April 11, 2019: The greens are the tightrope of Augusta National, home to thrills and spills, thanks to a potent combination of slope and speed that has challenged golfers in the Masters Tournament since its inception in 1934.
“They were always difficult. They were always fast,” said Bob Goalby, the 1968 champion, who played in 27 Masters starting in 1960. “They weren’t in near as good shape as they are now, but nothing was in the game.”
David R. Forgan wrote in the late 19th century that golf “is the study of a lifetime, in which you may exhaust yourself but never your subject.” His words certainly apply to the Augusta National putting surfaces.
How do you solve them? “You don’t,” said Webb Simpson, who is playing in his eighth Masters. “You just try to learn them and keep applying what you know. I’m still learning.”
Nick Faldo utilized his education in the greens better than most, winning a Green Jacket three times (in 1989, ’90, and ’96). As an analyst for CBS Sports’ Masters telecasts since 2007, Faldo has observed as a new generation attempts to solve the putting puzzle – a challenge that begins, he says, well before a golfer has a blade or mallet putter in hand.
“It’s all about hole locations, which means distance control with the irons,” Faldo said. “It’s all about short and long. That’s what I found was the secret. Say you have 150 yards, more than likely over a ridge. You’ve got plus or minus a yard or so to work with either way. You’ve got to pick the right-shaped shot and you can’t bail out. I call it being defensively smart or defensively aggressive.”
Faldo counters conventional wisdom on where to putt from, believing downhill putts can be advantageous. “Sometimes pin-high is more of disadvantage because you could have a 15-footer with four feet of break. If you go long and are putting down a slope, it might only break a foot. Sure, it’s brutally quick. But that’s part of it – it just requires that little bit more bravery.”
Courage can count for plenty, in Goalby’s mind. “The guys who won three or four Masters were excellent putters,” he said. “Jack Nicklaus, we know he was fantastic. Arnold Palmer, for about 10 years, was really, really good without a good-looking stroke. Some guys have a beautiful stroke. Palmer kind of tapped it, and his left wrist broke down a little bit. But he had guts.”
Faldo used to hit putts on his kitchen floor in advance of the Tournament. Ian Woosnam once practiced on top of a snooker table. Before his Masters debut in 1995, Tiger Woods rolled putts on the basketball court at Stanford University. Others have prepped in their garages or on home-course greens scalped for speed to mimic the pace of the putting surfaces at Augusta National.
None of the tactics, however, fully readies someone for the real thing.
“The touch and the imagination you need for putting. That’s what I enjoyed”, said Nick Faldo.
“If you have a dead-flat surface, you can make it really fast, but it isn’t really scary or intimidating,” said Charles Howell III. “These get scary because of the slopes and how balls can get away from you.”
Adjusting one’s technique for one week isn’t easy. “It sounds weird,” said Faldo, “but you’ve got to work on an aggressive, proper stroke while just touching the ball. A really committed stroke, but you only just touch it. In the balata-ball days, we could almost feel the cover of the ball spring, you were getting so soft.”
Expectations need to be softened, too, on vexing, long putts. “It’s important to not wind yourself up,” Faldo said. “It’s so difficult to lag it down to two feet. A really good lag is four feet. If you putt it six, even eight feet away, don’t get upset. As long as it’s left edge, right edge or just outside the cup. If you leave a four-footer with a foot and a half of break, anything can happen on those.”
Experience is an asset, but even veterans have to be able to adapt during Masters week.
“I don’t think you can ever have them 100 percent figured out,” two-time Masters runner-up and current World No. 1 Justin Rose said of the greens.
“You can have it dialed in on a Thursday, maybe, and then by Sunday it can be a different golf course,” he added. “You can never really learn the read on a putt because if the greens roll a foot quicker on the weekend, the break is double on occasion. So you can never get completely comfortable.”
Augusta National’s greens can exasperate, to be sure, but they also can be exhilarating.
“The touch and the imagination you need for putting,” Faldo said, “that’s what I enjoyed.”
The person slipping into a Green Jacket on Sunday evening will surely have enjoyed the task, too, despite having negotiated some curling 25-footers that felt like anything but fun and games.