.
“Listen, let me explain something to you about putters, okay?”
When Lee Trevino offers advice, you accept it.
“Kittens are born blind,” starts the 82-year-old American legend, a winner of six major titles. “When kittens are born they can’t see for a week and their mother takes care of them and feeds them. Putters are the same way. A new putter is blind. You can go in the pro shop and there will be 20 putters. You take two of them out to the putting green and with one of them you make every putt in the world. So you buy that putter but after seven days it opens its eyes, it recognises you, sees you putt and from that moment you putt just as bad with that putter as you did with your old ones. This is what happens.”
There is science to putters and there is art and craftmanship, and also a whole world of marketing. Putters can be hard to understand but Trevino’s theory cuts to the chase: putting form is like your favourite song; it can only last for so long. Golfers need to play with the putter that fills them with confidence. If the putts drop then it’s a good putter (at least until the putts start missing).
Back in 1974 Trevino was 34 years old and he was the only golfer his rival Jack Nicklaus feared down the closing stretch of tournaments, but heading to that summer’s PGA Championship Trevino was lost in the fog of a putting slump.
“If I could find that blind putter then I just hoped I could get the tournament over with before it opened its eyes and recognised me,” he says. “That is exactly what I did that week and there is a lot of truth to that.”
Trevino was convinced a Wilson-made Arnold Palmer blade would work for him, but these classic steel blades came out of production in 1963 and Trevino couldn’t find one. For the 1974 PGA Championship Trevino rented a house from a lady called Mrs. Mayberry.
“There was an attic with a glass door,” recalls Trevino. “As I walked down the hall, through the door I saw a set of clubs lying on the floor and sticking out was this Wilson blade by Arnold Palmer. It was the original version still with the original grip, which was very difficult to find. This putter fitted me just perfect. The loft, the lie, the grip. I putt with a forward press and this putter had about four degrees of loft which was perfect for me.
“Mrs. Mayberry had lost her husband about six months before and she had a son who was 17 or 18. She came to the house that day to collect her rent cheque and I said, ‘I didn’t mean to snoop but I saw this putter. It’s not for sale is it?’
“‘No,’ she said. ‘That is my past husband’s putter and I am saving the clubs for my son. However, if you would like to use it in the tournament you are welcome to.’
“So I took it out there the next day for practice and I holed everything. It was just unbelievable. I holed everything. So I kept it in the bag.”
Trevino shot 73 in the first round but the putter stayed blind in the second round and he shot 66, 4 under par, to get into contention. That evening Mrs Mayberry told Trevino that if he won the PGA, he could keep the putter.
He shot 68-69 over the weekend to beat Nicklaus by 1. Over 72 holes, Trevino only three-putted once. He still has the putter at home in Dallas.
“I have it in a box upstairs,” he says. “I call it Mrs. Mayberry.”
Nicklaus didn’t win that day but it didn’t stop the “Golden Bear” from compiling a record 18 major triumphs. The last of those came at the 1986 Masters when Nicklaus was 46 years old and widely written off as a major contender. On the notoriously fast and difficult greens of Augusta National that week, Nicklaus putted with a MacGregor Response model designed by American engineer Clay Long. The cavity-back putter was the first over-sized putter to earn widespread fame, triggering a rush in demand, rapid mass production and ultimately, unit sales of 350,000.
Putters did not evolve very fast over golf’s first formative 400 years or so, from the 16th century. ‘Putting cleeks’ featured clubheads made from hard wood such as beech, and shafts of ash or hazel. Blades made with brass heads and hickory shafts became popular in the 19th century but it wasn’t until post-war prosperity took hold in the 1940s and ‘50s that a market for experimenting with different putters opened up.
John Reuter, a club pro from Phoenix, Arizona, designed the Bulls Eye blade, with a brass clubhead and steel shaft, which was mass-produced successfully by Acushnet in the ‘50s, before an aeronautical engineer called Karsten Solheim started making clubs in his spare time in 1959. From his garage in Redwood City, California, Solheim invented Ping putters, so-named because of the pinging sound when clubface met golf ball. Solheim introduced the Anser putter in 1966, with weight concentrated in both the heel and toe of the clubhead to create a sweet spot between them. The putter promised to be the ‘Answer’ to all putting woes, it established Ping as one of the world’s preeminent club manufacturers and the Anser remains the most copied putter design of all time.
“The original Anser created by my father has dominated the tours for more than 45 years,” says John A. Solheim, who would succeed his father as chairman and CEO of Ping. “Few products in any industry can make that claim. With its design influence found in putters of almost every make, the Anser has long been the standard by which other putters are measured.”
During the 1980s, 26 of the 40 men’s majors were won by golfers playing Ping putters.
Come the turn of the millennium it was the Odyssey 2Ball from Callaway that dominated and which was copied relentlessly. The mallet putters were designed with a pair of white disks on top of the clubhead, in line with the golf ball at impact, and Callaway claimed it was the “best-selling putter alignment system of all time”.
Odyssey ProType 2-Ball and Odyssey Metal X 2Ball
Today, while gifted engineers such as Scottie Cameron, Bob Bettinardi and Sean Toulon lead the way in putter innovation, scientific progress has extended to custom-fitting. Golfers can receive 3D-imaging of the angle of impact of their putter’s face, clubhead path, clubface rotation, and how a putter’s clubhead and grip move in relation to each other. It is a process that can help to narrow the selection from the dazzling array of putters out there, until the golfer inadvertently alters their putting stroke. Then it’s back to the drawing board.
Back in 2007, aged 78, the late Arnold Palmer told Kingdom magazine: “I used to think there was an actual formula for great putting and that if I could discover the key to that formula, I would become the greatest putter in the history of golf. It’s a formula I’m still seeking.”
Something of an incorrigible hoarder, Palmer housed a collection of more than 2,000 putters in his workshop at Latrobe Country Club, near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, at the club where he grew up and which he later bought.
In 2007 Palmer had an Odyssey 2Ball White Hot mallet in his bag, with a 34-inch shaft and a Lamkin leather paddle grip. “Best putter I’ve ever had,” he said, knowing it was only the best he’d ever had until he got hot with another model.
The stories of putters helping golfers to famous success are the ones that get retold – the rare gems amid the mundane, everyday occurrences of golfers and putters missing putts in a discordant partnership. In the spirit of commiseration there’s American Tommy Bolt, the irascible 1958 U.S. Open champion, who once left his putter trailing on a string from the back bumper of his truck as he drove to the next tournament. It was a violent reaction for sure, yet therapeutic in its own way.