For something that can be so joyously simple, the demons are never far away when it comes to putting. Such an arbitrary, bemusing, contrary, desperate, elusive and frustrating thing, and you can go through the rest of the alphabet. In short, and the shorter the putts the nastier it can get, putting is no way to earn a living. No wonder those that do try to disassociate themselves from it. "Played lovely, didn't hole any putts," is a stock comment. As if putting is not part of playing the game of golf.
Yet it is the putting that makes golf a game, one where a three-foot putt counts the same as a 300-yard drive. If golf were just about the long-game, it would be a science and players reduced to automatons. Malcolm Gladwell and others tell us it takes 10,000 hours to perfect a skill. Sir Nick Faldo says he passed that mark just warming up with a seven-iron.
But putting is an art. Alvaro Quiros, the Spaniard who shared the first-round lead at the 75th Masters, recently compared his putting to that of compatriot Seve Ballesteros. "Seve had the hands of an artist," he said, "I have the hands of bricklayer."
Putting, of course, has to be based on sound fundamentals, a still head, the putter-head taken away and returned to the ball still square to the target at impact. Anxiety, the rush to see the result of a putt, can cause the head to come up too soon, the ball nudged off line. Keep the head down and listen for the satisfying rattle of the ball finding the cup.
But feel is an essential, unavoidable component of putting. Reading the line of a putt on the green is only half of the equation. You have to feel the pace for that particular line. The trouble with feelings is that they change with pressure, and the pressure makes it harder to adapt.
Rory McIlroy missed a short putt at the first hole in the final round of the Masters and it set the tone for the day. On Thursday morning, where he got up and down at the first three holes, his stroke was assured. The first real test came with a tricky par-putt at the seventh and in it went.
His stroke was more tentative on Sunday. After the debacle of the triple-bogey at the 10th, the weakness was cruelly exposed. He had his first official three-putt of the week at the 11th and then a four-putt at the 12th. Tears were not far away. "I lost the speed of the greens," he admitted, "lost my line, lost everything." The feelings had changed, the confidence sucked out of him as if Amen Corner was a black hole. Putting is situational. Back in the 80s and 90s, if someone had to hole a putt for your life and it was for eagle, you would want Ballesteros, the inspirational genius, to take it; if it was for birdie, you would want the German efficiency of Bernhard Langer; if it was for par, you would want the bloody-mindedness of Faldo. The emotion and camaraderie of the Ryder Cup turn Lee Westwood, Colin Montgomerie and Ian Poulter into world-beaters on the greens, but none has yet achieved the same at an individual major.
Zen-like acceptance of making a good stroke, regardless of the result, is required by any good putter. Yet, there are also times when willing the ball into the hole is the only option. Tiger Woods in his prime achieved this better than anyone.
His misses for par on the 12th and for eagle on the 15th on Sunday night would have been unthinkable once but not now with his mind cluttered with scandal, divorce and attempting to rebuild his game. Doubt is the enemy of the champion putter. Jack Nicklaus, still the game's greatest winner, never hit a putt until he knew he was going to hole it. Charl Schwartzel, ahead of his four closing birdies, said to himself on the 15th green: "It is now or never."
McIlroy's manager, Chubby Chandler, pointed out that he likes to be rested entering a tournament but a light schedule does not give him as many chances to learn about contending. Another factor is lacking in McIlroy's young career. He was so good so young he never had to work his way up the ladder, holing putts to make a cut, to make a cheque, to get his tour card, to save his career. "Now, that's pressure," Montgomerie said.