19 Jul 2021 | Professional golf |

Clayton: Critical putts hold the whole thing together

by Mike Clayton

Collin Morikawa holds the Claret Jug in front of the famous yellow scoreboard.

I once asked Tom Weiskopf, the 1973 Open champion, who was the best putter he’d ever seen. The most elegant player of his era, with a swing every kid growing up the 1970s imagined emulating, had played his entire career in the shadow of Jack Nicklaus. The closest of his four second place finishes at Augusta was to Nicklaus in 1975, a championship best remembered for the winner holing a huge killer putt across the 16th green.

“Jack Nicklaus was, of course” as if there was only one answer to the question. “Did you ever see him miss a putt he has to make?”

I asked him about Bob Charles and Ben Crenshaw, two players many would put on top of the pile. “Well”, said Weiskopf, “they had to be.”

Putting in professional golf is clearly important and avoiding three putts might be the most important measure of all, but the great champions win because they hit streams of great shots limiting their reliance on the putter.

The abiding memory of this Open championship was the torrent of brilliant iron shots hit by Collin Morikawa but as if to emphasise Weiskopf’s point, Morikawa’s back nine might be remembered for three critical putts that held the whole thing together.

He birdied the three holes to the turn to lead by three shots, but then flew a wedge out of the right rough over the back of the skyline 10th green. For those who haven’t played St George’s but know the 14th hole at New South Wales, imagine the shot up to the 14th green and what it’s like to fly it over the green. It’s not good, it’s easy to do if you’re not careful and it’s an awfully uncomfortable walk up to see what awaits.

He pitched out of the long grass – a more difficult shot than he made it look - fifteen feet long and made the putt for a par. Partner, Louis Oosthuizen hit the flag with a brilliant long iron on the next, a shot that looked like it might resurrect his day but after taking 33 to the turn on the opening three days, his uninspired, two bogey, no birdie, 37 to the turn was five more than Morikawa’s brilliant 32. The South African’s two seconds and a third in the last three majors is a reflection of his beautiful play this summer and he’s more than due to win one soon but as they say, “it’s later than you think.”

Morikawa’s pitch into dangerous, boundary-lined, 14th just missed climbing the tier and fell back 25 feet under the hole but down went the putt – not one he absolutely had to make but one that made a massive difference to the outcome. From 200 yards out at the very next hole he hit a marginal iron into the rough left of the green, pitched to 10 feet and made another great putt. From there he just wrapped it up without having to resort to the putter again. It’d holed the putts it had to hole.

In the end Jordan Spieth was second but he walked more of a tightrope than Morikawa especially over the opening six holes where his remarkable chipping skills were put to the full test. Spieth had a rough run of it after winning at Royal Birkdale in 2017 but it’s a more interesting game when he is playing well and the contrast of his golf with the precision of the winner and the power of two of the nearly men, Jon Rahm and Brooks Koepka made this the most compelling major championship of the season. Rahm’s putter looked like it thought it’s work was done on the final two holes at Torrey Pines, but his hitting was fabulous.

It seems a pity the major championships are now condensed into a three-month period and presumably it’s because of the emphasis the PGA Tour want to put on their final series and the massive money it offers. Tennis doesn’t do many things better than golf but one thing it does much better is play it’s four major championships in four countries over eight months. It’s a long wait from here until Augusta but I guess we at least have Tokyo and Kasumagaseki Country Club to look forward to. We don’t see much golf from Japan and it’s a sure bet the course will offer up a noticeable contrast to Royal St George’s.

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