Aim & Alignment Series
The Golfers Mind
The Greatest Putters Of All Time
BY MARTIN VOUSDEN
We all know that putting is a game within a game and those who manage to excel at the black arts are usually the ones to go home with someone else’s money in their pocket
Willie Park Jr. famously said that the man who can putt is a match for anyone, and in the rarified atmosphere of today’s pro Tours, that has never been truer. Players can hit the ball so far, with such accuracy, that the man who can putt the best settles tournaments and championships on the greens. It has always been so but never more than today, when everyone, it seems, is a peerless ball striker. Moderate players can have a hot streak in which the hole is as big as a bucket and the ball drops with relentless certainty, but those streaks don’t last and the golfer who wants to build a long career needs to be able to putt consistently well.
So here we present the definitive list of the greatest putters that ever lived, with two deliberate exceptions. Women are excluded because women cannot putt. And anyone who wields a long putter is excluded because they have already conceded, by having the monstrosity in their bag, that they are fallible on the greens (and because it’s not golf to use one).
25. Billy Casper
The 1959 US Open champion of whom Gary Player once said, with just a tiny hint of
irony: “I feel sorry for Casper, he can’t putt a lick. He missed three 30-
24. Ken Brown
One of the qualities that many people in this list have is that they moved with an unhurried, tranquil slowness — and there was never a slower player than Brown. Best friend Mark James wrote: “When he stood over a putt you were never sure which would come first, his backstroke or darkness.” But the painstakingly deliberate method helped Brown sink more than his fair share.
23. Phil Mickelson
One of only two left-
22. Nick Faldo
Especially in his younger days, Faldo was remarkably gifted, with the same sort of
21. Lee Trevino
Unorthodox in everything he did, Trevino grew up poor and his real education in golf
came in money matches that he could ill-
20. Jose Maria Olazabal
Ollie’s driving problems have been an almost perennial part of his career but so, thankfully, has one of the most effective putting actions in the world. You only need to get two things right to hole a putt — pace and direction — and this man gets them right a helluva lot of the time.
19. Walter J. Travis
Golf writer Charles Price summed up the Australian who played through the turn of the last century with the words: “Travis holed out from such immeasurable distances that his opponents claimed he could putt the eyes out of a chipmunk.” He didn’t take up the game until he was 37, and three years later won the US Amateur.
18. Isao Aoki
The popular Japanese player probably had one of the most idiosyncratic actions of all but, awkward though it looked, it was effective. He would address the ball with the toe of the putter pointed skywards, in a way that made you scared he would dig the heel into the ground during the stroke — but he never did. The first Japanese superstar led the way on the greens.
17. Brad Faxon
Some say that if Brad couldn’t putt he probably wouldn’t be on Tour, but he is blessed
with one of the smoothest, most effective putting strokes ever seen, and you don’t
make two Ryder Cup teams on putting alone. He is consistently rated number one by
his fellow pros — most of whom would sacrifice their first-
16. Walter Hagen
The Hague virtually owned the USPGA Championship when it was match play, and it’s match play where the best putters dominate. Which also explains his Ryder Cup record of played 9, won 7, halved 1 and lost 1. He had all the gamesmanship and psychological tricks, but they don’t work if you can’t back it up, and he could.
15. Ernie Els
Despite those two woeful misses on the 18th green in last year’s Open, over the course of his career Ernie has been a textbook putter. His reading of greens is superb but, as with so many other truly greats, it is the smooth and unhurried but accelerating rhythm of his stroke that elevates him to the ranks of the very best.
14. Loren Roberts
It was Loren’s caddy who first christened him with the dreadful moniker, “Boss of the Moss,” but the nickname has more than enough grounding in truth to have stuck. Along with Faxon and Crenshaw, he has consistently been the man most envied by his peers and least likely to break a putter over his knee.
13. Hale Irwin
Yes, he famously missed a one-
12. Paul Runyan
Still remembered on the US Tour as the sort of opponent that everyone hates. He was
a short, slight man who was consistently out-
11. Greg Norman
People remember the numerously inventive ways he found to finish second in Majors
but none of them came on the greens, where he was as good as anyone. He sank a 40-
10. Ben Crenshaw
Widely regarded by his peers as the best they have ever seen, Crenshaw’s smooth, unhurried rhythm was the key to his success. Tom Kite, who grew up with Crenshaw in Texas, once said of him: “I don’t remember Ben ever missing a putt from the time he was 12 until he was 20.” He didn’t miss too many after that either. Inevitably his only two Major successes came at Augusta, where putting is the first game you need to bring.
9. Bobby Jones
The Master stayed faithful to his putter “Calamity Jane” throughout his career, and she remained faithful to him, helping deliver a remarkable string of success. Between 1923 and 1930, when he retired, Jones played in 23 of the Majors for which he was eligible, and won 13 of them — a strike rate of 62%, which no other player has come near matching. And a lot of it was down to putting. In almost every regard he was, simply, the Greatest.
8. Seve Ballesteros
Missing a putt, to Seve, was a personal insult, and he hated to be insulted. From
the marvelous fist-
7. Tiger Woods
When Phil Mickelson was asked in March this year by Golf magazine who he’d pick to
make a five-
6. Jack Nicklaus
His awkward, crab-
5. Peter Thomson
The Australian who took five Open championships, three of them in a row, is probably
the most neglected multiple Major champion in golfing history. His quietly spoken,
relaxed demeanor disguised the depth of his bloody-
4. Young Tom Morris
Bob Ferguson, who himself won the Open three times in succession, said of the man
who was first to achieve the feat: “Tom Morris would putt and before the ball was
halfway to the hole, turn away and say to the boy carrying his clubs, ‘Pick it out
of the hole, laddie.’” And this was in the days when greens resembled sheep-
3. Sir Bob Charles
The first left-
2. Bobby Locke
The South African was unconventional in everything he did. He wasn’t even named Robert
but was christened Arthur D’Arcy — the Bobby came from his habit of bobbing up and
down in his pram. He familiarly wore a white cap, shoes and shirt (including necktie)
and dark plus fours, in which he carried his portly frame down the fairways with
such ponderous elegance that his passing could have been likened to that of a royal
barge on the Thames. His golf game was also out-
1. Sir Michael Bonallack
Quite simply, in the eyes of many, the former secretary of the R&A is the best putter there has ever been. As a lifelong amateur he was never tested against the very best pros but many of those who witnessed him in action agreed that he was peerless. Like so many masters of the green, he stayed faithful to one putter and had an idiosyncratic style that was all his own. Peter Alliss said of him: “Michael Bonallack was a remarkable player. He had a magnificent short game that was all of his own making. When putting he took up a big, wide stance with his nose almost sniffing the ball and had a short, jabby swing but all the putts went in the hole.” Sir Michael’s honors in the amateur game are far too numerous to mention but include five amateur championships and four English amateur titles. In the 1963 English Amateur at Burnham & Berrow, he got up and down in two 22 times in 36 holes against Alan Thirwell. Far too modest to agree with this assessment, he nevertheless was the best.
Definitely not on the list
Ivan Gantz — early US Tour pro who was famous for hitting himself in the head when he missed a short putt, and once even knocked himself out.
Larry Nelson — who once said with commendable honesty: “I play along every year, waiting for one week, maybe two, when I can putt.”
Clayton Heafner — of whom fellow American pro Cary Middlecoff said: “The only time he could putt was when he was mad enough to hate the ball into the hole.”
Had it but lost it
Tom Watson — Fearlessly aggressive in his early days and never minded knocking it five feet past because he would always get the one coming back. Now he doesn’t.
Ben Hogan — Still a fabulous swinger of a golf club well into his 50s but couldn’t putt for his life.
Tony Jacklin — Never the same after Lee Trevino broke his heart and picked his pocket for the ’71 Open by chipping in from everywhere.
Peter Alliss — Lost it at the Italian Open when he retired mid-
Sam Snead — Rescued himself for a while by putting sidesaddle but when that was outlawed he was back to the yips.
Bernhard Langer — for having, and overcoming, the yips three times, which is just about unique at the highest level.
Almost made it into the top-
Arnold Palmer — Always wonderfully aggressive but his collection of more than 80 putters reveal how he struggled at times.
Retief Goosen — One of the most consistent holer-
David Toms — Rarely three-
Potential to join the greats
Paul Casey — The combination of Luke Donald’s iron play and Casey’s putting wrapped up last year’s World Cup of golf.
Adam Scott — At his best a wonderful putter but not at his best often enough yet.
Stewart Cink — Rolls them in from everywhere
Mike Weir — Won the Masters on the greens but not yet truly consistent enough.
Sergio Garcia — Currently worried about his inconsistency but has the stroke and
imagination to be a world beater.
Martin Vousden is a freelance golf writer, a former editor of Today’s Golfer and launch editor of Golf Buyer and Swing magazines. His book, , was published in 2006 by Time Warner. He edits the website.