A putting epiphany

This article was written from the Royal County Down Golf Club in Newcastle, Northern Ireland, where I had an epiphany. A light bulb went off in my all-too-mixed-up golfing brain, and a gentleman named Eddie Polland turned it on. He’s 52, he’s one of the top European Senior Tour players, and he loves putting.Loves putting? How can that be? Most golfers think of getting to the putting green like going to the dentist — hardly something they look forward to. But Polland, who lost in a playoff for the British Senior Open a couple of years ago, attacks the putting green as most of us attack dessert. He loves being there, and he’s not afraid to admit it.

How do I know all this? Well, I played the pro-am for the Senior British Open with Polland, and saw immediately that he had cracked the code of County Down’s slippery, undulating greens. Royal County Down is one of the world’s best courses and has some of the most interesting greens I’ve ever seen. They’re fun to look at and examine. But to putt? Nobody likes to putt.

Wrong, I learned. Polland does. He grew up just outside the golf course and putted for hours on the course. Now he lives in southern Spain and puttsay after day and night after night, for fun, for pleasure. For the love of it.

Do you read me? This man’s attitude is that putting is work that brings joy.

I saw the fruits such an attitude, not to mention plenty of practice, can bring. Polland had a 30 foot putt for birdie on the second hole. Halfway to the hole as his ball was rolling merrily along he said, “That ain’t gonna miss,” and it didn’t. Hmmm, I thought. The guy is on to something.

“I love to putt,” Polland told me. “I really do. Putting is like pouring a nice glass of Rioja (a Spanish red wine). You take a long and slow stroke. I see the putt, I see the whole thing, the line, the speed, the ball rolling into the hole.”

Heresy, I thought. The man is tempting the golfing gods. Nobody talks about putting with such gusto and confidence bordering on arrogance.

But Polland’s words didn’t sound arrogant. Not at all. He just knows he’s a superb putter, and has the attitude that putting can be fun. He’s in it for the ecstasy, not the agony.

I could do with some of his recipe. On the ninth hole I had an eight-foot putt for birdie. If I could make the putt, our team would score an eagle. I rolled the ball six feet by the hole and missed it coming back. As I said, putting for me is the same as going to the dentist. No, it’s worse. At least I don’t feel pain when I’m in the dentist’s chair.

Now Eddie was holing another long putt for birdie. And then he did it again. And again. This is truth, not fiction. I was there. I saw the truth of the saying, “A good putter is a match for anyone. A poor putter is a match for no one.”

So how does Polland do it? For one thing, he thinks mainly of speed. Most golfers can read putts accurately enough, but tend to come up too short or too long. Polland has the feel for distance but also believes anybody can learn it, or at least improve in this area with practice.

Then Polland has a putter he loves. It’s an old Wilson 8802, a collector’s item he’s had since 1964, and he still has the original grip on it.

He brings the putter back low to the ground and then gives the ball a firm but smooth rap with his right hand — he’s a right-hander. The ball rolls and rolls — it just keeps going. And more often than not it falls into the hole.

“If I couldn’t putt I wouldn’t play golf,” Eddie said. “I hole everything.”

Eddie had surgery on his left arm and hand a while back because of serious arthritis. He kept his trusty putter in his hospital room and held it often in his right hand to keep the feel. Here’s a man who has used one putter for nearly 40 years. I switch putters about every couple of weeks, I think, and have a room at home full of putters. There’s something wrong with this picture.

So I vow to change, here and now as I write in Northern Ireland. Today I’m going out with my wife for a four-hour hike in the Mountains of Mourne that sweep down to the sea, forming a backdrop to the Royal County Down course. I plan to begin to adopt a new and healthier attitude toward putting.

I can hear the mantra now: “I love putting. I can’t wait to get to the green. Soon I’ll be holing everything.”

Just watch me go. Bernard Malamud called one of his fine novels A New Life. I’ll be calling the next chapter in my golfing life A New Putting Attitude.

And it begins today.