Date: July 24, 2018
Author: Mike Clayton

CLAYTON: Look who learnt to putt

For many years in the late 1980s and 1990s, a few European Tour-playing Australians including Peter Fowler, Mike Harwood, Peter O’Malley and I made the 150-mile round trip from Bagshot to Englishman Denis Pugh’s teaching base in Essex.

New Zealanders Frank Nobilo and Greg Turner joined in and Pugh’s success and technical advice established him as one of the more popular instructors on tour.

Years later he began work with Francesco Molinari, a player who would finally win something really significant.

Others, notably Nobilo and later Colin Montgomerie, had gone close in major championships. But when the Italian broke from the pack over Carnoustie’s famed finish at the weekend, Pugh could finally add that elusive major to his teaching resume.

The relevance is Molinari’s game has always reminded many of O’Malley’s.

Indeed, it would be difficult to think of two others with swings and games so similar. In size and shape they are almost identical and, while both earnt reputations as machines from tee to green, they were saddled with putters that kept them from winning as often as they otherwise might.

I have vague memories of Pugh giving me a putting lesson, but in the fashion of the time it was all about finding a decent enough technique that would get us from tee to green with less stress and more efficiency.

Now the faults we were trying to iron out as tour players are mostly taken care of in junior golf and the majority of players are technically much superior to those of our time.

Few did the tee to green bit more efficiently than O’Malley – and very few of Molinari’s contemporaries can lay claim to the machine-like form of the London-based Italian.

The obvious step was to find someone to teach him how to putt properly and Englishman Phil Kenyon – a putting teacher with a client list as long as your arm and including Open champions Rory McIlroy and Henrik Stenson – found himself hired.

It’s just a pity Kenyon wasn’t around when O’Malley was plying his trade.

At the beginning of the week, few mentioned Molinari as a potential winner – but few were paying much attention to the obvious.

His 25th at Shinnecock Hills was far from a poor week at the US Open, but it perhaps put pundits off the scent. Surrounding that performance, he’d won at Wentworth at the British PGA, finished with 62 for an eight-shot win in Washington and was second at the John Deere the week before Carnoustie.

Put simply, no one was playing better golf when they all assembled on the burned-off links.

Molinari was out with Tiger Woods on Sunday and the American had the lead after 10 holes, but irons from the tees at the 11th (a poor one) and the 12th (an unlucky one) missed the fairways and, on two reasonably innocuous holes, three shots went and his chance was gone.

Many suggested Woods’ play showed he is capable of winning again, but the counter-argument is that it showed he isn’t ever going to do it again.

Does anyone think Tiger Woods of the early and mid-2000s would have lost from where he was on the 11th tee?

Sometimes that little piece of added magic denied the mortals just goes away and, once gone, it’s almost impossible to recapture.

Molinari aside, the golf course – and the golf it asked for – was the champion this week.

After the Saturday debacle at Shinnecock Hills only a month ago, we saw championship golf at its best because the R&A has long understood the questions that a course asks are far more important than the number of shots with which it takes the winner to play.