When I was a young golfer, the prettiest putting stroke in the game belonged to Ben Crenshaw. Gentle Ben's graceful motion stood out at a time when the PGA Tour's practice putting greens were a mix of leftover strokes from the 1950s and '60s, as well as more modern arm-and-shoulder moves developed on faster greens. Many junior golfers -- including me -- copied his more erect posture, with his lead arm and heel-shafted Wilson blade putter staying in-line through impact. My version of his stroke didn't last more than a couple years, and most of the other players doing their Ben impressions didn't amount to much either. But one stroke did, and it won a Tour event as an amateur. It belonged to Phil Mickelson.
Since that 1991 win in Tucson, Phil Mickelson's putting stroke has been a favorite of golfers and TV analysts. Early on, Phil seemed to me to be doing a Crenshaw impersonation on the greens. It wasn't an exact copy, though. The subtle differences in his early-career stroke and Crenshaw's were partly due to Phil's more aggressive game and nature as well as Lefty's more bent-over posture at address (he has about five inches on Ben). As arm-and-shoulder dominated as Crenshaw's stroke was, Mickelson's was even less wristy. As "up the lead arm" as Ben's impact was, Phil had even more forward hands. But Phil made lots of putts from all over the greens, and the wins piled up. Eventually, like many champions before him, his problems came on the short ones.
Phil has worked on his stroke with a few putting coaches, most notably Dave Pelz and Dave Stockton. He's had the short ones under control at times and struggled at others. In 2012 Mickelson finished 10th in the Tour's new Strokes-Gained Putting category. Out of 191 ranked golfers, that's an enviable position. Coupled with his length off the tee and magical short game, Phil's putting stroke gave him the chance to challenge any time he teed it up.
That success aside, golfers in their 40s are always looking to putt like they did in their 20s. And Phil is no exception.
He has recently experimented with the claw grip and this week in Houston, Mickelson used a fat, oversized grip (pictured). Here's what he's trying to accomplish with both of those oft-attempted variations.
A claw grip puts your lower arm and hand in a different location at address than a conventional grip does. Your lower arm is more parallel to the ground, which places that wrist in a spot that encourages some flow and wrist-straightening through the ball. For someone whose stroke has gotten stiff or stale, it can add some new and improved feel. Also, taking what feels like a radical new grip on the club helps your brain forget the old stroke, and sometimes a little putting amnesia can go a long way.
Using a putter with a fat grip can often limit small wrist movements in both the vertical and horizontal planes of the stroke. Mickelson says he likes the feel this grip gives him, and perhaps that feel recalls the more arm-dominated stroke of his youth. I've seen golfers use both the claw grip and a fat grip at the same time, although last weekend in Houston Phil appeared to have abandoned the claw style in favor of a conventional putting grip.
Weekend golfers are always looking for an edge on the greens, and PGA Tour players are no different. Maybe the fat grip will help Phil on the slick, sloped greens of Augusta, a place he has won before and would love to win again.
Brian Manzella is a Golf Magazine Top 100 Teacher.
(Photo: Scott Halleran/Getty Images)