What with oversize golf balls, the waterproof sweaters and llamas as caddies—not to mention the $135 greens fees—the well is running dry on ways to exploit the golf boom. Now comes the best idea since the Senior tour.
It's called the World Putting Championship, and like all good ideas, it's remarkably simple. The format allows any amateur who wants to enter (that means you and me) to pit himself against all comers, including touring pros, in a straight, no-handicap test of putting, all for an initial entry fee of $15.
The competition, which begins May 24, will be broken into two brackets. Amateurs start with an 18-hole putting championship that can be held by any public or private club including driving ranges and off-course golf organizations. Individual winners move on to regional and state championships to be putted over 27 holes.
The professional bracket will have representatives from the PGA, LPGA, Senior, Nike and foreign tours (1996 putting stats leaders, the winners of the four majors, leaders on the alltime money list and sponsors' selections have automatic berths in the finals), as well as club pros. The 72-hole finals, to be televised sometime in November, will be contested by the amateur and club-pro regional champions and the tour professionals. The champion, if a pro, will win $250,000. An amateur will have to settle for $500 in merchandise and the title of best putter on earth.
The event is the brainchild of short-game guru Dave Pelz, who has created what appears to be the most democratic competition in golf history, one that is in perfect harmony with a significant shift in the way golf is perceived. For perhaps the first time it is O.K. to be a good putter. No longer does a player have to apologize for being proficient on greens and beating players who hit the ball farther. Good putters have long been picked on. When light-hitting Walter J. Travis won the 1904 British Amateur by holing out from everywhere, the R&A reacted by banning his center-shafted Schenectady putter for 43 years. The bias against good putters flourished when the game was dominated by the American triumvirate of Sam Snead, Byron Nelson and Ben Hogan, all of whom were superb from tee to green but—at least according to them—never brilliant with the flat stick. The ethos that portrays putting as more a nonathletic knack than a measure of talent has lasted for decades. "Putting isn't golf," Chi Chi Rodriguez, another top shot maker who struggled around the hole, once said. "Greens should be treated almost the same as water hazards. Land on them, then add two strokes to your score." Added Gary Player, "Nobody wants to be called a lucky, one-putting s.o.b., and nobody thinks he is."
Such thinking did harm to the reputations of putting wizards like Billy Casper, Bobby Locke, Dave Stockton and Andy North, all multiple major-championship winners who have never gotten their due. Even Tom Watson, with eight majors, was underappreciated in his prime because so much of his success was due to his exceptional putting.
In the last few years, however, putting has become recognized as an honorable and considerable skill. Loren Roberts is a quiet, unassuming fellow whose pure stroke has earned him the jaunty nickname Boss of the Moss. Corey Pavin's hard-edged ability to make big putts under pressure is the chief reason he is considered America's top player over the more heavily armed Fred Couples and Davis Love III. After Nick Faldo, the game's most passionate seeker of the perfect golf swing, won this year's Masters, he was proud to tell Ben Crenshaw, "I putted like you." Pelz's short-game schools are filled, and the public is buying $200 computer-milled putters with instructions that urge owners to periodically swab the heads with baby oil.
For all the analyzing these days of swing mechanics, equipment and the mental game, the handicap of the average golfer has stayed put. Meanwhile, it remains a fact that touring pros make only 50% of their putts from six feet and expend fully 43% of their strokes on putts. It's no accident that most top players have altered their practice regimens to spend at least a third of their time on putting. What golfers are finally facing, and what the World Putting Championship will underscore, is that putting is about that most difficult part of any endeavor: closing the deal. The golfer who does that consistently—even though he's only rolling a ball into a hole—is someone special.