BY MARTIN VOUSDEN
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 rarified 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 analyzing 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?” Thanks Billy.
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, 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 characterized his long game, and he himself said in his autobiography that in those days he didn’t think he would ever miss. When he rebuilt his swing over two long years, he neglected his putting but then rededicated 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, 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 whom 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 match play, and it’s match play 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 moniker, “Boss of the Moss,” but the nickname has more than enough grounding in truth to have stuck. Along with Faxon and Crenshaw, he 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.
Martin Vousden is a freelance golf writer, a former editor of Today’s Golfer and launch editor of Golf Buyer and Swing magazines. His book, With Friends Like These; A Selective History of the Ryder Cup, was published in 2006 by Time Warner. He edits the Rare Birdie website.