Why these fascinating innovations with a putter have sent my heart all a-flutter
Brian Viner swapped London for the Herefordshire countryside, and his column ‘Country Life’ documents his attempts to chase the rural idyll. Chiefly a sports writer, he pens a weekly sports column and interview for the paper. He is the author of 'Ali, Pele, Lillee and Me: A Personal Odyssey Through the Sporting Seventies'.
Saturday 09 October 2004
There are some who consider it significant that the week in which Tiger Woods slipped to third in golf's world rankings was also the week in which he got married. They say that the nine-times major championship winner has had his head turned by the former Elin Nordegren. This is probably true.
Mind you, she would also turn the head of an Easter Island statue.
Tiger's father Earl, meanwhile, has warned him of the threat that marriage might pose to his career. Yet as others have pointed out, marriage was the making of Jack Nicklaus, whose record of 18 majors, which not so long ago lay in Tiger's path looking pretty fragile, now seems inviolate again.
I don't hold with the idea that a beautiful woman is behind Tiger's relative decline, nor that he is paying too much attention to his business interests.
The more likely explanation lies with the violent upper-body rotation that generates such power; his extraordinary torque, as my colleague Andy Farrell describes it. As I see things, it's all very well having the torque of the town, but it has damaged Tiger physically, and in accommodating that damage his swing has developed tiny flaws, which is why he has hit only 57.6 per cent of fairways this season. My mother-in-law's tally is 62.3 per cent.
Where Tiger differs from my mother-in-law, not to mention almost every other golfer on the planet, is with the putter. In finishing sixth in last week's American Express World Golf Championship at Mount Juliet, he needed only 110 putts in 72 holes, and a trifling 25 over the final 18. These statistics knock on the head the idea that he is suffering from off-course distractions. After all, putting requires more focus than any other department of golf.
All of which brings me to my theory that of all the implements in the sporting universe, none is more fiendishly enigmatic than the putter. I can't think of a sporting action more simple than administering the head of a putter to the back of a golf ball, yet the task has made nervous wrecks of the most composed of men, not least Bernhard Langer, assailed by the blasted yips not once but twice.
Moreover, the putter carries a symbolism which extends beyond the golf course. When Sir Bobby Robson emerged from St James' Park on the day he was sacked as manager of Newcastle United, he was carrying his putter. That spoke volumes. It told us that he had truly cleared his office, and that, while it wasn't nice being sacked, he was damn well going to enjoy his forthcoming leisure time.
One man's leisure time, however, is another man's livelihood. Last week I talked to 74-year-old Derrick Pillage, who has been designing golf clubs for decades, and has produced a putter which he thinks can stop the tendency of many golfers to miss the hole on the right, can reduce by half the number of putts taken by the average amateur, and can bring peace to the Middle East.
OK, I slightly exaggerate his claims; it won't necessarily halve the number of putts taken. But I can tell you that I have used the thing and it seems to work. It was sent to me by co-designer Phil Robbins, who took it to Pillage to be refined. Pillage increased the size of the sweet spot and centred the shaft. He contends that if Thomas Bjorn had been using his putter at Mount Juliet last Sunday, the Dane would have nailed the eight-footer he missed on the 17th, which left him a shot adrift of the winner, Ernie Els.
Maybe, maybe not. What is undoubtedly true is that if the Pillage Putter is to sell, it needs the endorsement of a well-known player. A chancer by the name of Carsten Solheim had been hawking his putter around tournaments in America for years when Jack Nicklaus picked it up at the US Open one morning, liked it, used it, and won with it. Solheim's company, Ping, was effectively born that day.
So imagine the frustration of Harold Swash, the granddaddy of British putter designers and inventor of the C-groove pattern which imparts forward roll on the ball. Retief Goosen won two US Opens using his Swashbuckler putter, yet Swash cannot advertise this fact because Goosen is under contract to the TaylorMade company. It's a mad world, the madness further exemplified by the contrasting experience of Paul Lawrie, who, in winning the 2001 Dunhill Links Championship at St Andrews, used a prototype of Callaway's two-ball alignment putter to sink a 40-foot putt at the final hole. That putter is now the most commonly used on the world's various professional tours, and the most counterfeited, a success story which Callaway can date precisely to Lawrie's dramatic putt three years ago this week.
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