The year of the putt: 12 moments that sealed a memorable season

In a year of dramatic finales the glory belonged to those who refused to buckle under pressure of the greens

It is entirely in keeping with the contrary nature of golf that what looks the easiest bit of the game is, in fact, the most darned infuriatingly difficult. Propelling a golf ball over 300 yards is no problem for the pros but, once at the green, getting it into the hole is still the name of the game.

It is entirely in keeping with the contrary nature of golf that what looks the easiest bit of the game is, in fact, the most darned infuriatingly difficult. Propelling a golf ball over 300 yards is no problem for the pros but, once at the green, getting it into the hole is still the name of the game.

Tiger Woods, the world No 1 who won 11 times this year, became virtually unbeatable by improving his work on the greens. His position in the putting averages on the US Tour rose from a diabolical 147th place in 1998 to 24th place this year.

Colin Montgomerie ended the season as the European No 1 for the seventh year running but still complained about his putting. It is more will power than technique with Monty, but often the Scot says he needs to hole a good one in the first three holes to have a good round. He holed twice on the first two greens on the first morning of the Ryder Cup and went on to produce a colossal performance at Brookline.

But Montgomerie's six European tour wins were so commanding, and his iron play so good, that he cannot force his way into this (subjective) list of 12 of the best putts of the year. In a dramatic year for the game, here are (in chronological order) the putts which fell at the vital moments to define the year, and the players who were benefited.

This was more than a putt for probable victory which was not confirmed until Steve Pate missed a birdie chance at the last, half an hour later. "I was more excited about the score than having a chance to win," Duval said. He arrived at the 18th needing an eagle to become the third player to break 60 on the US Tour. His five-iron shot ran up to the back tier, pin high, six feet from the hole. Duval's was the first 59 to win a tournament in the last round and he gave a rare animated jig of delight. "It's like pitching a perfect game," he said.

Greg Norman, for the 19th time of asking, was having yet another go at winning the Masters and most of the Augusta crowd was willing the Shark to finally don the green jacket. When Norman holed from 25 feet for an eagle at the par-five 13th, the place erupted. Olazabal, after a poor drive, had been forced to lay up and then wedge on. When quiet was restored, Ollie knocked in his 18-footer, smiled at Norman and they exchanged gestures leaving the green. The birdie made sure the Spaniard had not lost the lead. "We looked at each other and we both understood," Ollie said after completing a second Masters victory, three years after fearing his career was over due to a serious foot injury.

That the US Open trophy was centre-stage at the memorial service for Payne Stewart after his death in a plane accident in October was due to one of the bravest finishes in Majors history. One behind Phil Mickelson, with three to play at Pinehurst, Stewart holed for 25 feet at the 16th to draw level and then made his short putt at the next while Mickelson missed. When the left-hander failed to make a birdie at the last, Stewart still faced an 18-footer, up a tier, for par. Had he missed, there would have been an 18-hole play-off the following day but he holed it and jumped jubilantly into the arms of his caddie. It was Stewart's second US Open title, eight years after the first. "I'm glad Payne won," Mickelson said after the tragic events of the autumn.

Sometimes it is more the manner than the actual fact of it. Thanks to a couple of big putts earlier in the round, a 40-footer at the 12th and a 25-footer at the next, Garcia came to the last hole with a two-stroke cushion. There was no need for heroics but true champions finish in champion style. The 19-year-old Spaniard sent an imperious six-iron onto the green and there was never any doubt he would hole the six-foot putt. It was only El Niño's sixth tournament as a professional and he became the first teenage winner on the European tour for 17 years.

As the world knows, Jean van de Velde teed off on the 72nd hole of The Open with a three-stroke lead and after visits to a grandstand, the Barry Burn and a greenside bunker, still had a 12-foot putt for a seven. Bravely, he did hole it which, far from everything being lost, meant he joined Paul Lawrie and Justin Leonard in a four-hole play-off. But the game was up, and a shocking drive at the first extra hole proved to be Van de Velde's downfall.

Lawrie, who had started the final round 10 strokes behind Van de Velde but reached the play-off with a 67, took advantage to become the first Scottish winner for 14 years. For a while in the play-off it had looked as if no-one wanted to win it, but at the 17th Lawrie hit a four-iron to 15 feet and rolled in the putt to go one ahead of Leonard. Pressing at the last, Leonard found the Barry Burn for the second time and Lawrie's second successive birdie provoked a rapturous ovation from the local gallery.

Tiger Woods seemed to be coasting to victory when he led by five with seven to play. But he dropped a shot at the 12th and then Sergio Garcia birdied the short 13th in full view of the American, who promptly double-bogeyed. Could Woods be faltering? Garcia had certainly stolen the hearts of the gallery when he played a sensational shot from behind a tree at the 16th. Woods missed the green at the short 17th and left his chip six feet short. The downhill slider was far from straightforward and Woods summoned all his mettle to hole it. "This is a big relief," Woods said of his second major win. How big? Seven victories in nine events followed.

The American became the first player to successfully defend at the British Open after needing a birdie at the par-five 18th. Sheri Steinhauer's third shot, with a nine-iron, bounced off the bank of a bunker to eight feet and she holed the putt to beat Annika Sorenstam by one stroke. "In many ways this win was more satisfying than last year," she said.

After day one of the Walker Cup Great Britain and Ireland trailed by two points and Rankin had the worst record in the history of the event, six defeats from six matches. His first win arrived the following day's foursomes, won 3-1 by he home side. The 33-year-old builder from Airdrie further justified the faith of his captain, Peter McEvoy, by winning the top singles, with birdies at the last two holes to beat Steve Scott by one hole. He hit a nine-iron to three feet at the 17th and holed from 15 feet at the last. His grin, said one observer, "was wider than the Moray Firth". Great Britain and Ireland went on to a crushing 7-1 singles win and took the match 15-9.

As the Ryder Cup team flew supersonic from Heathrow to Boston's Logan airport, Olazabal claimed the record for the longest putt ever holed of 9.2 miles. Using the putter of a British Airways captain, Dave Studd, Ollie holed out along the 150-foot cabin aisle at the first attempt. The ball took 26.17 seconds to reach the cup and with Concorde travelling at 1,270mph, the Spaniard comfortably broke Brad Faxon's old record of 8.5 miles, set en route to Valderrama in 1997.

But Olazabal was not so lucky when he needed to hole a slightly shorter one to half the 17th hole with Leonard. The American, having fought back to level after being four down with seven to play, had already holed the putt of the year, and contender for putt of the century, from 45 feet up a tier, sparking the controversy that ensued when his team-mates, plus various wives and caddies, stormed the green. Only when Olazabal missed had America completed their amazing comeback to secure victory.

Never before in the four-man event dating back to 1983 had as much as $410,000 (£260,000) rested on the outcome of a single hole. That was the sum that had accumulated by the 18th and Couples took the pot by holing from 15 feet for a birdie. It gave Couples his third Skins Game victory and a total of $635,000, a third of which he promised to donate to the Payne Stewart Memorial fund. Couples was a replacement for the late Stewart.

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