- November 18, 2021
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It’s one thing to write a couple of thousand words on beautiful golf swings, another matter entirely to identify the greatest putters of the modern era.
From sheer aesthetics to the simplest of kinetics, the roll to the hole has turned brilliant ballstrikers into basket cases and separated winners from losers for as long as the game has been played.
Speaking of which, the omission of those who excelled prior to World War II is due only to the profound advances in equipment and course conditioning. It surely was much harder to make a 15-footer 100 years ago, although it’s fair to say that putting has always been a bit like shaving. Everyone does it differently, all sharing a common goal of going about the rest of their day without bleeding to death.
Given that Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods are the best putters of all time, this list of the finest flatsticks has been split into generational divisions. Seven guys who competed against Fat Jack/Golden Bear make up the first group, followed by eight men who probably still have Tiger’s tire tracks on their back (no jokes, please). Victory totals and major titles obviously mean a lot, but our ranking also favors light hitters who might have been club pros if they didn’t knock ‘em in from downtown on a regular basis.
With a tip of the cap to South African marksman Bobby Locke, author of the phrase “drive for show, putt for dough” and perhaps the first player whose success was attributed solely to his putter, let’s head to the first green.
He was mentioned by everyone whose opinion factored into this ranking—the only unanimous selection. Watson charged the hole without pretense, regardless of the situation, and for two decades or so, routinely rammed home any subsequent four-footers to justify his boldness. It was sad to see him missing so many of those cleanup putts in his latter years, but a man who counts eight majors among his 70 total wins (all tours) doesn’t reflect with chagrin. Not yesterday, not today, not tomorrow.
For all the love bestowed upon the Big Three, Casper didn’t come close to getting his due: the guy won 51 Tour events, three of them majors. He was portly and devoid of anything resembling charisma, but just as putters come in all shapes and sizes, so do the men who use them. Casper’s was a magic wand. Johnny Miller called him the greatest green-reader ever. We all know how tough it is to impress Johnny.
Like Locke, Crenshaw’s career was defined primarily by his putting. He made short ones, long ones and in-between ones, but more than anything or anybody, Gentle Ben had a knack for jarring 25-footers with 12 feet of break, which explains why he won the Masters in 1984 and 1995. Thank goodness Crenshaw found substance with his long, flowing style. The man could cuss up a storm when his chili started running hot.
Jack’s squad is beginning to look like Murderer’s Row. Irwin intensity and spectacular iron play led to a lot more scoring opportunities than his fellow competitors, and he knew to finish them. That nuclear bomb he dropped on Mike Donald to force a playoff at the 1990 U.S. Open remains one of the greatest putts ever — almost as impressive as the joyous, lap-around-the-green celebration that followed.
Nine of his 24 Tour victories were major titles, meaning the mighty little South African had a serious appetite when it came to big-game hunting. Such hunger requires a putter that can handle the heat. Player’s pop stroke paid off handsomely on the slower greens in his era, particularly at the 1978 Masters, where he staged a putting clinic that remains the best such performance in tournament history.
He had the type of swagger that can’t be taught, plus a stare that could burn a hole through your chest. Floyd gleaned his confidence and mental toughness from high-stakes money games in his formative years, going about the business of holing putts like a man coming off a poor night’s sleep. The big fella didn’t do a whole lot of smiling before he got to the clubhouse. In a sense, Floyd and Irwin had two things in common. Both won three majors. Neither had any interest in winning a popularity contest.
Certainly the least-known player to make either list, Barber was also the smallest: a 5-foot-5 dynamo whose reputation as a fabulous putter couldn’t have been much larger. None of his Tour brethren wanted a piece of the little guy on the practice green, especially with a few bucks on the line. Barber lived up to his legacy at the 1961 PGA Championship, dropping hammers from 20, 40 and 60 feet on the final three holes to force a playoff with Don January, whom he defeated the following day.
He drove it short and crooked for extended periods during his 28 years in the big leagues, yet Faxon collected eight Tour victories and almost $18 million in earnings by “putting like you don’t care,” in his own words. It doesn’t hurt to possess astonishing hand-eye coordination; Fax led the Tour in putting average three times and set a single-season record of 1.704 strokes per green in regulation.
Nobody in the history of golf extracted more value from a Titleist Bullseye than the 15-time PGA Tour winner, a classic shotmaker who couldn’t drive it past your uncle. The Gritty Little Bruin was particularly tough on the Europeans at the Ryder Cup; he putted as if every cup owed him $500 and reacted to nearly miss with a cold-blooded seethe.
He probably made more bombs (30 feet or longer) than anyone in the game upon resurrecting his career in the mid-2000s, and over the ensuing five years, Stricker was unquestionably the best pure putter on earth. Whenever Woods needed help with his stroke, there was only one man he’d go see. It wasn’t Woody Austin.
Never mind those stretches when he can’t make a four-footer. Spieth atones for those gaffes by converting from long distance more frequently than anyone these days. He ranks at or near the top in the Tour’s primary statistical categories on annual basis, but those numbers don’t do justice to the Golden Boy’s flair for the dramatic.
The Shark did everything well and is widely regarded as one of the best drivers ever, which overshadowed his brilliant work on and around the green. It’s one of the reasons he factored so often at Augusta National. In near-unplayable conditions at Shinnecock Hills during the second round of the 1995 U.S. Open, Norman’s shot-salvaging wizardry was nothing short of miraculous.
He once complained about how difficult it was to keep up with the Three Hundred Yard Club—20 years ago, 300 yards was a long way—but nobody griped less than the mild-mannered Louisianan and very few players were more productive in their prime. Still owns a beautiful, unhurried stroke. Still works, too.
Any dude glued to a nickname like “Boss of the Moss” better roll it like hot dice —Roberts was a birdie machine on courses that catered to his length limitations off the tee. His buttery-smooth stroke could win a beauty contest on any practice green in the world, although his placement here is hurt by the fact that he won “only” eight times.
A trio of back-nine bombs earned Leonard his first and only major title at the 1997 British Open. It stands as the centerpiece of a respectable career (12 wins) that wasn’t exactly fueled by power off the tee. If Leonard had a lousy putting day, it was front-page news. Kind of like that Hail Mary he dunked on Jose Maria Olazabal to clinch the 1999 Ryder Cup. The Euros still haven’t gotten over that one.
A worldview optimist trapped inside a curmudgeon’s cocoon, John Hawkins began his journalism career with the Baltimore News American in 1983. In 2007, the Hawk began a seven-year relationship with Golf Channel, where he co-starred on the “Grey Goose 19th Hole” and became a regular contributor to the network’s website. Hawkins also has worked for ESPN, Sports Illustrated, Golf Digest and Golf.com at various stages of his career.