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By helping Phil Mickelson snap a two-year putting slump, 68-year-old Dave Stockton Sr. has emerged as golf's short-game guru du jour

Mickelson: Kevin Cox/Getty Images; Stockton: Erik Isakson
Let us speak of the putter. Not the blunt instrument but the man making the stroke. Much has been said—by George Low, by Bobby Locke, by Stan Utley—about the act of putting. Relatively little about the putter. I stand before you, naked in my shame, as that man. In my green youth, in the mid-1970s—on a slow practice green, a quarter a hole, carryovers, ace pays double—I lost more than I won. For a while, in the early 1990s, I made lots of putts, especially ones that counted. I thought of Seve, and I willed them in. Then the kids came and, soon after, putting chaos. I could no longer tell uphill from downhill. In my game, where we hole everything, I'd miss regularly from a yard and sometimes from a foot.

"What have you been doing?"

The voice belonged to Mr. Dave Stockton, of Redlands, Calif. You've probably heard, he packs magic: he fixed Phil. Somehow, I got him on the phone and now he was asking me, in his distinctive SoCal voice—so cool, so confident, so unhurried—what I was doing. I had dreamed of this moment: a trained professional willing to take my short-stick confessional.

I've been faithful to the same putter since '91—Lord knows why—and I look at the hole from 10 feet and out, but I've been attempting the little ones left-handed, trying to think of nothing but the sound of a falling putt, a la Dr. Cary Middlecoff. But I can't breathe and I'd like to start all over again lefthand low like Furyk, or maybe righthand low as a lefty, or possibly the belly...

"Hold it, hold it," Stockton said. "You don't need all that. Let me ask you a question: What's the loft on your putter?"

Stockton—winner of two PGA Championships, on every list of all-time putters—was leaping into the heart of darkness.

"A pro friend told me it has no loft," I said.

I was on a cell phone, in an idling car, in the parking lot of my home course in Philadelphia, fresh off another round of 92 with 40 putts, or something like that. I had lost count and interest.

"I'll see you," Stockton said. "But don't come out here without a putter that has at least four degrees of loft."

I would not waste the man's time. Stockton isn't in the business of teaching duffers (like me) how to putt. This whole thing, being outed as a golf instructor, is new for him. It started when he gave Michelle Wie a single lesson and then she putted lights-out at the Solheim Cup in September and word got out. (She never came back.) His basic rate is $500 an hour, two-hour minimum, and his two sons, Dave Jr. and Ron, teach his putting, chipping and pitching concepts at $100 an hour. They could put up a shingle: STOCKTON & SONS: SHORT GAME SPECIALISTS.

But the father isn't really looking to give one-off lessons. His interest is in long-term relationships with touring pros and future touring pros and getting a percentage of the winnings, like a tour caddie. He took me on because of my public typing, unfazed by the prospect of an unhappy ending. I knew better.

Stockton had never seen me gag from a foot and a half. My playing partners have, lots of times.

Phil Mickelson's caddie, Jim "Bones" Mackay, is your classic liberal-arts golf head. He played on his college golf team and he can talk shaft flexes and course design and on his off weeks he'll watch ... the Champions Tour on TV. Dave Stockton always impressed him: a winner, a gamer, a cool customer. Stockton joined the Senior Tour shortly after serving as the winning captain of the '91 Ryder Cup at Kiawah Island, known far and wide as the War by the Shore. His win in the U.S. Senior Open at stern Canterbury in 1996 was a putting exhibition. Mackay was impressed when he heard that Stockton had made his California home available to Paul Azinger when he was going through cancer treatments. It was obvious that Stockton, the son of a club pro, was steeped in the game and its people. He had lived his life in a windbreaker.

Stockton and Azinger are both PGA Champions. Mickelson is, too. There's more bonding between PGA Champions than we could ever know. They have an annual dinner, and they talk Ryder Cup, an event started by the PGA of America, at all your better driving ranges. When Mickelson, flummoxed by his poor putting through the FedEx events, asked Mackay for a course of action, he had a name all teed up: Stockton. Among all Stockton's other qualities, Mackay liked how Stockton did so much of his senior tour damage with Ray Cook mallets and not the symmetric center-shafted face-balanced putters that have become so popular on Tour (but not with Phil).

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