Sporting Life

Putting a delicate torment on Augusta greens

In the quest for greatness, athletes will biopsy muscles, employ faith healers, wear lucky thong underwear and apparently clamber onto snooker tables to practise their putting. At least this is what Ian Woosnam reportedly did before he won the Masters in 1991.

Sitting in a cafe in Singapore, Daniel Chopra, the leading putter on the USPGA Tour in 2006, is laughing. Evidently inspired, he did it himself. Before he travelled to Augusta National in 2008, he stepped onto his pool table and hit short putts. Then, for fun, he rolled a few putts down his marble floor at home in Orlando. Then he missed the cut.

Nothing quite prepares anyone for the greens of Augusta. Not even 21 trips to the place. Ask Ernie Els. On his first hole on Thursday he had six putts - the longest was roughly three feet - and emerged with the glazed look of a man who had just watched six hours of Keeping Up With The Kardashians. Welcome to the Masters: mayhem at Magnolia Lane.

In 1988, Seve Ballesteros, who turned clubs into wands, four-putted from less than five metres and offered an economical explanation: "I miss, I miss, I miss, I make." No one dares smirk for no one is immune. Not even Tiger Woods who won in 1997 without a single three-putt. In 2005, he putted for eagle at the 13th and ended up in Rae's Creek.

Veteran Ernie Els was left perplexed by Augusta's greens as he six-putted the first hole at the Masters. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Athletes are tested not only by rivals but also by the planet they play on. Spinning Indian pitches unnerve visiting cricketers and Singapore's F1 track is a sweaty, tight-corner test. But the greens of Augusta could be sport's most elegant interrogation.

As Chopra - an analyst for Fox Sports - admiringly says: "It's the most difficult, easy golf course in the world." Golfers repeatedly view the course on TV, understand the angles, know what can be done, "but when you actually get to play you realise how difficult those shots are and the severity of the penalty if you miss the small target". As Woods noted in 2012: "You can ... catch the wrong sides of slopes, miss them by a yard, and next thing you know, you're 40, 50, 60 feet away."

Athletes are tested not only by rivals but also by the planet they play on. Spinning Indian pitches unnerve visiting cricketers and Singapore's F1 track is a sweaty, tight-corner test. But the greens of Augusta could be sport's most elegant interrogation.

Wimbledon grass used to be slicker than Ronaldo's hair but the Masters remains quick. No one is certain how fast since Stimpmeter readings at the Masters are hard to find. Perhaps they know that to announce a figure is to destroy a mystique.

To putt at Augusta, for instance, is considered akin to putting down a marble staircase and stopping it on the second-last step. "That quote," explains the erudite Chopra, "is in reference to putting on the ninth green". The hole has "three distinct levels and if the pin is on the lower level and you're on the highest level then it's like putting down a marble staircase". As an analogy, he confirms, it's not entirely ludicrous.

Putting, a grounded art not an airy one, involves an instrument unrelated to any other club. It comes in varying sizes, is held differently and leads to stances not approved by chiropractors. Amateurs hold a putter over a straight three-footer and suddenly find religion. Professionals at Augusta, says Chopra, face six-foot putts that you have to aim five feet right of the hole and prayer just won't work.

Everything about that famed geography requires caution and control. "You're putting defensively even up the hill," Chopra says. "You know if you give it too much speed, you can have a 4-5 footer coming back and now that is downhill and maybe with a foot of break."

And even with a four-foot putt, a voice in the head urges: "No more than two (putts), no more than two." Because "if you do something silly", like lip out, catch a slope, the "next putt could be from 35 feet".

In the afternoons, some greens are dusted by a sprinkling of light and shadow, but it is a deceiving spectacle. "It's the hardest thing," says Chopra - talking about the greens on Nos. 10, 13, 16 - "to read a green through (light and) shadow. You can't see the subtle slopes."

The struggle for athletes is to silence the voices of indecision that duel in their minds. In football there is no time to think; in golf, over a putt, too much. For instance everything in Augusta, says Chopra, breaks towards Rae's Creek. In yardage books, caddies will draw a "little arrow on every green pointing towards it. You might have a putt breaking a little bit this way, but Rae's Creek is that way, and so you now have to factor this mystical (place in) and consider that the ball is not going to break as much".

So what do you bring to these greens? Calculation and memory, faith and trust, calm and experience. You bring a canny caddie like Steve Williams who told Adam Scott in 2013 that his winning putt on the 10th broke more than it looked. You bring, says Chopra, probably "a brand new set of wedges, at least a lob wedge" for sharp grooves mean more spin which translates to finer control. When the ball hits the top level of green, it better stay there.

You also bring feel. Woods had it. Jordan Spieth owns it. As Chopra says: "What gives Jordan an advantage is the length of putt he makes. He holes more 20-25 footers than anyone else and what's huge is not the one stroke it saves you, it's mental boost it gives you. It's an unexpected bonus putt."

Great athletes have a bond with specific pieces of earth, as if they are viscerally connected to its rhythms: Rafael Nadal with Paris clay, Spieth with Augusta greens. On Thursday, Bryson DeChambeau said that Spieth told him: "I just love putting here. I can see the break. I can see the lines." To this painting of a course, he has brought his brush. But the defending champion knows that masterpieces at the Masters require four days of finesse.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 09, 2016, with the headline 'Putting a delicate torment on Augusta greens'. Subscribe