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A Tale of Two Putts

Imagine Golf Club's Dermot Gilleece compares two memorable putts looking forward to the Ryder Cup

Posted May 11, 2010 by Dermot Gilleece


Paul McGinley was on television recently, speaking with typical incisiveness about golfing matters.  Among other things, he responded to questions about the Ryder Cup, which is a subject very close to his heart.

The Dubliner suggested the European captain should have four assistants, each of whom could be assigned a fourball or foursomes match over the opening two days of competition.  While relieving the skipper of having to dart from match to match, it would facilitate first-hand reports on the performances of the European players, with the bonus of some useful information about the Americans.

In the course of the TV discussion, SkySports played a tape of the climactic moments from the 2002 Ryder Cup at The Belfry, where McGinley sank a decisive, nine-foot putt on the 18th hole of his singles match against Jim Furyk. That was in late September.  He also spoke about a charming function in Dublin nearly three months later, when he happened to meet the American veteran, Doug Sanders.

McGinley recalled how, in a soft, southern drawl, Sanders had remarked with a smile:  "I've been famous all my life for missing a putt; you're going to be famous for holing one."  This, of course, was a reference to the 1970 Open Championship at St Andrews, where Sanders endured the heartbreak of missing a winning putt of less than three feet on the final green.  As a consequence, he became involved in an 18-hole play-off against Jack Nicklaus, from which the Bear emerged victorious.

I was present at the awards banquet in a Dublin hotel on the night McGinley and Sanders met.  And as a gaping wound was probed once more, it struck me how nothing in sport is more painful than failure at the last gasp. Yet Sanders stubbornly refused to be crushed by his pain.  Nor did he think of inventing a noise from the gallery nor the click of a camera as an excuse for pushing that putt ruinously past the target. Instead, he bared his soul to the world and let us all make of it what we would.  

"I made a mistake by not letting Trevino (Lee Trevino, his playing partner) putt first," he admitted.  "I made the mistake of thinking which section of the crowd I was going to bow to. It was all my fault. There was only one person to blame - Doug Sanders."  All of which will be dragged up once more, no doubt, when the Open returns to the Old Course next July.

McGinley saw a video of the incident when it was re-run for the umpteenth time by the Golf Channel in the US.  He observed how, after bending down to pick up an imagined speck on the line of the putt, Sanders made the fatal error of failing to mark the ball so that he could step away and compose himself.

The Dubliner then noted how, in his anxiety to finish out, the player opened the blade disastrously to send the left-to-right breaking three-footer, wide of the right lip.  And he heard the eerie silence being broken by the immortal words of the commentator, Henry Longhurst, as he said: "There but for the grace of God ...."  

There could hardly have been a more stark contrast to the glory of his nine-footer in the Ryder Cup at The Belfry.  In attempting to achieve a trophy-winning half against Furyk, McGinley, too, had a left-to-right breaking putt on the final green, though of considerably longer distance.  And instead of purely personal gain, he was carrying the hopes of an entire Continent.

Interestingly, it was Sanders who raised the matter of their respective putts. "The golfing gods had obviously decided not to give him the Open, the same way as they deprived Jean Van De Velde of victory at Carnoustie in 1999," said McGinley. "And it's a shame that such things happen in golf."                
Then he made the point:  "We all know that Doug was a wonderful player with an idiosyncratic, caddie's swing, but as a competitive person, I wouldn't want to dwell on a career in which the dominant element was failure."

So it was that he steered Sanders to talk of the 1967 Ryder Cup rather than events on the Old Course.  He wanted to know what sort of captain Ben Hogan had been when he led the US team at the Champions GC in Houston, Texas, on an occasion when The Hawk famously introduced his line-up as "the finest golfers in the world".

Sanders recalled how the skipper had made it clear to each player, individually, that he didn't want to be associated with failure.  "Standing there, tapping the ash off a cigarette and with those cold, grey eyes boring into me, he said: 'Doug, you will win today, won't you?'  I took it as an order.  There wasn't a mention of country allegiance: I was playing for Hogan."

One imagines that the challenge facing European players from skipper, Colin Montgomerie, at Celtic Manor next October, will be somewhat less daunting.

- Dermot Gilleece

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