Ben Hogan had the right idea about putting: Abolish it. Never a great putter, Hogan suggested greens be replaced by huge funnels that would stretch to the following tees. That way an approach shot would land in a funnel, roll to the next tee and, voilà, no more putting.
Unfortunately the arbiter of the game in this country—the United States Golf Association—won't go along. "There has been no movement whatsoever to remove putting from the game of golf," says Tom Meeks, USGA director of rules and competitions. "And I can guarantee that it won't happen for at least a million years."
What to do, then, if putting ain't going away? What is the key to this most bewitching aspect of the game? Is there a Holy Grail or a Special Stick?
The answer is sad but inescapable. "There's no such thing as a magic wand," says the world's most famous customputter designer, T.P. (Truett Purser) Mills. A former airplane mechanic from Tuscaloosa, Ala. , Mills is the only designer of flat sticks who still charges Tour pros for his works. He made his first putters in an airport hangar in 1964, and scores of professional golfers, not to mention even' Republican president since Eisenhower, have used his models.
"If you blend all the components of a putter just right—weight, balance, feel and look—that's the best you can do," says Mills, 74. "Golfers are always looking for the newest magic blend, like fishermen looking for a lure. If they like the way it looks and think it'll work, they'll buy it."
Indeed they will. According to the National Golf Foundation, $182 million worth of putters were sold in 1993. At an average of $75 a pop, that's a lot of putters.
If you're like most golfers and have five or 10 unmagical wands stashed away, you're not doing so badly. The world's best players—touring pros—are the ultimate suckers. Arnold Palmer is the worst. Even in his prime the King would take 10 to 12 putters with him to the practice green every day. His legendary collection once hovered around 3,000, but over the years he has lost some putters, given others to friends and donated hundreds to charity. He now has 1,500.
Most pros are more reasonable. Scott Hoch has only 150 putters on the storage rack in his basement. Tom Lehman has 75 in his garage. Craig Stadler owns about 100, though he would have more if he hadn't deposited a plethora of putters in lakes, garbage cans, forests and other spots. Ben Crenshaw has used Little Ben—the Wilson 8802 blade his dad gave him 27 years ago—throughout his career, but he keeps 40 other putters at home in Austin, Texas. "They're backups," Crenshaw says with a grin. "Just in case."
Unless they want a T.P. Mills special, pros never have to pay for their putters. They get them from tour reps, the well-dressed, slick-talking company missionaries who stand on practice greens from dawn till dusk at tournaments trying to persuade pro after pro that theirs is the perfect putter. The theory is that consumers buy what the pros use, and recent history has proved that persuading a pro to use your putter can prove very profitable.
Bobby Grace ran a golf club collectibles business in St. Petersburg, Fla. , until he began designing putters full-time three years ago. In the spring of 1992 he took his first mallet designs to the PGA Tour, and for the next couple of years a handful of pros used his putters. Grace got the break every putter maker lives for last July at the St. Jude Classic. Before a practice round, Nick Price picked up one of the oversized aluminum mallets Grace had designed in 1992. Price used it in the final two rounds, shooting 66-64 to finish fourth. Thereafter, the club was known as The Fat Lady Swings.