Even before the tournament started, the talk at this first stop on the Florida swing was putting. To a man, each touring professional was thrilled to be back putting on the smooth, fast Bermuda-grass greens of the Sunshine State, thousands of miles away from the slow, bumpy, unpredictable poa annua greens of California.
I grew up on poa, SoCal native Tiger Woods said, But I still cant putt them consistently. Woods left the tours West Coast swing ranked outside the top 150 in total putts per round. On poa, you can hit good putts and they dont go in and hit bad putts and they do go in. Tiger said there is nothing wrong with his putting technique or mechanics and he proved it to himself quickly in his practice rounds at Doral. I can see the line here better (than on poa) and when the greens are fast and consistent, its easier to adjust your feel and speed good putts go in.
In the first round at Doral, Tiger missed half the fairways and five greens, but made just one bogey. He needed just 27 putts to put together a round of 5-under-par 67 and gain a tie for third. Thats the best position hes been in after the first round this year.
Having finally reached greens that reward good strokes, much of the attention on the tour turned to technique. Specifically, The Claw. Chris DiMarco, The Claws cover-boy, arrived in Miami sitting atop the tours money list and ranked 10th in the world ' the highest hes ever been placed. The key to his success: his game on the greens with The Claw.
The Claw grip is one where a right-handed player uses a standard grip with his left hand and, literally, claws the shaft with his right. The putter is stuck between the thumb and forefinger with the palm facing either towards the hole or the ground. It totally takes the right hand out of the stroke, DiMarco explains. You stroke with your shoulders and dont yank it.
Skip Kendall showed DiMarco The Claw seven years ago. Chris, in turn, taught it to Mark Calcavecchia. Mark used the claw last year to set a scoring record of 256, 28-under-par at the Phoenix Open. This year, DiMarco and Calc rank first and second, respectively, in putting on tour.
DiMarco needed just 25 putts in his first round at Doral to shoot 65 and grab the lead.
When guys out here see that something is working for someone else, theyre usually going to check it out for themselves, Kendall said of The Claw. Sure enough. Kevin Sutherland switched to The Claw right before the World Match Play Championship at La Costa and the 62nd-ranked player won the $1 million first-place prize.
At the same time in Tucson, in the event for the players who didnt qualify for the Match Play, 18-year tour veteran David Peoples adopted The Claw. He had his best showing in years, finishing second.
Watch for more claw grips coming to a tour stop near you.
For years on The Golf Channel, weve heard short-game guru Dave Pelz implore us to spend more time practicing our play from 100 yards in. The pros certainly dont have to be browbeaten into believing the short game means everything.
At the end of two rounds at Doral, the leader was Ernie Els. The two-time U.S. Open champion missed 12 greens in regulation ' thats one-third of the greens. Well, Ernie did not make one single bogey over the first 36 holes. Obviously my short games been pretty good, he said.
In the third round, that short game got even better. As Rich Beem, one player paired with Ernie, said, Well, they call him the Big Easy and he sure made it look easy.
In the first 13 holes Saturday, Ernie used just 17 putts. Yes, he made his first two bogeys of the tournament during that stretch, but he also posted eight birdies. Els built his lead to an overwhelming eight strokes. Afterwards, Ernie summed it up with the understatement of the week: Yeah, I guess Im putting pretty good. Through the first 54 holes, the Big Easy was averaging 11 one-putts per round.
Els also said Saturday evening, This tournament still isnt over. Much to his dismay, Ernies words rang shockingly true on Sunday. Tiger was playing in the group ahead of Els and Ernie was witness to the type of incredible rally weve grown to expect from young Mr. Woods. Tiger birdied the first three holes and was moving in.
Meanwhile, Ernie also birdied the easy par-5 first. But on the second green, his heretofore-reliable putter failed him. That early mistake didnt help, Els said. Ernie missed a 2-and-1/2 foot putt for par. After three holes, his lead had shrunk to five. Another bogey at No. 6 and Els advantage was a mere four.
I was hoping to cut the lead in half by the turn, Tiger said. He did even better. Tiger nailed a ten-footer for birdie on the treacherous par-3 ninth. The lead was down to three. Tiger birdied the par-5 10th. The lead was down to two. Six shots in ten holes.
Ernies short game failed him again on the 10th. He stubbed a chip and had to settle for par. The next par-5 was the 12th; and up ahead of Els, Tiger hit two gargantuan shots to the green and two-putted for birdie. Incredibly, the lead was down to one. Tiger had erased seven shots of the eight-stroke deficit.
Ernie drove in a bunker on No. 12, laid up and then hit his approach to 20 feet. He had yet to make a single one-putt birdie all day. Then came probably the most important putt of the tournament, Els said. Ernie drained the 20-footer, his lead was back to two and relief was written on his face. Suddenly his swing became more relaxed, his confidence returned. He pared in with no trouble. The two-shot lead was maintained.
Victory was his. But as the man called The Big Easy said, it was anything but.