The calls for help are coming in from halfway around the world.
They’re coming from the biggest names in golf.
Before Phil Mickelson won the HSBC Champions in Singapore last week, he sent text messages to Dave Stockton back in California , questions about playing slower greens.
The immediate results Stockton produced working with Mickelson and Michelle Wie this summer have made him the planet’s hottest new short-game guru. Mickelson and Wie both caught fire with their putters right after huddling with Stockton.
At 68, Stockton ’s hardly new to the game. The two-time PGA Championship winner was known as one of his era’s great putters. What’s new is his commitment to teaching. He won 10 PGA Tour events, including the 1970 and ’76 PGA Championships, and 14 Champions Tour events. With his Champions Tour career winding down in the last couple years, Stockton began taking on clients and helping his sons, Dave Jr. and Ron, with their teaching careers. The demand for Dave’s services has skyrocketed because of his success with Mickelson and Wie. Senior writer Randall Mell caught up with Stockton for a quick round:
You holed some fairly large putts playing the final round with Arnold Palmer to win your first major in the 1970 PGA Championship at Southern Hills. You beat Palmer and Bob Murphy by two shots. What do you remember about that important victory?
My wife, Cathy, was eight months pregnant with Ronnie. She couldn’t walk the course. I was out there alone, and it was extremely hot. I remember three putting the fifth hole in the final round and this guy yells really loudly, `You got him now Arnold !’ I followed with a birdie, holed a pitching wedge for eagle on the seventh, then doubled the eighth, but I made birdie from nine out of a trap. I started with a four-shot lead and built a seven-shot lead. Basically, all I did was try to play the back nine as fast as I could and try to get to the clubhouse. There was a great deal of satisfaction winning. There were lot of people rooting for Arnold to complete the career grand slam, but it was also important for the Stockton family to win.
I got a little extra boost after the second or third round, when they said, “Unknown leads the PGA.” I took serious offense to that. I may not have been famous, but I won four times in the previous three years. To be called an unknown, that irked me. I used that. It was a fun week. If I hadn’t been playing against Arnold , I would have been rooting for him to complete the grand slam, too.
With your success as a putter, fellow Tour pros must have sought your help.
Back then, I would say to people, `I’ll be glad to help you,’ but when they asked what they could pay me, I would say, `The only thing I want you to pay me is not to tell anybody that I’ve I helped you.’ I didn’t want to help players bump me off the Tour. I wanted to keep playing. I’m not going to beat anyone on the course anymore. It’s a totally different thing. In the past, I’ve helped Annika Sorenstam and I’ve helped Tiger Woods with his wedges. One of the guys I really remembered helping is Mark McCumber. I remember after working a weekend with him, he won the next two weeks. He went berserk that he could pick it up that fast. Teaching is not something I’ve just come upon. I’ve done a lot of corporate outings over the years that were basically like clinics. I pride myself, and my boys also, that we can watch one swing and in one swing we can see what someone is doing wrong, and have the ability to help without screwing people up.
What was it like watching Michelle Wie and Phil Mickelson get so hot with their putters after working with you?
One of the neatest things was how comfortable they were. It didn’t look like either one of them was learning a new technique. They just kind of polished what they had. But they obviously are very talented to start with, extremely so. But it was a great sense of accomplishment for me.
How do you explain having such immediate success with the both of them?
Part of it is luck. You want to analyze what a person is doing, and then the key as a teacher is to correct what they are doing wrong, but get them to be comfortable doing so because you putt with your subconscious. You can’t be thinking mechanically during any part of a golf swing or while putting. It has to be natural. That was one of the things that made me feel the best. Phil’s immediate reaction was, `This is what I remember it feeling like. This is easy.’ Michelle’s reaction was, `This is much easier than I thought.’ It was something they could incorporate into what they were already doing without a lot of conscious thought, because the less conscious thought, the better off you are going to be.
What most helped Phil? Moving his hands forward?
I knew it wouldn’t take much to fix Phil because he uses a lot of loft on the putter as I do. If you forward press, the direction hand going to the hole is in better position. We also widened his stance and did some other things, but the biggest thing with Phil was getting him to stand there and look at the hole as he set his feet, so he automatically lined up every single time. He could see the line the ball was going to roll and just let his hands go through the target.
With Michelle, wasn’t it mostly about making her less mechanical and thinking more about feel?
Absolutely, everybody wants to get better, and they try real hard, but try is not a word, in my opinion, that really helps anybody get better in golf. You tense up. Certainly, with feel shots, you want to have your own creativity. Michelle and Phil have tremendous creativity. I think it’s one of the reasons they picked things up so fast.
Don’t you believe there’s a danger in working too much on your putting?
It will be interesting to see how much Phil practices this winter. I told him he better get some hobbies because it’s not going to be that hard for him to figure this putting out. I’m not expecting him to put hours and hours in, especially on his putting. One thing about working with Annika, if I told her to work on something for an hour, she would work two hours on it. I have a hunch Michelle Wie is the same way. I think Michelle Wie is probably one of the hardest workers, like Annika. Some people, like Fuzzy Zoeller, don’t have to work as hard. Different people have different formulas for success. My job is to look at what is going to make them comfortable and show them what they can do to get better in the shortest time possible.
What are the basics of what you try to teach?
The first thing I do is have you put down a 15-footer and go through your routine. `This is to win the U.S. Open. This is to win the Masters or the Solheim Cup.’ You give them a 15-footer with a break of 5 or 6 inches right or left. And you see how they go about reading the greens, how much time they take to do it. If I help enough people, the game’s going to be faster because I don’t like practice strokes, necessarily, and I definitely don’t like somebody trying to spend a whole lot of time analyzing putts.
With that 15-footer, basically I want to know, `Do you see the line? And why is it taking this much time? Why are you lining it up to the high side when you should be lining it up to the low side?’ Your eyes should always be on the side the ball breaks toward. You can see your line that much better. I’m not a big fan of circling the hole. I want to see your routine because most people, mechanically, probably putt pretty good. But they can’t visualize, or see the line. That’s where most of the mistakes appear to me.
Why don’t you like circling putts or practice putting strokes?
Sign your signature like you are writing a check. Then I want you to slowly make your signature and try to make it exactly the same. It’s your own signature, but you can’t do it. You sign your signature with your subconscious. As soon as you try physically to do it, you can’t. That’s how it is with important putts. Say you are writing a letter to the president by hand. What are the odds you get toward the end and you mess up? It’s just hard because it’s not comfortable. I think the quicker you see your line and have an idea of what you want to do, then get up and get it over with. You would be surprised how much better you play. There’s a huge difference between trying to make a putt and just saying I’m going to roll this thing up there. Those are the ones you make. You see it every week. `OK, this putt is to win the tournament,’ and they just fan it. Golf is full of expectations.
How did you become a great putter?
I don’t know, really, other that the fact that I grew up with a putter and a 3-wood. When I was a boy, I would hit 3-wood down the par 5 away from our clubhouse [at Arrowhead Country Club in San Bernadino , Calif. ] and again on the par 5 coming back. I couldn’t wait until I got to the green and could putt. By the time I was 6 or 7, I would challenge anyone to putt. My dad always taught me that you should never leave a putt short but you should never knock it more than 15, 16 inches past. When I was young, I just thought everyone made putts. I would only hit seven or eight greens in a round, maybe nine or 10 if I had a good day, but I would have 24, 25 or 26 putts. I thought that was the norm. My career was built around the short game, the mental aspect, putting and chipping. I didn’t get excited about where the drive or irons went because once I got inside 100 yards, that’s when I could create. It’s what I liked to do.