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U.S. Open 2024: At Valhalla, he was the worst putter. Early at Pinehurst, he's the best—how one contender found magic

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Alex Slitz

June 14, 2024

Matthieu Pavon made history at Pinehurst during Thursday’s first round of the U.S. Open, when he became the first player ever to make two eagles in a U.S. Open round at Pinehurst No. 2, which fueled his round of three-under 67 to get in early contention. But it was how the Frenchman made the eagles—by holing two mid-range putts—that will likely be more satisfying than the feat itself, considering how much he has struggled on the greens recently.

One month ago at Valhalla during the PGA Championship, Pavon shot 76-77 to miss the cut badly, in large part because of a balky putter. The 2024 Farmers Insurance Open champion finished dead last in the field in Strokes Gained/putting over the first two days, losing over three shots each round and over seven in total. He made just two putts over 10 feet that week. Hell, he made just four putts outside five feet during his short trip to Louisville.

Thursday at Pinehurst was a much different story on the greens for the 31-year-old. He led the field in Strokes Gained/putting, gaining nearly 4.5 strokes on the field. At Valhalla, he made just over 100 feet of putts for the first two rounds combined. On Thursday he holed 143 feet of putts, including five from outside of 10 feet.

It takes less than a modest level of curiosity to wonder how Pavon made such a dramatic change so quickly.

“I practiced 15 days ago with my putting coach, who came to see me in Florida, and we had to adjust on some way to practice on the greens here,” Pavon said, referencing work he did with coach Jon Karlsen. As a native of France and longtime DP World Tour player, Pavon has played much of his golf in Europe. Only after winning his first DP World Tour event last year, earning him his PGA Tour card, did Pavon come to the United States to play full time.

The adjustment to golf in America, he says, is particularly difficult on the greens. “They [the greens] are faster, slopier, grainier. Nothing that I really experienced before in Europe,” he said.

The work that he did with Karlsen was less technical and more about learning to putt on more severe greens, which takes an entirely different mindset than Pavon was used to. As PGA Tour putting coach Ralph Bauer explained during last week’s Golf Digest Happy Hour on green reading, when greens are faster, they will break much more.

“If we've got a faster greens, they break more because there is a slower initial ball speed,” Bauer said. “It takes longer for it to roll out, so gravity has more effect. Faster greens break more. Slower greens break less.”

In Europe, Pavon was used to greens that were both slower and less sloped, meaning he could play far less break and hit putts with more speed than you can get away with on more severe greens, like those at Valhalla and especially at Pinehurst No. 2. He putted with an aggressive style that doesn’t translate to many PGA Tour courses.

“It's not really technical,” Pavon said of his work on the greens. “It's more about seeing breaks because when it's slower, when you have less break, the ball doesn't move as much as here. Here it's steep, it's fast, it's grainy, so the ball moves quite a lot.”

It may seem an easy fix to simply play more break and hit putts with less speed when greens are fast, but it’s often not a matter of one or two inches. Take defending U.S. Open champion Wyndham Clark, for example, who said earlier this week:

“Normally you're not more than four or five inches outside the cup on most greens. Here you're maybe playing 10 to 12 inches just so that you're not getting below the hole and having it run away.”

It’s the reason why players are taking a more defensive approach on the greens at Pinehurst, playing the highest line possible with dying speed. For Pavon, it’s something he struggled with at Valhalla and at times this year, but over the last month, he’s changed his approach and found success.

“It was all about understanding how much I have to aim away from the hole and how much I have to adjust my pace to really putt in a way I wasn't used to,” he said. “It’s like a dead-weight type of putting … before I was more kind of aggressive. It was really something I had to adjust.”

Pavon’s struggles and success reveal a key learning for the rest of us: When putting on slower greens, play less break and feel free to adopt a more aggressive mindset. However, when greens pick up pace, be sure to always play the highest line possible, which might be far more than you think.

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