It's a terrible thing, being saddled with a reputation as a great putter when what you really are is a great putter three days a week. Phil Mickelson (left) won his first PGA Tour event, the 1991 Northern Telecom Open, as a 20-year-old amateur. For three days he made every putt, and on Sunday he made enough to win. A reputation was born, and the lefthander is stuck with it. If his Sunday putting game were as good as people think it is, Mickelson would have won the 2001 Masters, the '99 U.S. Open and a half-dozen other events. Had he not three-putted 16 on Sunday, he might have won the 2001 PGA Championship. Instead, he's the best player never to have won a major.
He has always been a wonderful lag putter. The more complicated the putt, the more Mickelson loves it. Triple breaks, major elevation changes-nothing fazes him. He nestles the ball right to the hole, taps in, tugs on his visor, grins sheepishly and moves on. He's still an excellent putter from 10 feet and in during a tournament's first three rounds. That's why he was third in putting on the Tour last year. The Sunday problem is on putts from 30 inches to 10 feet for par or bogey. He looks like a different putter, and a different man, in those circumstances. He stalks around, looking overly busy but not purposeful, taking too much time, and finally decelerating through the ball, his rhythm out of kilter. Every dominant golfer has been a killer in those situations. Mickelson is not.
In his prime, in the 1980s, nobody putted better than Morris Hatalsky. Not Tom Watson, who went a half decade without missing a gag-zone putt. Not Ben Crenshaw, who oozed putting confidence. Not Seve Ballesteros, whose victories were rooted in his uncanny ability to hole must-make putts. Those guys were very good putters, but Hatalsky was one of the best. Ever. He belongs in a putting holy trinity with Bobby Locke and George Low.
Off the tee Hatalsky was short and often crooked, and his iron play was wildly unreliable. But because—and only because—his putting was otherworldly, he made a damn fine living in his chosen sport.
From 1980 through 1991, Hatalsky averaged 28.58 putts per round. The tour average for that same period was approximately 30 putts per round, which means that over a four-round tournament, he took six fewer putts than the average putter in the field. Of course, he spent a lot of those strokes elsewhere—in the rough, in bunkers, in water hazards—but during those rare weeks when he was hitting the ball well, he could contend.
His putting stroke was a thing of beauty, rhythmic and repeatable. He used a mallet-headed putter, a Ray Cook M-l (though in his final years on the Tour he used one of his own design, called the Mo-Cat), and his stroke was short, half the length of Crenshaw's. He didn't fan the blade open as many good putters do. On the practice green other players would watch him. Few would ask him anything, though. Golfers know: Certain skills are nontransferable.