Before you take a putting lesson from a PGA Tour professional, it's important to understand that: One, most of the players questioned yesterday at the Kemper Open agreed that being a good putter has very little to do with the putter itself; and two, if you open their lockers, four or five putters are apt to fall out.
Phil Blackmar, recognized informally as one of the better putters on the tour, is so into it that he practices on a machine made for him by his uncle that forces him to repeat his stroke. "Consistency is the name of the game," he said.
Right. That's why Blackmar -- who was 98th in tour putting statistics coming into this week and has been struggling -- used completely different types of putters in the first two rounds. They didn't help, either. He shot 80-73 and won't play on the weekend.
The apparent inconsistency between Blackmar's word and deed hardly makes him unique. The fact is that the game's shortest, simplest stroke produces its greatest anxiety.
"I don't want to change too often because I know it's not the putter," said Robin Freeman, who said he has switched putters several times in the past few weeks and was stroking the ball on the practice green at Avenel with a Titleist Scotty Cameron model "fresh out of the box."
"I get a new putter every week, sometimes every round," Freeman said with a hint of disgust in his voice. "But I think I'm changing more as a crutch or a Band-Aid. Putting is more mental [than the rest of golf]. If you have confidence, you can make it with a broomstick."
Ah, but where to find the confidence?
Some practice for hours at a time, some barely practice at all. Some are "spot" putters, aiming at a specific point on the green. Others are "line" putters, imagining the path the ball must follow to get to the hole. Some prefer a thin putter head called a "blade," some like a mallet, some a combination of the two. Some putt with a regular grip, some (Vijay Singh and Bernhard Langer, most notably) go cross-handed. Most use a standard length shaft (35 inches), but a few (Rocco Mediate, Bruce Lietzke) have gone with a so-called "long putter," with a 48-to-50-inch shaft that you hold and maneuver like you're churning butter.
The generic pro will tell you three things about putting: Keep your head still over the ball, swing the club with your arms and shoulders; don't break your wrists. Some will tell you to take your stance along the line you want the ball to travel, not at the hole. But if you do none of these things and you make putts, the tour players will tell you emphatically: Don't change a thing. If you're "rolling it," then your way is the right way.
"You're always looking for that feel," Blackmar said. "On the greens we putt out here, they tend to be fast, so you just try to put the same stroke on every putt."
That's where Blackmar's uncle's machine comes in. Basically, he said, it consists of parallel rails that guide the head of the putter so Blackmar can make that repetitive stroke. But, alas, he acknowledged, mechanics seem to be the least of it. "When I've putted well, I've really not thought about it too much," he said.
That philosophy has worked for Scott Hoch, too. Years ago, Hoch said, he wasn't putting well so he stopped taking a practice stroke. "I thought [the problem] might be tension or anxiety, so I quit taking the practice strokes and other people started copying it. People came up to me and said they were doing it and it worked for them."
But, usually, it only works for a while. Last year in the second round of the Kemper, Brad Elder made six birdies and an eagle. He shot a 63 to tie the course record. When asked if there was one putt he remembered more than any other in his career, he pointed down the hill from the practice green to the ninth hole. "Right down there," he said. "Three-footer, left to right break."
On Thursday, however, Elder had three three-putts and shot 79. Yesterday, a year after his finest round, he missed the cut.
The Putts Were Falling For Them
Putting leaders at the Kemper Open, through two rounds:
1. Rich Beem 1.417 (Putts per hole) 9 under par
2. Corey Pavin 1.500 3 under par
2. Steve Stricker 1.500 4 under par
2. Tommy Tolles 1.500 4 under par
5. Barry Cheesman 1.528 1 over par
6. P.H. Horgan III 1.556 2 under par
6. Greg Kraft 1.556 3 over par
6. Dennis Paulson 1.556 3 under par
6. Dicky Pride 1.556 1 over par
6. Esteban Toledo 1.556 1 over par
CAPTION: Tommy Armour III lines up putt on 18th hole, shoots 68. With 6-under 136, he is three strokes off the lead at Kemper Open.