When it's time for a change
Last week’s putter changes by Jordan Spieth and Lydia Ko were not magic bullets.
Spieth missed his second cut in a row and third in his last four individual starts, this time at the AT&T Byron Nelson. Ko was T-10 at the LPGA stop at Kingsmill Resort. We don’t know if Spieth at this week’s Colonial will use the “winged” Scotty Cameron T5W mallet that he switched out for the Cameron 009 model he’s ridden to so much glory. Ko, who is skipping the LPGA Volvik Championship as part of a three-week break, might continue with the winged PXG “Bat Attack,” or use one of two Odyssey models, including the “Two Ball” with which her own rise to the top is associated. This year, she has used all three.
Putter switches in pro golf are normally not a big deal and happen all the time. Even the best players are not immune to the temptation of the Placebo Effect that can come with a new piece of equipment.
But the general rule is that the better putter a player is, the fewer the changes. The putters of two of the best ever, Bobby Jones and Ben Crenshaw were so ubiquitous they had names: Calamity Jane and Little Ben. Spieth and Ko are both generally considered the best putters in today’s game by their respective peers, so it was jarring to see them switch.
Historically, when the best do switch, it is usually the same style (Crenshaw switched from his Wilson 8802 to a Cleveland Classic copy, Tiger Woods from his Scotty Cameron Newport 2 to the Nike Method 001). More radical switching, if not the cause, is usually an indicator of decline. Yes, Nicklaus used the MacGregor Response to win the 1986 Masters, but that proved a one off. Once Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson and Seve Ballesteros started departing radically from their tried-and-true standards, the magic was over.
Of course, it can go the other way. An acknowledged weak putter can find a new instrument and make a breakthrough. Sergio Garcia won the Masters with a TaylorMade Spider Tour he had just switched to in his tune-up tournament, the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play).
There’s another factor. A consensus among tour players—based on growing use, success by proven champions or, especially in recent years, a convincing technology story—is that a certain putter might just be better.
When I was a junior golfer, the most standard putter was the “Cash-In” style blade, the shape of the club given out at a miniature golf course. It was also the putter that Ben Hogan and Sam Snead were wielding in photos or their rare appearances on television. But by that time, both Snead and Hogan were associated with the yips. It seemed to me that golfers wanted to try something else.
The two putters that sprang up in the 1960s were the flange, now most commonly referred to as the 8802, after the Wilson model that became a classic, and the center-shafted brass blade, the Acushnet Bulls Eye.
Arnold Palmer used the former, at first with the Tommy Armour Ironmaster, then the Wilson, and finally his own “personal model.” Jack Nicklaus with the George Low Sportsman Wizard 600 was also a flange adherent. Later, Lee Trevino and Crenshaw added to the flange mystique.
Bulls Eye users, meanwhile, seemed more like putting specialists, players such as Bob Charles, Deane Beman, Mark McNulty and Corey Pavin, short hitters all who were demons on the greens. The putter offered perhaps the smallest sweet spot, but the biggest reward (in feel) for hitting it.
Nicklaus and Pavin actually used both styles. Nicklaus won in 1967 at Baltusrol with a Bulls Eye painted white that he borrowed from Beman and dubbed “White Fang.” Pavin used a Bullseye in his early career, but in the 1990s gave the flange a boost, winning the 1995 U.S. Open with a Cleveland Classic. Now on the PGA Tour Champions, he still uses the Bullseye, whose lettering on the bottom has been nearly worn off.
Mallet putters were more rare. Billy Casper was the leading exponent, along with Bob Rosburg and Dave Stockton. But it also seemed like more bad putters used the mallet, looking for comfort in the impression that the bigger head would offer more forgiveness. Miller Barber, who used an Otey Crisman with a hickory shaft, always looked nervous on the greens. And as great as Rosburg was, my predominant memory of him was leaving the three-footer he had on the 72nd green to tie the 1969 U.S. Open an inch short.
In the late 1960s, the hierarchical order changed. The Ping Anser exploded on the scene, partly from how good it looked behind the ball, but even more on the narrative of perimeter weighting. George Archer (formerly a Bulls Eye user) changed and won the Masters with an Anser painted white. Ballesteros used an Anser in all five of his major victories.
The Anser’s biggest rivals seemed to be other Ping models. Tom Watson used the “Pal,” Brad Faxon the “My Day,” Fuzzy Zoeller and Jose Maria Olazabal the “Zing” and Curtis Strange the “Zing2”. The Anser style remains the most copied in all of golf. Tiger Woods, who used an Anser as an amateur, stayed with the same style in his Cameron and Nike models. Spieth’s Cameron 009 is a derivative of the Ping Pal.
But there are signs that the Anser style is finally aging out. Mallet putters, long in the minority even after big incursions the Ram Zebra and the Callaway Two-Ball, are gaining the majority on the PGA Tour. Whereas the clean aesthetics of the blade used to be favored, the technological advances that dramatically lower the twist at impact (moment of inertia) has become increasingly important to today’s players.
The biggest inroads by the mallet in the last decade was achieved by the “winged” mallet , the Odyssey 7. Luke Donald used it to get to World No. 1, Ian Poulter road it on his legendary Saturday afternoon run of birdies at the 2012 Ryder Cup, and putting geniuses Inbee Park and Steve Stricker use a similarly winged Odyssey model, the “Sabertooth.” And now, Spieth and Ko have switched to the basic design, by Cameron and PXG, respectively.
However, a new kid on the block with some heavyweight adherents has the hottest story. The same TaylorMade Spider that Garcia switched to was first used two years ago by Jason Day on his climb to No. 1, then by his successor on the perch, Dustin Johnson, as well as the new “it” player, Jon Rahm. Given how much it seems to have helped Johnson and Garcia, the Spider can claim to be the club that turns bad putters good.
Amid increasing uniformity, it’s possible pro golf has seen it’s last nicknamed putter. Also disappearing are the off-off instruments that some of history’s greatest putters found randomly, like the black, nameless blade that Gary Player found in a Tokyo golf shop for $5 in the 1960s, or the hickory-shafted, ancient blade with no writing on it that Ken Brown used in a career marked by putting brilliance that got him called “One Putt.”
But as the 50-50 putt has gone from six feet in the late 1980s on the PGA Tour to eight feet today, and even Spieth and Ko are being drawn to the latest thing, it seems the team of science and results are at least 2 up on art and romance.