In Sport360’s weekly golf column, Alex Dimond brings you a light-hearted look at the world of golf. In this article, Different Strokes focuses on the development of the short game, Jim Furyk’s delayed PGA victory and Bubba Watson’s latest antics away from the course.
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Short game back as the main game
‘Drive for show, putt for dough,’ as the old golfing adage goes. It’s a catchphrase quickly learned by every junior golfer in every English-speaking country around the globe (and probably a few others, too). It’s the cheeky retort of the short-hitting plodder who holes that 15-footer to edge out his power-hitting opponent at the first extra hole of their summer knockout match.
It is golf distilled to its essence – 10-inch putt being worth just as much on the scorecard as a 350-yard drive.
But somewhere along the way the professional game had begun to lose track of that insight. Perhaps it was the fact that, to the untrained eye, every top pro on the PGA Tour putts and drives to a very similar standard. Jump on the range at any tournament and the flight of the balls feel more like a military gun salute than the results of 20+ individual players.
Perhaps its just a natural tendency, the human instinct that bigger distance somehow correlates to greater masculinity. Or perhaps it was the fact that the very top players, the ones who win most often, seem to share the same characteristic – they bomb it off the tee.
Current world No. 1 Rory McIlroy is one of the longest players in the game, while Bubba Watson has two Masters jackets in his wardrobe. Dustin Johnson, a huge hitter of the golf ball, has the longest active winning streak of any player (he was won a tournament in each of the last eight seasons). In the exploits of those three, and a couple of others, the message has suddenly changed: Hit big, win big.
Round 1 strokes gained stats. Mickelson/Rory killed it off the tee. Rory’s short game was a mess. pic.twitter.com/MyMYP1wDkY
— Jake Nichols (@jalnichols) April 10, 2015
In that light, perhaps Spieth’s victory at Augusta National will see a shift in how the top players develop their games, especially as far as the majors go.
Spieth does not hit the ball a long way, at least by modern standards, and his impressive shot-making ability is blunted somewhat as an advantage by modern golf club technology – which allows less naturally-gifted players to get away with much more than their brethren in previous generations (Sergio Garcia nods his head in frustrated agreement).
Spieth’s ability to shape the ball every which way still helps, of course, but it is not going to give him a four-shot advantage in the final round of a major.
A reminder that Spieth has teed it up against 527 players in the last month, and has been beaten by 2 of them.
— No Laying Up (@NoLayingUp) April 17, 2015
What is going to do that, it seems, is a pinpoint short-game. If one area of Spieth’s game elevated him above the rest of the field at Augusta two weeks ago, then it was his touch around those famous greens.
The 21-year-old got up-and-down from the tightest spots – his chip from the side of the 18th at the conclusion of his third round a breathtaking example – and he holed nearly every putt he looked at from inside what most would call a makeable distance.
He is 65th on the PGA Tour in driving distance (25 yards behind Dustin Johnson), yet seventh in strokes gained putting (he was fourth until last week’s hungover performance at the RBC Heritage) and 17th in scrambling. In the FedEx Cup standings, of course, he’s No1.
Back when Tiger Woods was winning every other major, he was also perceived as one of the biggest hitters in the game (a perception he was often keen to promote, and one that perhaps led him towards a fitness regime that explains some of his more recent injuries). But it was actually his short game, specifically his putting, that so often allowed him to jump clear of the field – or stay at arm’s length once the lead had been secured.
Making birdies, after all, is one thing. Keeping them is equally important. It is double-edged sword, one Woods in his prime wielded with authority. It is still early, but Spieth seems to be similarly gifted.
Like Woods, Spieth also seems to have his course management under control (after Sunday’s final round at the Masters, he went on a 2,800-word monologue detailing each and every shot of his final round).
The Texan, like Woods, plays courses from back-to-front; working out where he wants to be on each green first of all, and then plotting from that where that means he needs to put himself in the fairway and what shot he needs to hit off the tee.
That strategy is worth far more than an extra 20 yards off the tee.
“Chicks dig the long ball,” as another adage states. But they dig winners even more. It might be early days, but Spieth’s triumph might see many top players re-evaluate how they look at their games over the coming months.
Forget his Masters win (and all the top-10s), this is still the best thing Jordan Spieth has done all year. https://t.co/prvvYUbxFk
— Shane Bacon (@shanebacon) April 20, 2015
Jim’ll fix it (eventually)
In the four-and-a-half years since Jim Furyk last won on the PGA Tour, it’s safe to say that a sudden inability to stay loose down the stretch—or, to put it less tactfully, a tendency to choke—had cost him a few wins.
It cost him potential majors (the 2012 US Open), and a slew of regular tour events (perhaps most notably the 2012 Bridgestone Invitational). It even cost his country the Ryder Cup, as he somehow fell to singles defeat against Sergio Garcia during that capitulation at Medinah.
2012 may have been Furyk’s annus horribilis, but the funk continued long after. He finished runner-up a remarkable four times in 2014, and in February threw away the 54-hole lead at Pebble Beach in the AT&T Pro-Am. It was his ninth consecutive failure to win from such a position.
“I’m well aware,” Furyk said on Sunday, when asked about that streak. “I had to talk about it a lot over those years.”
Some Jim Furyk PGA Tour career numbers: 17 wins 29 runner-ups 16 thirds 174 top 10s 442 made cuts 89 missed cuts 1 WD $63.5M in prize money
— Mike O’Malley (@GD_MikeO) April 20, 2015
So how did Furyk finally turn things around at the RBC Heritage – an event he labeled as his favourite outside the majors? It was ingenious, really; he got his choke out of the way early in the round.
Usually, in contention with nine holes to play, Furyk would tense up and fritter away shots. But on Sunday at Hilton Head he instead started horribly, by his reckoning playing the first five holes in abysmal fashion. But a few putts dropped, and one tee-shot destined for the water hit a tree and landed safe, and suddenly Furyk had a whole different mindset.
“I made some just awful swings early on… I was scratching my head, I felt like I was about 2‑over and I was 2‑under,” he said.
A bogey at 11, after a tentative approach, reset Furyk’s mind once again. From that point on he always looked like he would eventually push Kevin Kisner aside – to the surprise of everyone watching.
“I knew that one bogey wasn’t going to kill me, but I knew I had to keep the pedal down, had to be aggressive and I really felt something in my setup there that was causing all the bad swings,” he said.
“And from that point on I felt like I really struck the ball well. I had a lot of confidence. I didn’t hold back. I wasn’t conservative. Everything was aggressive. And I hit a lot of shots at the pin, and still stayed hot with the putter.”
It was a victory long in the making.
Bubba’s mixed bag
First of all, there was his appearance on a Christian rap song – which is just about as bad as it sounds (Bubba’s contribution starts at 3:09).
On the more enjoyable side, there was this from Watson while he was in China – the highlight of a series of videos he sent on social media while out playing a spot of night golf.
— bubba watson (@bubbawatson) April 18, 2015
Stick to the golf, Bubba.