AUGUSTA, Ga. – At the end, Ben Hogan would just stand over the golf ball, frozen, unwilling or unable to even bring the putter back. “Putting,” he said, “is just like 18 trips to the blood bank in a day to me. Don’t you think I’m embarrassed? Don’t you think it’s embarrassing to hear all those people say, ‘Why don’t he just hit the damn thing?’”
At the end, Tommy Armour so feared the short putts – he once missed 21 putts of 3 feet or less in the same tournament – that he came up with a name for his disease: The yips. “I reached the point,” he told sportswriter Grantland Rice, “where I dreaded to walk on the green, and the putter looked like a fer-de-lance (a venomous pit viper).”
At the end, Sam Snead – who old-timers will tell you had the most beautiful swing in history – was so overwhelmed by his inability to putt the ball in the hole that he began putting croquet style, straddling over the ball, reaching down with his right hand to the bottom of the club and hitting the ball forward. “Here,” Snead once said as he held a putter in the air, “is my personal strait jacket. Me puttin’ is like watching a monkey sitting on a football.”
Why do these tiny little shots, ones children love hitting even around windmills and through clowns’ mouths, bring down the greatest players of the sport? It’s one of the great mysteries of the game. The only thing that isn’t mysterious at all is how painful it is to watch great players suffer.
Thursday, we watched four-time major champion Ernie Els suffer like no great golfer ever had.
“You have snakes and stuff going up in your brain,” Els said sadly as he tried to piece together the calamity that had just happened. “You know. It’s difficult.”
First hole Thursday, and Ernie Els felt pretty good. He was hitting the ball pretty well. His putting problems the last few years – and particularly the last six months – are well known, but he had been working with a coach on it and felt like it was going reasonably well. “I felt the same way I normally feel in a major,” he said. “I’ve played a lot of these things.”
First hole Thursday, and Els hit a wayward second shot and pitched up to 2 feet. It seemed a certain par and a solid enough start on a windy afternoon in Augusta. Els stood over the putt, brushed it, and hit it about 2 inches left of the hole. It rolled to 3 feet away. That’s putt No. 1.
“I couldn’t get the putter back,” Els would say. “I’ve made thousands of 3-footers, and I just stood there, and I couldn’t take it back.”
Els quickly walked around the hole to his ball and, without thinking, stood over the ball to knock it in for a frustrating bogey. Once again, he pulled the ball about 2 inches left of the hole. It rolled to 3 feet away. That’s putt No. 2.
“What holds you from doing your normal thing?” Els asks. “I don’t know what it is. I can go to the putting green right now and make 20 straight 3-footers.”
Els raced around the hole again and, again, didn’t stop before he putted the ball. He just wanted the darned thing to go in. He just wanted to get off the green and live with his embarrassment. You know that thing kids do at a Putt-Putt course? They will hit the ball back and forth, and then finally they will just pick up the ball and put it right next to the hole before knocking it in. Els had to be thinking about that. He hit the putt and, yes, knocked it 2 inches to the left of the hole. That’s putt No. 3.
What else in sports can compare to this? People often talk about Willie Mays falling down in the outfield. They talk about John Unitas getting sacked and beat up and barely being able to throw downfield. They talk about Kobe Bryant missing jumper after jumper. But those aren’t the same. Those are things that mere mortals like us can’t do even on our best day. Here was Ernie Els, one of the greatest golfers ever, already a World Golf Hall of Famer, and he was missing 2-foot putts badly. “We’ve all been there,” he said, but truth is even the hackers kind of shook their heads. Even they hadn’t been THERE.
For the fourth putt, Els backed off to gather himself. It was a wise move. Other people have four-putted at Augusta. This wasn’t yet a singular moment. The most famous of those four-putts was the great Seve Ballesteros who, when asked to recap it said simply: “I miss. I miss. I miss. I make.” Els looked at the short putt for a couple of seconds, then stepped to the ball, set his putter, got his balance and pushed the putt 2 inches to the right of the cup. That’s putt No. 4.
None of the four putts, you will note, even GRAZED the hole.
“There’s a short up there somewhere,” Els said of his own brain. “And you just can’t do what you normally do. It’s unexplainable. You know, a lot of people have stopped playing the game, you know, getting that feeling.”
At this point, Els was so frustrated – and the ball was so close to the hole – that he just reached out the putter with one arm and chipped at the ball. For the first time, the ball actually hit the hole, and then it spun out. That’s putt No. 5.
The last putt, the one that finally went in, was a little backhanded motion, the sort of frustrated “I give up” motion that golfers do when their brains have tilted. That’s putt No. 6. There were those on the Internet who thought that Els actually raked the last putt in, which would be an illegal stroke, but 1) I don’t think it was a rake and 2) Who would be cruel enough to call that on Els after he had to endure that six-putt hailstorm.
Anyway, at first people called it a seven-putt – as if a six-putt is not bad enough. It’s still unclear why that happened; the video clearly shows him making six putts. The rumor was that there was some phantom putt that did not make it onto video. “Someone counted it properly,” Els said glumly.
At least that.
“It’s the first time I’ve ever seen anything like that,” his playing competitor Jason Day said. “I feel for Ernie … I just want Ernie to get back to what he used to do.”
Yes, we all want that. Ernie Els does not deserve this fate. Nobody does, of course, but Els in particular has been a great player and a credit to the game, and he should have the long sunset that comes with such a career. But as simple as it seems to get over the yips, few do. Maybe nobody does. Someone once asked Hogan how to get over those haunting putting issues. His response: Stop playing golf.
“What do you do?” someone asked Els.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe a brain transplant. You tell me.”