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).
“We were coming off the 16th green at Cog Hill on Sunday,” Mackay says. Another beautiful Lefty approach shot had been wasted by his sputtering stroke. This was on September 13, two years into Phil’s putting slump (despite occasional good putting weeks). On their way to the 17th tee, the No. 2 player in the world said to his longtime caddie, “I’ve got to do something here. I don’t know what, but I need something.” He invited Mackay to take some time and think about a next move.
The next day, Mackay said, “What would you think about seeing Dave Stockton?”
Three days later, Dave Stockton and his namesake son, who goes by Junior, were on the practice putting green at The Bridges, a private course in Rancho Santa Fe, near San Diego, where Mickelson plays and practices. Phil was wearing a Riviera shirt and shorts and carrying several putters. They got down to work.
Ten days after that Mickelson won the Tour Championship at East Lake in Atlanta by three shots with what Mackay called the best putting week Mickelson’s ever had. In interviews, Phil, who’s maybe the most generous elite player since Walter Hagen, praised Stockton. Stockton’s phone started lighting up immediately, the desperate and the needy finding their way to him.
“OK, you have this putt to win the U.S. Open. Let’s see what you do.”
I was standing on a practice putting green at the Oak Valley Golf Club, a raw-looking course hard by I-10 in Beaumont, in southern California, in a netherland between the suburbs and the desert. Junior and Ron and Dave Sr. were watching how I handled a routine 15-footer. Unimpressed with the putter I had brought, Senior had put a lofted TaylorMade Rossa in my hands, with a mushy grip and a red insert with 14 black scoring lines on its face. The head looked like the old Ping Anser that Karsten Solheim patented years ago. It was a sparkling weekday between the Tour Championship and the Presidents Cup, both events that starred, to take a narrow view of them, Phil’s putter.
I took my three quick practice strokes, one for distance, one for line, one for feel. I’d been doing that forever. With my eyes on the hole I made my stroke. My first putt went four feet past. The second one I nearly made.
“You have a good grip,” Stockton said.
I stood over a putt. Junior put his palm on my shoulder and nearly pushed me over without much effort. Son and father locked eyes. Again, the knowing look.
“Stick your bottom out more,” Junior said.
Stick your bottom out more. Widen your stance. Don’t take a practice stroke. Put the putterhead behind the ball, align your body to the line of the putt, look at the hole, adjust your putterhead as needed, look at the hole again, back to your putter, make your stroke. Don’t worry about taking it inside or outside, just don’t take it straight back. (The Stocktons abhor straight back.) Move the ball back several inches, to the middle of your stance. Forward press with your hands at the start of the stroke. Toe down, heel up. Put 55 percent of your weight on your forward foot. Make a short, low follow-through and drop the putterhead to the green. If you’re missing left, raise your hands. Roll the ball over a spot that’s a half-inch ahead of your putter. You can’t miss a half-inch putt, can you?
“What brings the putterhead back?” Ron, dark-haired and earnest, asked me.
I took a guess. “The right hand?”
“What starts the downswing?”
Had I been taking the SAT I would have left it blank. “The left?”
Son and father looked at each other knowingly
“Wrong,” Senior said gently.
He told me the answer and swore me to secrecy. It’s at the core of what the Stocktons teach. No, it’s not the eyes, although it is a body part. It begins the backswing and the downswing. You aim with it, too.
“I was surprised,” Stockton said. “Those guys on TV analyzing Phil’s putting, they never picked up on it.”
That same day, the Stocktons, Ron in particular, were working with Yani Tseng, the Taiwanese golfer who won the 2008 LPGA Championship as a rookie. (The Stocktons teach dozens of young Chinese-born amateurs who play at Oak Valley.) Tseng’s putting backswing could have been arrested on a DUI charge, it was so wobbly. It didn’t worry Stockton at all. She had the secret, and now so did I. With the Stocktons watching, I was making putts. But could I make them by myself?
Here’s the thing about Dave Stockton: if he had a chance to win, he won. That was true in the mid-1960s at the University of Southern California, where he was an All-America golfer (as was his father, as was Junior). That was true on the Tour (10 wins), as a Ryder Cup player (just one loss in five matches), as a Ryder Cup captain and assistant captain (two for two), on the Champions Tour (14 wins). Sure, he had seconds, in the ’74 Masters and the ’78 U.S. Open, most notably. But he putted his way to those runner-up spots, he didn’t gag his way there. He never hit it great. His left leg is shorter than his right leg, and a bad surfing accident at Trestles, a legendary Southern California surf spot, at age 15, in which he broke three ribs, robbed him of flexibility and distance.
He’s gritty. At the 1970 PGA Championship at Southern Hills, Stockton was battling Arnold Palmer down the stretch. The world was rooting for Arnold, who had won everything but the PGA. Stockton stood over a wedge shot, late in the last round. Somebody yelled, “Shank it, Stockton.” He holed it and won by two over Palmer and Bob Murphy.
I asked Stockton who intimidated him when he first got on Tour in 1967: Nicklaus? Palmer? Old man Hogan? “Honestly? Nobody,” Stockon said. He drives a truck across the desert and counted Jerry Ford as a friend. ”I lived in a cocoon. I barely knew about those guys.”
He’s relentlessly positive, which is why he was pleased to take Chip Beck, along with Raymond Floyd, as a captain’s pick when he headed the U.S. Ryder Cup team in ’91. For Stockton, like Beck, the glass is always half-filled.
But the real reason Stockton took Floyd and Beck was because the 10 players who made the team on points wanted them. He polled each player by phone and asked them to name two players who would most fit in with the team. Floyd and Beck were the winners. Not John Daly, not Tom Watson. Stockton was the first U.S. captain to empower his team that way. Stockton was the first captain to treat team unity as the highest priority.
He was also the first captain to treat the captaincy as a full-time job, intent on the U.S. winning the Cup for the first time since ’83. His sons were his assistants. Last year, Stockton was an assistant to Azinger at Valhalla and he says, “Azinger, by far, is the best U.S. captain the Ryder Cup has ever had. He brought the concept of team building to a new level.”
Go team. You get that all the time with Stockton. He’ll talk about old USC golf-team road trips as if they happened last month. Not that he needs people around. Stockton will hunt and fish and garden from sunup to sunset without talking to a soul. (He had rotator cuff surgery this year brought on by … too much pruning.) But he saw golf in ways most don’t, as a group activity. He likes getting people together.
When the wrenching ’91 Ryder Cup was over—maybe you remember Bernhard Langer’s aching face when he missed a putt for Europe to retain the Cup—the teams were supposed to go from their condos at Kiawah to a hotel for a closing dinner. Two buses were waiting, one for the Euros, the other for Team USA. “C’mon,” Stockton said, “everybody get on our bus.” It seemed like a good idea until Ian Woosnam of Wales, slightly over-served, climbed aboard and positioned himself on the lap of the bus driver. Azinger, Woosnam, Stockton, his sons—they all laugh at the memory to this day.
Junior and Ron, then in their early twenties, worked as assistants for their father that week. In ’94, Junior, a scrappy golfer like his father, got on Tour. Years later, his wife, Diane, became pregnant with identical twins. Serena was born at three pounds. Faith was a stillborn. She grew normally but without a heart. “We were numb,” Junior said, remembering the pain. This time the glass was not half-filled. What there was was family. Dave and his wife, Cathy, insisted that Junior and Diane and Serena come live with them until the numbness started to fade. Over time, it did. Family as the ultimate team.
Junior and Ron are still with their father, working in the family business. Stockton & Sons: Short-Game Specialists. Stick your bottom out more.
After the lesson, I drove from Beaumont to San Francisco for the Presidents Cup and stopped for a quick game along the way. I tried to use my new putting method, but I quickly discovered that it was too much, too soon. I was all discombobulated. When I saw Phil at Harding Park, I asked him how he incorporated so many new things into his putting practically overnight. His list is not as long as mine. For starters, he didn’t look at the hole while making his stroke. Still, he moved the ball back. He opened his stance. He increased his forward press. He put more weight on his front foot. And he moved the secret body part into the right position, even if Johnny Miller never picked up on it. “What’s he having you do?” Phil asked. I gave him the briefest of answers.
“Here’s the thing,” Phil said. “You’ve had 10-plus years of terrible, pitiful putting, and now you’re looking to make a bunch of changes.” He had that Phil grin on all the while. “I, on the other hand, have had times in the past when I’ve actually putted quite well. So what I’m doing with Dave is basically going back to what I used to do years ago.”
Phil’s working on his chipping game with Stockton, too. Phil says that Dave Pelz, his longtime short-game instructor, will always be an advisor to him. But in terms of overseeing short-game technique, Stockton is now Phil’s man.
The first call Stockton received the day after the Tour Championship was from Butch Harmon, Mickelson’s full-swing coach. Harmon talked to Stockton about doing instruction together. Stockton has been teaching for years, but always on the side, and in the shadows. In the mid-1990s, when he helped Tiger Woods with his wedge play and Annika Sorenstam with her putting, he made sure that word never got out. He wanted to play, not teach. But this is a new day. At the Presidents Cup, there were players and fans looking for Stockton’s phone number. At Harding Park, Stockton worked some with Hunter Mahan and Sean O’Hair. Phil fans were approaching Stockton and thanking him.
From San Francisco, I flew home with my gift putter, my TaylorMade Rossa. I practiced my new action in the living room. I took it out for a game at what Donald Trump calls the second-best course in New Jersey, Pine Valley. Its greens that day were Tour fast, or faster. We played 28 holes: the 10-hole Short Course, where I made two birdie putts, and the big course. I three-putted the first for a bogey. Not auspicious, but on my previous trip there, I had four-putted the first for a double bogey.
A baby step.
Before the round was over, I had made three longish birdie putts plus a downhill 20-footer for a grind-it-out double bogey and a solid two-putt from 60 feet for a bogey. The second one was a three-footer that I had reduced, in my mind, to a half-inch. My friend Joe Logan, with whom I’ve played often, said: “That’s the best I’ve ever you seen you putt. By far. You used to look like you had an anvil in your hands. You used to look at the hole! Now the putter looks like it belongs in your hands. Could one lesson with Stockton really change things that much?” The $64,000 question. More, in Phil’s case. Anyway, time will tell.
Later, at home, I sat in a favorite chair with the scorecard and my new putter, watching golf. On the back of the putter, right on the heel, I noticed for the first time two initials: D.S., hand-stamped white lettering on brushed metal. Thank you, sir. Your secret’s safe with me.
I will try to remember an all-purpose piece of instruction you gave me when we were together in California. I was rolling it well. I was making putts, but I was in disbelief. You looked at me and gave me some excellent advice in a single word: