Golf: The rewards of putting it right: Bernhard Langer has three times cured the putting 'yips'. Paul Trow outlines his strong-arm tactics

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The Independent Online
THEY call it a game within a game. But to golfers it means the difference between success and failure, between contentment at a job well done and the frustration of under-achievement. In a world where every player habitually drives at least 280 yards and pitches to within a few feet of the pin, only the thinnest of lines divides the superstar from the also-ran.

That dividing line is, and always has been, putting. There is nothing new about the search for golf's Holy Grail - a putting stroke that works. In the 1960s, Sam Snead became fed up with playing superbly from tee to green without ever threatening the dominance of Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus. So he devised the side- saddle technique, eventually to be outlawed, in which he stood alongside his ball and swung the putter through the line towards the hole in the style of a croquet mallet.

The old adage claims 'It's not how but how many', but how is certainly what separates Bernhard Langer, the US Masters champion and winner last week of the Volvo PGA title, from the many.

Langer will forever be remembered for missing the seven-foot putt which would have tied the 1991 Ryder Cup at Kiawah Island. But he has three times conquered the dreaded 'yips', the affliction which disconnects a player's brain from his hands whenever he picks up a putter, by bravely and analytically confronting the problem.

After making his initial impact in the early 1980s, Langer lost confidence in the right-hand-below-left method with which he had learnt to putt on the sluggish greens of his native Germany. As fast, slick surfaces became increasingly fashionable, he decided to switch his hands around, a radical change at a time when the likes of Ben Crenshaw and Seve Ballesteros were prospering with the conventional style.

Langer never quite had their exquisite touch, and was always more mechanical in his approach. He knew that most mistakes stemmed from movement in the wrists, and he wanted his left arm to become a rigid extension of his putter so that he pivoted only from the shoulders.

All seemed well for a while, and in 1985 Langer collected his first Masters' Green Jacket. But the demon returned to haunt his otherwise immaculate game, so it was back to the drawing board. 'I had to take my wrists out of the putting stroke completely. That's why it didn't work, because there was still movement in them,' Langer said. 'I had to do something as I could not have another year like 1988.'

But instead of abandoning his basic method, Langer built on it and what evolved was met with incredulity by his fellow competitors. The left hand had crept further down the shaft and the right gripped the club and left forearm like a brace. 'It took me two or three months to become comfortable and to find my range with the longer putts,' Langer said.

His rehabilitation was crowned at Augusta and Wentworth, and already the imitators have appeared, notably Rodger Davis who used it during his recent victory in the Cannes Open. 'It's not quite the same as Bernhard because I have my left index finger pointing down the shaft,' the 42-year-old Australian said. 'If it hadn't worked I was going to go to a broomstick.' For a growing number of Tour veterans, the broomstick has been a lifeline. Sam Torrance, Langer's Ryder Cup colleague, and the Australian Peter Senior led the way, putting with their hands almost three feet apart, but the most notable recent convert is Tony Jacklin, now 48.

While the shaft on Torrance's broomstick brushes his chin as he stands over the ball, Jacklin has opted for a more modest contraption which extends only up to his chest. Reminiscent of a branding iron with a solid metal head, it is called a Pong and he hopes it will make him stinking rich when he joins the Seniors' Tour next year.

Jacklin's first-round 67 in the Dunhill Masters at Woburn on Thursday hinted that his putting horrors which began in the 1970s were a thing of the past. 'Putting should be a reaction to what you see,' the former Open and US Open champion said. 'I could see the lines as soon as I walked on the green, but it stopped being a reaction. To do well you have to feel confident, so I took time out last winter to decide whether to use a long putter. I would rather go with a conventional method, but I can't do it. In the past I would have sabotaged my round with my putting.'

Jacklin's misery at his putting frailties over the years has been echoed of late by Nick Faldo, his successor as Golf's Englishman.

The disaffected way in which Faldo agonises over missed putts is eerily familiar, and the prospect of the world No 1 ever exchanging his silky-smooth action for something less elegant is not totally inconceivable. So much hangs on every putt that the tension seems inescapable, but perhaps the answer is to relax and ignore the pressure. After all, it is only a game within a game.

(Photograph omitted)