There’s often a mystery about putting, but especially at Augusta National. The course’s complex greens ask every golfer to solve the mystery. The solution involves rationalizing line and speed so that the result will be positive — the ball dropping into the hole. This is true at every green everywhere, but perhaps never more so than at Augusta during the Masters.
Augusta’s co-designers, Alister MacKenzie and Bobby Jones, meant the course to be an inland links. It should have the characteristics of the Old Course in St Andrews, where the Open Championship will be played in July. The huge greens should look, well, wavy, as in waves on the sea, and a links, is, after all, a seaside course. One can almost feel a vertigo-like sensation approaching an Augusta green, and especially, I imagine, when facing a treacherous and slippery putt, given the sloping and undulating greens.
Justin Thomas said in his pre-tournament press conference Tuesday that should he hit his approach shot past the hole, he could have an eight-foot putt that breaks three feet. Good luck.
Mind you, Augusta’s greens, as they are prepared for the Masters, can be so fast that it’s perhaps almost too much to ask of any player to solve them throughout the tournament. That does happen, certainly, but it’s beyond tricky to get that equation of line and speed right. This is why there’s a deep pleasure in watching a Masters contestant try to solve the problems putting Augusta’s greens present.
Some illustrations immediately come to mind. I was chatting with Mike Weir beside the famous oak tree on the lawn at Augusta National where the world of golf seems to gather — “Meet you there at 3,” say. I asked him whether anybody who is not out on the course and facing a putt during the Masters can appreciate the inherent difficulties.
“No,” Weir said. He obviously solved the problem in 2003 when he won the Masters. I followed him throughout that tournament. His routine never varied from what I could discern. He stood over the eight-foot par putt on the final green on Sunday with resolve and made the putt to get into a sudden-death playoff against Len Mattiace. Weir won on the 10th hole, the first extra hole.
Then there was 1996. Greg Norman had finished three rounds and taken a six-shot lead over Nick Faldo heading into Sunday. I recall him saying that he had a three-foot putt on the 11th hole in one of those rounds. The hole was cut toward the left front of the green. His putt was downhill. Rae’s Creek was just left of the green. Norman said it was the fastest putt he had faced, anywhere, anytime. He added that he intentionally hit the putt towards the end of the face of his putter, to somehow slow the roll. He made that putt, but he shot 78 on Sunday while Faldo played chess with the course, shot 67, and won.
Years before, I had followed Tom Watson during a practice round. He had already won the Masters in 1977 and 1981. He was putting to a pin position on the far left of a green, near the traditional Sunday placement. He said to his fellow players, “Watch this.” Then he hit his first putt on a more or less direct line to the hole. It finished a few inches away.
Next, Watson pretty much turned his back to the hole and putted toward the right rear of the green. It caught the extreme right-to-left slope and dripped sideways before finishing a few inches away, near the first ball. Beautiful. The two putts had slithered across the green, picking up a bit of speed before stopping.
Back to Thomas and his comments during his Tuesday press conference. Somebody asked Thomas why he thought Jordan Spieth, the 2015 Masters winner, putted so well on Augusta’s greens.
“Because he’s got the best speed of a putter I think I’ve ever seen,” Thomas answered. “You look at all his putts, especially all of his midrange putts, every single one of them goes in with the exact same speed. They don’t hit the back of the hole. They’re probably going to go anywhere from six to 12 inches past the hole. I don’t think people realize how hard that it is and how good that is to consistently do that every single time.”
Thomas added that Spieth has “such a creative and great feel.” Can this be taught? Nature or nurture? Who knows?
With that, I turn to Tiger Woods. You may have heard that he has won the Masters five times, first in 1997 and most recently in 2019. You may have heard that he is playing this week, more than 14 months after his right leg and foot were mangled in that car accident. Anyway, he’s teeing it up at the Masters.
Five years ago, with Tiger, I co-wrote his memoir of his Masters win in 1997. We watched video of his 12-shot win and wrote the book to coincide with the 20th anniversary of his triumphant march to his first green jacket. Needless to say, his putting was astonishing. I was there and watched as he holed putt after putt on green after green.
Of his putting, Woods said this of a three-foot birdie putt on the eighth hole on Sunday as we watched the telecasts nearly 20 years later. “It was important on Augusta’s greens to be decisive, by which I mean you had to pick your line, which would determine your speed, and then ensure there was no breakdown through impact. The putter head had to flow right through the ball and finish relatively high and directly at the line you picked.”
He made the putt.
He also said there’s no putt a player can take for granted at Augusta. Not a one.
And he said that he tries to hit every putt at “cup speed,” so that it has multiple places on the circumference of the hole to drop. No cellophane wrapper for him.
So it was that Woods had a five-foot par putt on the last green. He had a 12-shot lead. “A three-putt on 18 to finish the Masters was not going to happen,” he recalled. “It just wasn’t going to happen.”
Woods said that the putt was “a triple-breaker, maybe a quadruple-breaker. It wasn’t a hard putt if I could have kept it inside the hole. But I had to convince myself to start that short and fast a putt outside the hole, and to trust my read. I was going to start it outside the hole and make sure I had what I always looked for, cup speed.”
He made the putt. He won by those 12 shots. He didn’t three-putt once — not once — over the 72 holes. Listening to Tiger discuss his putting while we watched video of that 1997 Masters was a treat, golf nerd that I am.
Will we see such putting from Woods during the Masters? Will we see it from anybody else on Augusta’s greens? I look forward to finding out, because “challenging” doesn’t begin to describe Augusta’s complicated greens. I’m not sure there’s a word that does.