Tuesday, January 13

The Putting Genius of Bobby Locke

By John Coyne

Copyright © John Coyne. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

A Bobby Locke-model steel blade putter.
WHEN I WAS INTERVIEWING AUSTRALIAN Jim Ferree for my 1990 book Playing with The Pros: Golf Lessons from the Senior Tour, we fell into a discussion about Bobby Locke.

Ferree knew him well from the '40s and I asked Jim about Locke's ability with a putter. He said that Bobby's method was based on having to play Bermuda-grass greens, which were used particularly in South Africa and the southern U.S. They were greens that could survive warm summers.

Locke's style of putting, Ferree explained, was designed to let the ball glide on top of the grass, and not be that much affected by the grain. He said Locke told him he had learned the technique from an Englishman in Egypt when Locke was stationed there during World War II.

Very early in his career, Locke realized that putting was half the game of golf.

"No matter how well I might play the long shots," Locke said, "if I couldn't putt I would never win.''

Locke's Rusty Old Blade

Geoff Mangum, owner at Geoff Mangum's PuttingZone, writes that Locke at the age of nine was given a putter by T.D Lighthouse, who had been watching him practice on the putting green at the Germiston golf club.

"And he kept the hickory-shafted steel blade putter from that day, using it to win numerous professional competitions and four British Open championships with it," writes Mangum. "He called it his 'pay-off club,' and the 'rusty old blade,' stayed with him until 1960, when he finally replaced it with a similar putter."

Locke writes in his 1953 book, On Golf, speaking of people who helped him in his early years, about how he obtained his famous putter.

"There are incidentally," he wrote, "a great many stories about my trusty old putter and how I got it. The true story is quite simple: the club was given to me by my father when I was in my teens."

A Unique Putting Style

His putting style was as unique as was his success on the green. From tee to green Locke was not long, but he kept the ball on the fairway, and he hit everything right-to-left, unlike, say, Hogan, who controlled the ball by fading every shot.

On the greens Locke would bring the putter back far to the inside on the backstroke. Then, on the forward stroke, he would keep the clubface hooded and closed to create overspin. Locke believed a player should put spin on a putt similar to full-swing shots and make them "hook" or "slice" into the hole.

In On Golf, Locke details how to putt, starting with the correct grip. He used the same grip on his putter that he used in his full swing: an overlapping grip, with the thumbs straight down on the shaft. Putters in Locke's era were longer, and he set his hands high on the shaft, above his left knee near his thigh.

For Locke, pace was primary, and then the break. He had three putting speeds, depending upon playing conditions.

"I work to the rule that if the green appears to be fast, I will aim my putt at an imaginary hole six to twelve inches short of the hole. If the green appears to be slow, and particularly if the last two or three feet to the hole is uphill, I hit it firmly for the back of the hole."

On medium speed greens, he sought to have the ball die just over the lip.

The famous golf writer, Al Barkow, watched Locke at the 1972 British Open size up a 90-footer from the front of a green at Muirfield.

"He wiped misty rain from his glasses with a handkerchief as he walked all the way to the cup, kept pressing his feet in a kind of never-leave-the-ground tap dance to get the speed of the green as he peered down looking for grain, finally got to the ball and gave it that same grungy stroke. He rapped the ball to within two inches of the cup."

Locke would explain his technique this way: "I examine the line of the putt, concentrating particularly on a radius of about three feet around the hole. This is where the ball completes its run, and what happens here is going to make or mar the putt."

Locke is also famous for declaring: "All putts are straight putts. If the contour of the green creates a right to left breaking putt, you aim at a point where you believe the ball will begin to turn toward the hole and hit the putt straight at that point."

What I always found most intriguing about Locke’s reading of the greens was his positive attitude towards making any putt. He felt that each hole had four "doors," a front door was the door directly approached by the putt at perfect speed on the perfect path. Locke aimed for the front door and he believed he had three extra chances of sinking the putt, left side, right side, and back door to the hole.

With an attitude like that, how could anyone miss a putt?

John Coyne is a bestselling author whose latest golf novel is The Caddie Who Won the Masters. Learn more at John Coyne Books.

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