An elderly gentleman walks into the Dave Pelz Short Game School in Boca Raton, Fla. It is a slow day, circa 1999. The man is uninvited, but he has something to show Pelz, whose work with high-profile PGA Tour players such as Phil Mickelson has made him golf’s top putting guru.
Pelz knows the drill. He has been through this before with amateur putting nuts, but because he’s not busy, he agrees to take a look. The old-timer takes his putter and stands facing the cup. Then he produces a sidesaddle-style stroke. Interesting, Pelz thinks. The man’s extended right arm grasps a longish putter on the front of the shaft so the back of his hand faces the hole, with one finger down the shaft like a pointer. His left hand presses the shaft against the right elbow. He bends over slightly, leans right so his head is over the intended putting line and splays his left foot out wide for counterbalance.
And then, like a machine, the old man pours in putt after putt after putt. Pelz puts him through a few of his golf-school drills. “He scored better than anyone we’d ever measured,” Pelz recalls. “The putter shaft was behind his right arm, so he was pulling the shaft, not pushing it. That was pretty unusual. He told me he never started a putt off-line. From what I saw, line was not a problem for him.”
Pelz says it remains the most efficient putting display he has ever witnessed. When they are done, Pelz tells his guest how impressed he is. The old man thanks Pelz and walks off.
“I didn’t get his name or any details,” says Pelz, more than a decade of chagrin in his voice. “I could kick myself.”
Fifteen years later the countdown to Putting Armageddon has begun. The ball drops next New Year’s Day, when the ban on anchoring — Rule 14-1b — will be added to the Rules of Golf.
The assumption is that players use belly or long putters because they have to. Flaws in their strokes, flinches or, well, the elephant in the room — the yips — have chased player after player to try one anchored method or another. What will they do when their putting crutches are kicked out from underneath them? Could the ban end careers?
It’s too early to be sure. Ernie Els won the 2012 British Open using a belly putter, but he went back to a conventional style last year and putted fairly well. Belly-users Keegan Bradley and Webb Simpson have already broken out conventional models with impressive results. Observers expect anchorers to pursue a variety of alternatives. One option may be as unexpected as it is time-worn.
Yes, we’re talking about the same method employed by Pelz’s mystery guest. It’s not being talked about as a post-ban putting solution, but maybe it should be. It is certainly nothing new. Sam Snead lost a battle with the yips in the 1960s, so he switched to a croquet style and putted with the club between his legs. Bobby Jones, riding in a cart with USGA executive director Joe Dey around the grounds at Augusta National, first saw Snead putt croquet-style during a practice round at the 1967 Masters. Jones hated the look and strongly urged Dey to do something. Before the year was out, the USGA had banned croquet-style putting.
Snead responded by developing his own version of the sidesaddle — bent over, hips swayed to the right, club gripped with his right hand way down the shaft, only six or eight inches above the hosel. It was an unusual if not uncomfortable sight, but his putting wasn’t awful.
“You know, Snead never complained about his putting again, even in his 70s,” says Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee. “People thought Snead was such a character and that how he putted was so comical that nobody paid attention to the most important fact — he came up with an effective way to combat the yips.”
Maybe Slammin’ Sam and Pelz’s surprise guest were on to something. Randy Haag is an eight-time club champion at Olympic Club in San Francisco, and he has been putting sidesaddle since 1996, when his stroke was permanently traumatized during a U.S. Amateur practice round with Tiger Woods and a large gallery at Pumpkin Ridge outside Portland.
While Haag remains among the few sidesaddle practitioners, Pelz and CBS analysts Peter Kostis and Gary McCord are among a small cadre of expert believers. Pelz says he “messed with it for a while” but never seriously pursued sidesaddle because of a potential dead end. “If you started putting better than anybody ever putted and winning tournaments, I believe the USGA would ban it,” he says. “I still think they’re wrong about the anchored-putting ban, but you’re not going to win an argument with the USGA.”
Early in his instruction career, Kostis worked at a series of Golf Digest schools, where one of his tasks was shuttling Snead, the school’s celebrity pro, in a golf cart. Kostis and Snead soon became friends and occasional golf partners. One day Snead taught his sidesaddle technique to Kostis, who took it to heart.
“Sam had a regulation length BullsEye putter with a grip that ran down to six or eight inches from the hosel,” Kostis says. “Sam taught me how to bend over and get my eyes over the line. I got really, really good at it.
“So now I’m playing in the Tallahassee Open. It’s my first competitive round of golf, my first tournament as a pro. In the practice round, guys were looking at me funny. I thought, Whatever. In the first round I hit it to 15 feet on the opening hole, and I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t pull the trigger in front of everybody. So instead, I hit my first conventional-style putt in six months.”
Kostis couldn’t overcome the stigma of putting in such an unorthodox manner. Nevertheless, decades later he still believes in the method. “If I had a downhill left-to-right three-footer for my life, I’d putt it sidesaddle,” he says. “It works. I know that for a fact.”
So does McCord, a part-time Champions Tour player. “I did it five to seven years ago,” he says. “If you taught a 4-year-old to putt this way — just push the right hand toward the hole — he could be so good by the time he was old enough to play golf. He’d progress so much faster because it’s so natural to putt this way and so unnatural to putt the way the rest of us do. I would say that of all the possible putting stances, the way we do it is the worst.”
David Cook is the leading proponent of the sidesaddle style, although he prefers that it be called “face-on putting.” Actually, he optimistically labels it the Future of Putting.
Cook is a sports psychologist who worked with the San Antonio Spurs for eight years, including for two of the team’s NBA title runs. (The arguments for the sidesaddle are eerily reminiscent of the proselytizing by hoops Hall of Famer Rick Barry for the two-handed, underhanded free throw. Ungainly as his motion was, Barry retired with the NBA record for career free-throw percentage, at .900.) Cook works with Tour players and elite amateurs, and he directs the Peak Performance Center at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.
He is an avid golfer, an innovative golf instructor and author of a best-selling novel, Golf’s Sacred Journey: Seven Days at the Links of Utopia. The book was made into a movie, Seven Days in Utopia, starring Robert Duvall as a semimystical golf teacher who serves up sports psychology and faith along with instruction to a struggling young Tour player. Duvall’s character uses unusual training methods such as painting golf shots on a canvas with watercolors and pitching washers (or pennies) to simulate putting feel. And, of course, he favors face-on putting.
I made my own sort-of sacred journey to Waco (250 miles northeast of the real Utopia, Texas, where parts of the movie were filmed) to meet Cook in a clubhouse lounge at picturesque Ridgewood Country Club. I was there to learn about the Future of Putting.
Cook, 57, is fit and brimming with energy and positive vibes. It’s what you’d expect from a sports psychologist. When he worked toward his doctorate at Virginia, he studied under Bob Rotella, who became golf’s most prominent sports psychologist.
You’re still not sold on sidesaddle putting, are you? Well, here in a nutshell are the key advantages, according to Cook.
*You use binocular vision — both eyes — to get a truer picture of the line because you’re facing the hole. “Golf is one of the few sports where we don’t look at the target,” Cook says. “We play to a memory. To me, a true picture is more powerful than a memory.”
*The shoulder joint is the only moving piece in the stroke. “I look for simplicity and efficiency,” Cook says, “because then your brain is free to think of different things — like distance.”
*The face-on shoulder position allows you to swing the club in a straight line, like a pendulum, with absolute freedom. As a result, the club is reliably on line. “There are two variables in putting: distance and direction,” says Cook. “Most people over-focus on direction and under-feel distance.”
*The feel is focused in one hand, the one that swings the putter, instead of two hands. “Painters don’t paint with two hands,” says Cook. “Can you imagine Monet with two hands on the brush?”
It sounds easy, it looks easy. Can it really be that easy? “Well, there’s not a whole lot that can go wrong,” Cook says. “It’s letting yourself see the distance and getting it in the general vicinity. It’s just so efficient.”
I tell Cook about Kostis being shamed into putting conventionally. He understands. “You can put that down to tradition,” Cook says. “That’s the whole message of my first book — truth versus tradition. Golfers are very self-conscious. A lot of them won’t do face-on putting because of the looks they’ll get from other golfers.”
Cook mentions Pete Gogolak and Chris Evert as tradition-breakers. Gogolak was the first soccer-style kicker in pro football, and Evert was the first tennis player to hit a two-handed backhand. Cook reserves his highest praise for high jumper Dick Fosbury, who was the first to go over the bar headfirst and backward, creating the Fosbury Flop.
“Every high-jump world record from 1969 on has been done using the Fosbury Flop,” Cook says. “When it comes to putting, I think we’re close to breaking the stigma.”
One of Cook’s slogans is “Truth trumps tradition,” but golf is still in search of its Fosbury. It will take just one PGA Tour player holing clutch putts on TV to change the status quo. K.J. Choi tried sidesaddle for a few weeks in 2010, including at the British Open, but he quickly dropped the experiment.
Ridgewood members see Cook using his unusual method on their practice green. Some stop to find out what he’s doing. “They all want to try it,” Cook says, “and when their fourth or fifth putt goes in, they say, ‘Hey, that’s pretty easy!’ Then they pick up their own putters and go back about their business.”
Now it’s my turn to hit some putts, Cook decides. We head outside to the practice green.
He arranges my stance so my right foot is forward with most of my weight on it. The ball is about 12 inches in front of it. He tells me to tuck my left arm into my rib cage and keep it there. That serves as a makeshift anchor. He puts my left thumb on the top end of the putter handle and tells me to keep the left hand still. The stroke will be made entirely by my right arm and hand.
It is a completely different move. And I’m using a completely different putter. For face-on, an upright putter is preferred (the Rules of Golf require at least a 10° angle), so Cook has a model he created with putter-maker Wes Mickle, the Face-On Putter ($189 at www.davidlcookphd.com). Its head is a transparent block of acrylic with a striking bright-red alignment line.
I’m not accustomed to the thickness of the head, and on my first few strokes it bounces off the turf before it strikes the ball. I feel like a total beginner, but after a dozen putts, I see progress. I have been using a claw grip for eight years, and while I’m probably better than average inside six feet, I am below average beyond that distance.
After 15 minutes I begin holing a few putts. I also grow accustomed to the terse click of the acrylic hitting the ball, and I start to like the sound. I pour in three consecutive 10-footers.
“Look at that!” Cook says as the last one drops. “That’s as good as it gets, my friend. Your alignment is right on every time. It’s just rhythm for you at this point.”
That’s the sports psychologist in him. I’m not remotely adept at this method yet. Still, I can see the potential, and I admit, it’s intriguing.
“There’s not enough to this story, David,” I reply. “I need more to write than just, It works!”
Cook laughs. The December sky is thick with somber clouds, so twilight is arriving earlier than normal here on the putting green that overlooks Lake Waco. My somewhat sacred journey feels complete. Cook has shown me a path.
We walk to the parking lot. Clubhouse lights twinkle. The Future of Putting can wait. I have a more pressing issue — finding some good Mexican food. I follow Cook’s vehicle toward downtown Waco as night, full of new promise, falls like a gentle curtain.
Would you consider changing to sidesaddle putting — despite the strange looks — if it helped you make more 10-footers? Join the conversation in the comments section below?