Golf Digest (South Africa) - - Contents 6/15 - ByJaimeDiaz

Jor­dan Spi­eth’s Masters victory is a re­minder that there’s more to golf than the long ball.

the splash jor­dan spi­eth made at the Masters con­tin­ues to pro­duce rip­ples. But so far over­looked is how the 21-year- old wiz­ard brought at­ten­tion back to the short game and putting as the most re­li­able dif­fer­ence mak­ers in win­ning tour­na­ments.

Ac­tu­ally, the sub­ject has been creep­ing back to our at­ten­tion lately. Tiger Woods’ chip­ping tribu­la­tions made it clear how cru­cial those skills had been to his great­ness. The green­side vir­tu­os­ity that Spi­eth and Pa­trick Reed dis­played down the stretch of the Valspar Cham­pi­onship was elec­tri­fy­ing. Then there is the fact that too many of the game’s big­gest and most bal­ly­hooed hit­ters are clearly held back by weak short games – no­tably Dustin John­son.

But Spi­eth had the skill, the stage and the tim­ing to change the nar­ra­tive. All four of his rounds fea­tured the kind of fi­nesse shots that gave him more game than his com­pe­ti­tion. And on his 54th hole, af­ter a dou­ble bo­gey, Spi­eth pulled off a do-or-die flop from a down­hill lie to a short pin that for sheer de­gree of dif­fi­culty goes down as one of the great­est short-game shots in Masters his­tory. It was the sig­na­ture mo­ment of the event, and maybe a bea­con to the fu­ture.

If so, the change is over­due. For too long, pro golf has been all about length off the tee. No doubt it mat­ters hugely, but it’s not ev­ery­thing and never will be, even if the ma­jor-win­ning driver prow­ess of Rory McIl­roy and Bubba Wat­son is more ar­rest­ing than short­game ge­nius Luke Don­ald’s 56 weeks at World No 1. But lately, sto­ries about golf ’s best are fo­cused on their swing speeds, Body Mass In­dexes and weightlift­ing reg­i­mens. The wedge and put­ter? Bor­ing. Drive for show and putt for dough? Huh?

Columbia pro­fes­sor Mark Broadie’s break­through “strokes gained” sta­tis­ti­cal anal­y­sis on the PGA Tour seem­ingly sealed the deal. Of his four mea­sured com­po­nents of a tour player’s game – driv­ing, ap­proach play, short shots and putting – Broadie de­clared that short shots and putting are the two least im­por­tant as far as cre­at­ing sep­a­ra­tion from peers.

I don’t dis­pute Broadie’s ac­cu­racy in re­gard to the PGA Tour as a whole. But when it comes to ac­tu­ally win­ning tour­na­ments, anec­do­tal ev­i­dence and the eye test tell me that chip­ping and putting have been and re­main vi­tal. On Sun­days, the win­ning mo­ment is of­ten a cru­cial up-and-down or a key putt.

This is es­pe­cially true at ma­jors, where more greens are missed, and where the sur­faces are firmer and faster and the hole po­si­tions more chal­leng­ing. The man who won 13 of the 31 ma­jors he played, Bobby Jones, was on to some­thing when he said, “The se­cret of golf is turn­ing three shots into two.”

Of course there’s a long tra­di­tion, led by Ben Ho­gan, of su­pe­rior ball-strik­ers whose short shots were not of the same stan­dard, yet who won mul­ti­ple ma­jors. Vi­jay Singh is in this se­lect club, and though it’s early, McIl­roy might earn a membership as well.

But there is a much grander tra­di­tion of great put­ters and wedge play­ers (who pos­sessed vary­ing de­grees of ball-strik­ing pro­fi­ciency) win­ning most of­ten. In mod­ern times, Gary Player (short hit­ting), Tom Wat­son (crooked hit­ting), Nick Faldo (short), Seve Balles­teros (crooked) and Phil Mick­el­son (crooked) all won at least five ma­jors.

As for Woods, who in his best years was at least very good at ev­ery part of the game, it’s worth not­ing that in­struc­tor John Anselmo ob­served that when he was teach­ing Tiger as a teenager in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, “what he liked to do best was chip and putt and try to learn shots around the green.” It might have been taken for granted when Woods was win­ning ma­jors at a record clip, but a de­clin­ing short game that has been re­spon­si­ble for all the “soft” bo­geys he never used to make (quite apart from his re­cent cri­sis) makes it clear how cru­cial it was to keep­ing all those epic rounds knit to­gether with par saves. As Lee Trevino says, “What made Tiger so tough was that he kept his birdies.”

To win with any reg­u­lar­ity, even great ball-strik­ers need to be good with the wedge or put­ter or both, says one of his­tory’s short-game artists, Ray­mond Floyd. “It’s very rare to hit the ball well for four straight days,” he says. “To win, your bad ball-strik­ing round can’t be 74 or 75. You need a short game so that it’s not worse than par. And that’s never go­ing to change.”

Well, what about Jack Nick­laus, who never dis­puted that he was medi­ocre with wedges? When he was play­ing, Nick­laus’ glib de­fence was that he didn’t need a short game. But in 2010 he ad­mit­ted to Golf Di­gest that was based on bravado more than rea­son.

“My phi­los­o­phy be­came, ‘I’m go­ing to hit 14 or 15 greens, I’m go­ing to hit at least a cou­ple of par 5s in two, and I’m go­ing to make ev­ery putt in­side 10 feet,’ ” he said. Which Floyd con­firms. “Jack seems like an ex­cep­tion, but you can­not dis­count that he was prob­a­bly the great­est put­ter in the world. It usu­ally cov­ered for his short game.”

Yet even at his best, be­cause it’s golf, Nick­laus lost a lot more tour­na­ments than he won, and he now con­cedes with a tinge of re­gret what a sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ence hav­ing a qual­ity short game would have made in his tour­na­ment and ma­jor-cham­pi­onship tally. “It was fool­ish for me to be­lieve that it was good enough,” he says.

In his self-as­sess­ment, McIl­roy bor­ders on early Nick­laus. Though McIl­roy ad­mits that putting and chip­ping are not up to his long game, he has de­cided that try­ing to dramatically strengthen



his weak­nesses could end up cost­ing him his strength. For now, his mantra is “When I drive it well, I win.”

The roots of such an at­ti­tude can be found in the sport’s cur­rent col­lec­tive de­ter­mi­na­tion to be seen as, above all, ath­letic. This is where Spi­eth comes in. He’s clearly an ath­lete, from a fam­ily of team-sports stand­outs, and he was out­stand­ing at youth bas­ket­ball and base­ball. Though he has jock bona fides and looks the part, he’s not re­ally a power player. He in­nately knows that fi­nesse, hand-eye co­or­di­na­tion, vi­su­al­i­sa­tion, in­tel­li­gence and nerve are tools ev­ery bit as ath­letic as speed and strength.

There is no deny­ing that Spi­eth doesn’t have the fastest swing speed or the long­est carry dis­tance. But when he’s over a big putt, he’s un­mis­tak­ably an ath­lete, pro­ject­ing the kind of com­mand­ing body lan­guage that his name­sake, Michael Jor­dan, had when tak­ing the last shot. Spi­eth sim­ply looks like he’s go­ing to pull it off, and of­ten does. There isn’t any­thing more ath­letic than be­ing clutch.

Nor should the short shots be con­sid­ered the geeky side of golf, suited for the diminu­tive Paul Run­yans and all the suc­ceed­ing pen­cil necks. Ul­ti­mately, the short game is about the most valu­able com­mod­ity in sports – tal­ent – and re­flects the im­pro­vi­sa­tional and artis­tic di­men­sions of ath­leti­cism that con­nois­seurs love most. It’s not a mys­tery why Balles­teros was the favourite player to watch among so many of his peers.

“I don’t think you can call your­self a great ath­lete with­out touch and feel,” Floyd says. “All great sports­men have to have it. It’s a cru­cial part of any sport, and one of the best things about golf is that the best play­ers have the most.”

Spi­eth is one of those, per­haps the big­gest rea­son he has risen to No 2 in the world. Look for a lot more play­ers to try to be more like Jor­dan.

Seve Balles­teros’ short-game magic was ev­i­dent at the 1980 Masters.

Jor­dan Spi­eth and cad­die Michael Greller had the an­swers at

Au­gusta Na­tional.

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