Guru Wars

Some candid talk about the short game and putting from Dave Stockton, Dave Pelz and Stan Utley

August 2010

His narrow squint and nasal squawk belie that Dave Stockton has always been a people guy. Crouching behind the ball as J.B. Holmes stands over a 10-footer on the practice green at TPC Las Colinas outside Dallas, Stockton, 68, softens his tone. Like a horse whisperer with an unruly stallion, he gently urges, "Where are you looking? What do you see? Do you see it? That's it -- you got it," Stockton says, seeking to activate the corners of the subconscious where he believes putts are made.

"J.B. is my favorite to work with," Stockton says later, pointing out that the long-hitting Holmes has improved from 166th in putting average in 2009 to 13th this year. "He's a challenge because he's pretty ADD. He can't retain anything technical, so he needs to see a picture. I understand that process, because that's what I did as a player, and it's the best way to putt. I'm clearing things out of his mind more than putting things in. And it's going to make him scary good."

Two days before, three of the players taught by Stockton and his sons, Dave Jr. and Ron, all won: Adam Scott on the PGA Tour, Dan Forsman on the Champions Tour and Se Ri Pak on the LPGA Tour. In the abbreviated annals of putting and short-game coaches, it was an unprecedented Triple Play. Combined with the Stocktons' high-profile work with Phil Mickelson, major-championship winner Yani Tseng and, in late 2009, Michelle Wie -- and some 20 other players -- it has the patriarch chirping. "It means that I'm right about what I teach," Stockton says with the conviction that helped him win two major championships despite ball-striking more appropriate to the national Publinx. "Absolutely I can blow anybody else away. I can tell that we have no competition. I mean, there isn't any."

Aside from the risks of getting cocky with the putting gods, Stockton overstates. In the last several years, a growing group of putting and short-game coaches has moved from the fringes of pro golf to its center. After more than a decade in which Dave Pelz seemed to have the field to himself, a new school of gurus beginning with Stan Utley and including Marius Filmalter, Pat O'Brien, Larry Rinker, Mike Shannon and Kevin Weeks (and in Europe, Harold Swash, Mark Roe and Dr. Paul Hurrion) is tending to an increasing number of the game's best.

"It's sort of been overdue," says David Leadbetter, the seminal figure in the earlier rise of full-swing instructors. "Players used to learn short-game shots and get putting tips from other players, but now there are experts in every area. Putting was always considered an art, almost too mysterious to teach. But there is more science attached to it now, and maybe for the first time there's more knowledge than opinion."

Putting in particular is personal and often quirky, and as such is delicate to fool with. Above all, doubt is to be avoided, because in the most exacting areas of the game, to be off a little is to be off a lot.

"You must understand how each player is wired and work within those wires, not try to rewire," says Filmalter, a 54-year-old South African who helped Ernie Els regain his stroke, leading to two early-season victories. "We might suggest adjustments to the posture, ball position and alignment based on what we know to produce sound mechanics, but the change is only made when the player says he can see the line to the hole that he wasn't seeing before. That's all individual to each player."

Like almost all putting coaches, Filmalter employs motion-measuring devices that provide precise feedback on how the putter moves throughout the stroke and how the ball reacts. Readouts that measure the 28 most important components of the strokes of nearly every top player in the world are available for study, validating the tendencies and differences between good putters and bad. "Before, it was hard to know exactly where a player was with the stroke," says Filmalter, who helped develop the devices while researching fine-motor skills in Germany. "Now we know that and can monitor the journey to where he wants to be."

The collective effort has produced some impressive gains, particularly when it comes to the make-or-break distance in pro golf: six feet. In a 1989 study conducted by the PGA Tour, the average success rate on six-foot putts was 54 percent. In 2009, it was 69 percent. Smoother surfaces and better implements certainly contribute, but with more good players vying to play at the highest levels and the margins among them so close, there seems little doubt that greater urgency has bred greater skill. Indeed, PGA Tour players now make 86 percent of putts 10 feet or less -- including, of course, a lot of tap-ins -- and ShotLink statistics show it's not unheard of for a player to never miss inside that range over 72 holes.

As players challenge narrow fairways and tucked pins, the line between spectacular and untidy shot-making keeps getting thinner. Rounds are built around opportunism and recovery, making the wedge and putter a player's most vital tools. The Bobby Jones dictum of turning three shots into two -- for birdies on par 5s and short par 4s, for pars on tough par 3s and 4s -- means more than ever.

The beacon has been Tiger Woods. His biggest edge over his peers has been the ability to make crucial putts and recoveries, causing him to become a model for his peers. "Tiger has almost perfect form -- everything is basically neutral," says putting coach Pat O'Brien, who helps Zach Johnson, Vaughn Taylor, John Rollins and John Senden. "He's helped people understand what a good putter really looks like."

Conversely, examples of players who consistently fail to win despite good ball-striking have also made the case. For all his fine tee-to-green play, Lee Westwood had a 15-footer on the 72nd hole to tie at the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines but hit a putt that missed weakly to the right, and he was undone by poor wedge play down the stretch at Turnberry before three-putting the final green to miss last year's British Open playoff. Then he failed to hold the 54-hole lead this year at Augusta when he was outclassed by Mickelson on and around the greens. That said, Westwood's rise in the World Ranking has been in large part because of short-game work with Roe, the former European tour player who also coaches Ross Fisher.

Subscribe to Golf Digest
Subscribe today