10 Greatest Putters of All Time

December 8, 2009

Greatness comes in many forms. On the putting green, it’s the ability to make putts in clutch situations, and do it on a regular basis. It’s about owning a stroke that works, not necessarily one that looks pretty or is fundamentally perfect (although many great putters are both smooth and sound). It’s about wielding that blunt instrument as a weapon, not as something you use to mop up any mess you’ve made with your woods and irons.

Greatness can be found in many, but only a select few can claim to be one of the Greatest Putters of all Time. We asked the experts who know best — GOLF Magazine’s Top 100 Teachers — to help us with ranking the top 10, and to provide insight to help you make some history of your own.

So tend the pin and… “Quiet Please!” The 10 Greatest Putters are here at work.

Stroke analyses by Top 100 Teacher Bill Moretti

Playing career: 1930-1945
Born just outside Baltusrol G.C. in New Jersey (“I was born on the 19th hole — the only one I ever parred”), George Low didn’t win a lot of PGA Tour events, but was so good with the flatstick that he a) helped end Byron Nelson’s 11-event win streak in 1945, b) gave Arnold Palmer the putting advice he needed to win the 1960 Masters, c) designed one of the most victorious putters of all time (the George Low Sportsman Wizard 600, used most famously by Jack Nicklaus in his prime) and d) won so much money on the practice putting green that he didn’t have to worry about his place on the official earnings list.

Stroke analysis: Low felt that the best way to get a true roll was to swing the putter from inside-out. To do this, he set the ball on the heel of his putter at address and placed his weight on his left heel, forcing his stroke to pivot around his left leg, thumb and shoulder.

Playing career: 1981-
Not many putting nicknames come cooler than “The Boss of the Moss” (bestowed upon Roberts by PGA Tour player David Ogrin in 1985), and Roberts certainly earned it with a putting game that was, without a doubt, the envy of the Tour in the 1980s and 1990s. The eight-time winner (Roberts has also bagged 11 victories on the Champions Tour) set the standard with gaudy putting stats that, at times, defied belief. During his 14 full seasons on Tour, Roberts needed 56,457 putts to complete 1,996 rounds. Do the math: That’s a career Putts Per Round average of 28.3, which would have placed him in the top 10 on the 2009 PGA Tour season list.

Stroke analysis: If you catch a Champions Tour event where Roberts is playing with Dave Stockton, you’ll be struck by the similarities in their strokes, and how they move with the same slow tempo on the greens. Roberts has a great visual if you’re struggling with your putting: Your puttershaft is a pencil, and all you’re trying to do is draw a line on the green to your target.

Playing career: 1964-
Even his sons, Ronnie and Dave Jr. will admit: “Dad got more out of his game than anyone.” His secret: a strong mental attitude and a superlative knack for judging green slope and green speed that made putting almost too simple for the two-time PGA Championship winner. His current popularity as a top-level putting coach is nothing new to Stockton. “People liked my stroke, and were always asking for advice, even way back in the 1970s. I never talked about my teaching publicly because, in my eyes, I was a player, not a instructor.” Stockton’s style boils down to keeping things simple. “He did a clinic for us here at the Pebble Beach Golf Academy a few years back,” recalls Top 100 Teacher Dan Pasquariello. “I brought over some training aids, and Stockton barked, ‘Get those things out of here before you screw up these peoples’ strokes!”

Stroke analysis: Stockton brought the club back close to his body on his backstroke, then lead with the handle through the ball and kept his left elbow
close to his side so he wouldn’t miss right.

Playing career: 1919-1930
From the desk of Top 100 Teacher Dr. Gary Wiren: “Nobody — nobody! — bags 13 majors in 20 attempts, wins 9 out of 10 matches in Walker Cup play, and does it all before retiring at the ripe old age of 28 without owning an all-time great putting game.” The good doctor is right, despite how little is written about Jones’ stroke compared to his full swing. In fact, Jones’ putter, “Calamity Jane” has gained more notoriety, but, as Top 100 Teacher Jim Murphy points out, “Augusta’s greens weren’t built by someone who feared putting. They were designed to separate great putters from merely good ones.”

Stroke analysis: The interesting thing is that Jones didn’t follow a strict routine or style ever time. Since every putt offered a different challenge, Jones did what felt good for each particular situation. He putted very similarly to the way Ben Crenshaw putts. They both make the same miniature full-swing stroke — open the door, close the door.

Playing career: 1954-1989
“Casper was born among greats,” notes Top 100 Teacher Eddie Merrins. “He was a product of San Diego’s proving ground of champions in the 1950s and 60s that included Mickey Wright, Gene Littler and Phil Rodgers. It’s no surprise he won 51 Tour events, especially when you look at his stroke.” Casper never deviated from his carefully plotted pre-shot routine, and like Dave Stockton who followed, spent little time fretting over his read and his mechanics. His 1959 U.S. Open victory at Winged Foot over Ben Hogan was a contrast in styles. Recalls Merrins, “It was Hogan hitting nearly every green, and Casper chipping and one-putting at every opportunity.” Famously, Casper played short of the green on the 200-yard-plus par-3 third hole every round, and carded par all four times.

Stroke analysis: Casper used his left wrist as a hinge. He swung his putter straight back and then just rapped the ball. He pinned his upper arms to his body to eliminate any extra movement.

Playing career: 1983-
True, Brad Faxon doesn’t show much bark off the tee, but his putting game packs some serious bite. For proof, look no further than 2000, when Faxon averaged 1.704 putts per greens in regulation, the best putting season ever recorded. “Fax’s secret,” says Top 100 Teacher and Faxon buddy Brian Mogg, “is his ability to think less and get out of the way more with his putter than anyone in the history of the game. This simple mindset, paired with his creative mind, make him the best putter never to have won a major.”

Stroke analysis: Faxon sets up with his right side ultra low and with his head angled to the right. It’s not what you would teach, but it’s perfect for him. He’s very natural and target-oriented. When he putts it looks like he’s shooting free throws.

Playing career: 1938-1959
How good was Bobby Locke? The South African actually came up with the phrase “you drive for show and putt for dough.” He was also so good that his fellow competitors on the PGA Tour successfully had him banned after the 1948 season (the ban was lifted in 1951, but Locke had already returned to his home, and in between had bagged two of his four British Opens). In his first 59 events (following an exhibition season in which he beat Sam Snead 12 times in 14 matches), Locke finished 1st, 2nd or 3rd 30 times, and also topped the field at the 1948 Chicago Victory National by 16 strokes (still a PGA Tour record). “No doubt, a lot of people wish Sam Snead had never invited Bobby over,” Top 100 Teacher Eddie Merrins says. “He used a 38-inch, hickory-shafted steel-blade putter, which fit in well with his belief that you could move putts to the left or right, just like you can in a full swing. His real gift, however, was his ability to ‘read and roll’ the ball the right distance to the hole.”

Stroke analysis: Locke putted like he swung his irons and woods, from in-to-out (he played a significant draw off the tee and from the fairway). He paired his inside-out stroke with a shut putterface to place hook spin on the ball. His stroke fit the greens he grew up on in South Africa, which were very grainy.

Playing career: 1973-
The Wilson 8802 blade-style putter has been around for the better part of 60 years, but it’s still the one even young golfers crave because “it’s the one Ben used.” No, not Ben Crane, but rather Ben Crenshaw, who with a few more major victories could have very well topped this list. Crenshaw’s instructor growing up, the late Harvey Penick, taught the Texan to putt with a smooth, effortless stroke — the perfect mechanics to master even the speediest of greens, especially those at Augusta National, where Crenshaw won twice. During his 1995 triumph at Augusta, “Gentle Ben” either 1-putted or 2-putted all 72 greens — not a single 3-putt.

Stroke analysis: I’ve been fortunate to watch Crenshaw putt many times in person, during both practice and play. Yes, he’s smooth, but what’s really interesting is that he putts like he’s attempting a miniature chip shot. If you fret over your mechanics, you might want to look at your stroke like Crenshaw does instead of trying to follow a robotic sequence of moves.

Playing career: 1961-2005
Jack Nicklaus’ game has always been synonymous with power, but unlike most power players, he was a conservative golfer at heart — more strategist than gambler (he was the first one to mark course yardages in his own yardage book). This was especially true on the greens, where the Golden Bear often plotted to avoid three-putting before doing anything else. “I’m one of the greatest two-putters,” he once said. But no one can argue that when it came down to the most-heated, most pressure-packed moments, Nicklaus came through more often than not. If he hadn’t already beaten you from the tee box and green, he’d break you with a putt out of nowhere. Nicklaus’ putting greatness is more about the drama than anything else. He one-putted six of the final nine greens at the 1986 Masters to roar from eight spots back to claim his record-setting 18th major. Each one is a reminder of what legendary putting is all about.

Stroke analysis: Nicklaus never looked very comfortable when he putted, with his stocky frame bunched up in his familiar crouch. But he had a very repeatable stroke. He kept his head very still, and locked his left arm and shoulder in place, then simply pushed the ball to the hole with his right palm and forearm.

Playing career: 1996-
According to our voters, consider yourself lucky — for the past 14 Tour seasons you’ve been paying witness to the greatest putter of all time, Tiger Woods. As you sit, you can probably peel off half a dozen highlight-reel putts Tiger has made in his career: The finger-pointing bomb at Valhalla on the first playoff hole against Bob May at the 2000 PGA Championship; the double-fist-pumping birdie on the 72nd hole of the 2008 U.S. Open to force a Monday playoff against Rocco Mediate; the hat-throwing downhill slider to snatch the 2008 Bay Hill Invitational from Bart Bryant; or the original-Tiger-fist-pump-inducing 14-footer on the island green at TPC Sawgrass to finish off his improbable comeback against Trip Kuehne at the 1994 U.S. Amateur. You can bet there’s more to come.

Tiger is the greatest putter of all time because he makes the ones he should (he was 1 of only 6 players to make every putt inside three feet last year on Tour), and the ones he shouldn’t. From 2004 to 2008, Tiger’s Average Distance of Putts Made, a somewhat cerebral stat that calculates the total distance of putts holed for a given tournament, is 6 feet longer than the Tour average. He’s an expert at making long putts other golfers miss.

Tiger has always been erratic off the tee. His iron game is elite. When he wins, however, it’s because his putting is on. When all three elements come together he laps the field in victories so lopsided the whole course looks like its listing in water.

Stroke analysis: Woods isn’t as technical as some other players, but you wouldn’t know it by his putting. His setup is fundamentally perfect with everything square, especially his forearms and the puttershaft — it looks like they’re the same line. I’m sure he practices this — a lot. When your setup is this good, you’re going to make a lot of putts. And when you combine it with an equally sound stroke (he moves through the ball like it’s invisible), you make a lot of history.