Your better golfers have always been feel players. Paul Azinger practices bunker shots with his ears. The clubhead through the sand makes a certain pa-toot sound that tells him when the length and depth of his divot is ideal. Al Geiberger, who in 1977 became the first Tour player to shoot 59 (page 60), used to feel wind direction on his face. When the wind was balanced on both cheeks, he knew his nose was pointed into the wind. A human weather vane. Tom Watson reads greens through the spikes of his shoes, able to figure out slopes through some weird spike-to-brain impulse, unencumbered by actual words. Johnny Miller, in his 1973 prime, had eyes that could distinguish 163 yards from 165 and had different swings to accommodate those distances.
Such heightened sensitivity naturally shows up in the elite player's toolbox. Most Tour players will tell their manufacturer that they want a driver with eight degrees of loft, or seven or nine. A smaller group will distinguish by the half degree, asking their Tour reps for an 8.5 this or a 7.5 that. After 24 years, Jeff Maggert still drives the ball in play about as often as anybody, and he requires his driver loft to be precise to a quarter degree, swinging a 9.25 model. Which is why he does the bending and the measuring himself. He's one of the few players left who regularly puts his clubs in a vise.
Years ago, when the putting genius Brad Faxon first went to Scotty Cameron to have a putter made, he was unsatisfied until a vertical slit along the length of the putter's bottom was cut into his prototypes. You've seen a similar feature if you've ever taken a good look at the classic 85020 Ping Anser putters from the early '70s—the number is Ping's Phoenix zip code. What did that little slot, too narrow to fit a resort scorecard, give Faxon? The sound he wanted, the swing weight he wanted, the coefficient of restitution (COR) he wanted. Just like the collision between the face of a 460cc driver and a two-piece ball at 123 miles an hour (Bubba Watson's clubhead speed, one of the fastest on Tour), the putter-ball fender bender has a trampoline effect. If you could roll it like Faxon, your putter's COR would be meaningful to you too.
How much less did the putter weigh with the slit cut into it? It lightened the head by the weight of two dimes, if that. But these are not ordinary people with standard-issue senses.
A few years ago at the Tour Championship, Tiger Woods was on the range with some of the Nike equipment guys. Woods, often acknowledged by his peers for having the greatest eye on Tour, was looking for a backup five-wood. All he wanted was an exact replica of what he had in his bag. Manufacturers know that no two clubs are identical. Close, but not identical. Temperature and humidity in the casting process are always in flux, and the result is that clubs have marginal differences. Woods was testing two five-woods that were identical only in theory. One would land the understudy role, the other would turn into a nice gift, the five-wood that nearly made it as Tiger's backup cleek.
Woods anointed one club as his first alternate. The other was rejected for being too small.
The Nike guys brought the clubs back to the lab. Out came the engineer calipers, able to measure club width to one one-thousandth of an inch. The club that Woods insisted was smaller was smaller—by less than .005 of an inch in width. Well within manufacturing tolerances. But Woods could tell.
Players with immense strength, like Woods, who also have a highly developed sense of feel are not common. Those with both possess a lethal combination. There's a long list of golfers claiming to be feel players. They are golf's soul surfers. If you had a dollar for every time Farmers Insurance Open champ Bubba Watson identified himself as a feel player in the interviews he gave last year, you'd have $53, maybe more.
One day in January, Watson came to the Ping office and driving range, in industrial Phoenix, where he was subjected to the first SI So-You-Think-You're-a-Feel-Player Field Test. He was an excellent sport about it, and he was determined to ace the thing.
The lanky lefthander lives in Scottsdale, Ariz., near the unassuming, almost homey Ping factory. (You see various Solheim family members here and there, dispensing weight-loss tips and design ideas.) Watson, 32, has played Ping clubs all his life. His parents gave him odd-numbered Ping irons for his 12th birthday, and even ones a year later. By Tour standards he knows next to nothing about club specs.