17 Jun 2024 | Opinion | Professional golf |

Clayton: Beware the short, downhill, left to righter when it really matters

by Mike Clayton

Rory McIlroy

We can now add Rory McIlroy to the names of Sam Snead, Doug Sanders, Hubert Green, and Scott Hoch as men whose golfing lives will forever be linked with missing sliding, downhill, left to right four-footers to win, or tie, major championships.

For the great Snead, making it would have meant extending an 18-hole playoff with Lew Worsham in the 1947 US Open.

All Sanders had to do was make four from 70 paces short of the 18th green at St Andrews in the 1970 Open. Seemingly paralysed by the moment, he finished up misjudging both the pitch and the long putt coming down the hill and then hitting almost the exact putt McIlroy missed on the 72nd hole this week.

In the 1978 Masters, Green hit the most beautiful 8-iron into the 72nd hole at Augusta then shoved the four-footer off the bottom corner and missed a playoff with Gary Player – who’d earlier made a 25-footer down the hill for a 64.

And, 21 years after Green, Hoch, in a playoff with Nick Faldo, had only to two putt up the hill from 20 feet on the 10th hole at Augusta. Instead, he whacked it a couple of feet past and slid the putt to win off the bottom corner of the hole. Faldo wasn’t a man to give a second chance and the Englishman made an extraordinary birdie with a 3-iron at the 11th hole – back in the day when players were still hitting 3-irons to par-4s!

For 14 holes, McIlroy had hunted Bryson DeChambeau, the three-shot overnight leader, and opened a two-shot lead of his own. He made a bunch of brilliant putts and Bryson was on his way to hitting barely a quarter of the fairways on what is a relatively wide driving course.

One critically great tee shot he did hit was an amazing 3-wood onto the shortened to entice 13th hole and the two-putt birdie cut his deficit to one.

As it so often does, the championship came down to two men and three holes.

On the par-4 16th, McIlroy hit a beautiful drive and a 9-iron on a 530-yard par-4 (and you don’t think the ball needs rolling back?) to 25 feet.

He slid it three feet past but no problem, he was 496 out of 496 from three feet this season.

Only he knows what went through his mind - and his hands - but either way walking to the 17th tee he was 496 out of 497 and Bryson was gifted a share of the lead.

The American played the hole equally as well and safely two putted then hit a beautiful "8-iron" to the 200-yard, 17th. Who knows what lofts Bryson has on his irons but it’s past time the television commentators stopped telling is the number on the sole of the club and, instead, told us the loft.

In Snead’s day he played a 48-degree 9-iron. Now 48 degrees is in the middle range of DeChambeau’s five "wedges" and his 5-iron is apparently 17 degrees, which used to be a 1-iron.

Neither could hit the sliding left to right 18th fairway, both hooking left against the shape of the hole and into the sandy wasteland. Rory had the better of the two lies, but only because Bryson was encumbered by a tree on his backswing and a tree root on his follow-through.

Rory just had a dodgy lie and hacked it out almost to the front edge. It was a long chip, and four feet past was a much better than average shot, but it left him an awful putt, the exact one players fear the most when the pressure is ramped up as high as it can possibly go.

The modern-day data gurus might tell you the downhill putt from four feet is holed more often that the six-footer up the hill but they don’t measure them on the 72nd hole in a major championship when they really matter.

Maybe Rory misread it or maybe he pushed it – only he knows – but it missed and opened the door for DeChambeau.

He punched out into the front bunker and left himself the 55-yard bunker shot no one plays with any certainly and it’s why a bunker that far from the hole is so often the great defence of a short par-4 or a reachable par-5. And a par-4 if you’ve driven it into the rubbish.

Bryson hit an incredible shot and, best of all, it finished under the hole where the putting was infinity less complicated.

The Northern Irish must by now know how Australian golf fans felt as they watched Greg Norman’s major championship career play out. Both were likely the most talented players of the pre- and post-Tiger Woods era and seemed destined to win more than a handful of major championships. Rory is close enough with four, but it’s been almost 10 years since Valhalla and the August 2014 PGA.

If nothing else Rory gets full marks for continually putting himself up there only to endure the crushing disappointment of brutal losses.

Surely there is another one in there but it’s no guarantee. We learned it with Norman at Augusta and just because you’re 496 of 496 it doesn’t guarantee the 497th and ultimately it was the putt on the 16th green which so shockingly switched the momentum.

In a month it’s Troon and The Open and yet another chance for McIlroy’s redemption.

It must be torture for him but the fascination for the rest of us is in the observation.

Join our newsletter

Get weekly updates on news, golf tips and access to partner promotions.

Related News

Golf Australia NEW LOGO White Mono_logo
Join our newsletter

Get weekly updates on news, golf tips and access to partner promotions!