Tiger Woods and Today's 10 Best Short-Game Geniuses

Will Leivenberg@@will_leivenbergFeatured ColumnistDecember 3, 2010

Short-Game Geniuses: Tiger Woods and Today's 10 Best

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    The short game of golf is the most difficult, and most deadly, element of the game.

    Today's professionals can hit the ball a mile with their drivers, shape sky-high shots around oak trees with a 7-iron, but only a select few are consistently exceptional with their short game. The secret to mastering the short game is that there is none.

    It's a question of individual touch, power of mind and body, and the overarching theme of visualizing the shot that needs to be hit. 

    Whether buried in the bunker, caught in deep rough, or staring down a 10-foot double-breaking putt, there are 10 players in the game today who make it look like a stroll across the fairway.

Phil Mickelson

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    SINGAPORE - NOVEMBER 12: Phil Mickelson of USA putts on the 12th hole during the second round of the Barclays Singapore Open held at the Sentosa Golf Club on November 12, 2010 in Singapore, Singapore.  (Photo by Stanley Chou/Getty Images)
    Stanley Chou/Getty Images

    Phil Mickelson looks more comfortable with a wedge in his hand than Ray Allen at the free throw line or Mariano Rivera in the bottom of the ninth.

    Phil has never been the most consistent of golfers–reference Winged Foot in 2006 or about half of his tournaments in 2010 after the Masters for proof–but his short game has always been his most reliable weapon in his arsenal.

    Somehow he never ceases to amaze when he pulls off the unlikely, and sometimes unfathomable, shot.

    For example, when most players just barely miss the green and find their ball on the fringe (the finely-cut level of grass just off the putting surface) their first inclination is to putt their ball. However, for some reason Phil is wired in a different way.

    He’s got a different prerogative because he’s got a go-for-broke mentality. If he thinks he has a chance to sink a shot from anywhere on and around the green, he employs the ‘no risk, no reward’ mantra and never looks back.

    Though Mickelson’s criticized often for playing aggressively at the ‘wrong’ times, such as with a lead or trailing by a couple shots, for a guy with four major championships and 38 PGA Tour victories, it seems like he’s got a solid head on his shoulders. 

Graeme McDowell

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    PEBBLE BEACH, CA - JUNE 18:  Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland lines up a putt during the second round of the 110th U.S. Open at Pebble Beach Golf Links on June 18, 2010 in Pebble Beach, California.  (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)
    Jeff Gross/Getty Images

    Considering we are looking at the most talented short-game players in the game today, it would be an injustice to create such a list without paying homage to one of the most successful and talented players of 2010—Northern Irishman Graeme McDowell.

    Count 'em: Celtic Manor Wales Open, United States Open, Andalucia Valderrama Masters–three victories in 2010 alone, plus a Ryder Cup win.

    McDowell surged into the elite of professional golf by straightening out his driver off the tee, consistently hitting greens, but most of all, by converting on the putting greens.

    At Pebble Beach for the US Open, many critics say that McDowell won the championship by default as golf’s giants, like Els, Mickelson, and Woods, ‘gave away’ the victory in their struggle to capitalize.

    But that distorted perception of reality devalues McDowell’s terrific and constant play throughout four days of grueling, intensely competitive golf.

    McDowell produced the only light in that week of ominous, gloomy weather and did it with a single club—the putter.

    If you look back on McDowell’s four rounds, it wasn’t that he made more birdies than his competitors, but instead that he made the fewest mistakes.

    He was unshakable with putts inside six to eight feet, which any golfer can tell you may be the shorter ones, but they are also the most backbreaking.

    McDowell displayed those same clutch putting skills at the Ryder Cup and was one of the crucial winners for the European squad to solidify their victory. After such an exceptional season, McDowell will be one of the players to watch in 2011.

Dustin Johnson

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    PARAMUS, NJ - AUGUST 29:  Dustin Johnson attempts a putt on the fourth hole green during the final round of The Barclays at the Ridgewood Country Club on August 29, 2010 in Paramus, New Jersey.  (Photo by Hunter Martin/Getty Images)
    Hunter Martin/Getty Images

    Dustin Johnson began to make a name for himself on the PGA Tour about two years ago when he was pummeling his golf ball with titanium-denting drives over 300 yards on average. But Johnson became a real threat this season when he fused his enormous drives with a revamped, deadly short game.

    Johnson stormed out of the gates in 2010, earning a victory at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am where he tore the course apart, finishing -16 through four days.

    His game continued to improve because of a newfound touch on the greens, which for such a long-hitter created an intimidation factor, reminiscent of guys like Mickelson and Woods.

    From May onward, Johnson soared, capturing five top-10’s and a victory at the prestigious BMW Championship.

    The 2010 season was especially telling for Johnson because not only did he make the cut in all four majors, he also contended at the US Open and PGA Championship, both of which he let legitimate chances dramatically, and tragically, slip away.

    The most thrilling aspect about Dustin Johnson is that he’s only 25, meaning he’s making drastic, effective improvements in his game, producing solid results and has the opportunity to only get better.

Rory McIlroy

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    From tee to green, this 21-year-old kid is not just keeping up with golf’s most talented players, but giving them a run for their money.

    Similar to his Northern Irish counterpart Graeme McDowell, McIlroy does a tremendous job of not getting himself into a whole lot of trouble on the golf course.

    As a youngster on Tour, McIlroy reads the speed and break of putting surfaces consistently well and is only getting better at it.

    Though he’s primarily a European Tour player, he competed in 16 PGA Tour events this season, made 12 cuts, and earned five top-10’s and a single, but significant, victory at the Wells Fargo Championship.

    He shot two of the lowest scores recorded the season; a nine-under par 63 in the opening round of the British Open at St. Andrews and a 10-under par 62 in the final round of the Wells Fargo Championship.

    Realistically, those kinds of things don’t happen unless you have serious talent on the greens and a sound, powerful mind to withstand the pressure. 

    Watch for Rory’s miraculous flop shot, which he loves to hit when just off the green in deep rough.

Jim Furyk

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    THOUSAND OAKS, CA - DECEMBER 02:  Jim Furyk putts on the fifth hole during the Chevron World Challenge at Sherwood Country Club on December 2, 2010 in Thousand Oaks, California.  (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
    Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

    Three wins on the season and a Player of the Year award was no coincidence. 

    Here’s the secret ingredient of Jim Furyk’s overwhelming success this season, and throughout his career—he never misses a putt beyond three feet.

    If you imagine a three-foot circle around the hole, Furyk never misses a putt outside of that circle, meaning he never gives himself a difficult, agonizing second putt.

    Don’t worry, Furyk drains his fair share of putts as well, but the fact that he rarely three-putts or even puts himself in a position to be concerned on the greens was crucial to his four top-10’s and three-victory season.

Luke Donald

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    ATLANTA - SEPTEMBER 24:  Luke Donald of England chips out of the sand onto the 18th green during the second round of THE TOUR Championship presented by Coca-Cola at East Lake Golf Club on September 24, 2010 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Get
    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Luke Donald loves the beach. But there’s no waves or lifeguards or surfers at the beach he frequents, instead just endless amounts of sand in greenside bunkers.

    Donald ranks first in Sand Save Percentage on Tour, a feat he also accomplished in 2009 and 2006. But realistically, every pro on Tour can get ‘out’ of a sand trap.

    What distinguishes Donald is that he knocks it tight out of the bunker and constantly gets up and down.

    In fact, Donald gets up and down so often and with such comfort that earlier this year on Sunday at the Madrid Masters, Donald’s voice was picked up by TV microphones and along with his caddie they decided to intentionally choose a club that would put his ball in the bunker.

    Donald would go on to win.

    It's almost no surprise Donald has great touch in the sand because that also translates with the flatstick. He has consistently finished in the top-10 in Putts Per Round on Tour and remains one of the most reliable putters in the game today.

Ernie Els

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    PACIFIC PALISADES, CA - FEBRUARY 07:  Ernie Els of South Africa chips onto the green on the second hole during the final round of the Northern Trust Open at Riviera Country Club on February 7, 2010 in Pacific Palisades, California.  (Photo by Stephen Dunn
    Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

    Ernie Els was given the nickname “The Big Easy” because he’s around 6’3 and owns one of the lightest, most flexible and fluid swings in professional golf. But rarely does he get acclaim for his similarly glossy, smooth putting stroke.

    Els grabbed two victories early in the season not just because of his pinpoint accuracy with his irons, but because he’d found a groove with his putting stroke, looking like Kobe doin’ work in the fourth quarter.

    He has an excellent sense of speed and distance on putting surfaces, similar to Jim Furyk. Neither player leaves their putts extremely short or far past the hole, allowing them to consistently tap in par or birdie putts.

    One of the key reasons Els is constantly within the top-10 on Tour in Scoring Average (sixth in 2010) is because of his sensational touch and aggressive play with his wedges.

    The only time Els really looked out of sync this season was at the US Open at Pebble Beach, where he continued to give himself viable birdie opportunities, but couldn’t capitalize.

    Regardless, 2010 was a successful season for Els, who won twice and finished in the top-10 five times, remaining one of the most intimidating players in the game.

Zach Johnson

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    ST ANDREWS, SCOTLAND - JULY 15:  Zach Johnson of the USA reacts to a missed putt on the 9th hole during the first round of the 139th Open Championship on the Old Course, St Andrews on July 15, 2010 in St Andrews, Scotland.  (Photo by Andrew Redington/Gett
    Andrew Redington/Getty Images

    Sixth in Putting Average, third in Putting from 5-10 feet, and second in Putting from 20-25 feet. Think twice if you decide to challenge Zach Johnson to duel on the putting greens, because the dude’s got serious touch.

    It’s upsetting that so many golf fans and critics alike denigrate Johnson’s victory at the Masters in 2007. Sure, he was an unlikely winner, but he beat the field fair and square on one of this country’s most demanding golf courses.

    For all the naysayers who doubted Johnson’s skills, since 2007 he’s won at least one event each season and developed into one of golf’s premiere short game experts.

    His victory at Colonial this season was a testament to how much his game has matured. It was Johnson’s seventh career victory, in which he made a mockery of the course, shooting 65-66-64-64. 

    He led the field in birdies with 24, hit 84.7 percent of Greens in Regulation (No. 1 in the field), and ranked 11th in Putts per Green in Regulation (1.656).

    Johnson definitely has the game to play with the best of the best, but the question is—does he have what it takes to capture another major championship victory?

Matt Kuchar

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    NEWPORT, WALES - OCTOBER 03:  Matt Kuchar of the USA watches a putt during the Fourball & Foursome Matches during the 2010 Ryder Cup at the Celtic Manor Resort on October 3, 2010 in Newport, Wales.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    No offense to Jim Furyk, but Matt Kuchar deserved to be the PGA Player of the Year.

    Not only did Kuchar lead in just about every statistic, capturing the No. 1 All-Around Ranking, but he finished in the top 10 in almost half the events he competed in: 11 of 23.

    That included three third-place finishes, one second, a victory at the Barclay’s, and four successful cuts made at all the majors, highlighted by a T6 at the US Open and T10 at the PGA Championship. Kuchar tore it up.

    His triumphant season was a fusion of an array of elements in his game, with a special emphasis on his putting.

    If you watch his putting stroke, you’ll recognize how even after he hits the ball he draws out the putter in the direction of his line, which adds a smoother, forward motion to the ball. Tiger does it, Mickelson does it, Nicklaus did it—let's just say it works.

    For Kuchar, considering he hit greens in regulation 70 percent of the time, he was constantly giving himself birdie opportunities. From beginning to end, Kuchar developed his fluid, rhythmic stroke and it produced his most successful season yet as a professional.

Tiger Woods

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    I wasn’t alive when Nicklaus or Palmer or Player or Jones or any of golf’s most esteemed legends left their permanent mark upon the game.

    But, I’m going to pick Tiger Woods every time, on any course, and in any conditions because I emphatically believe he’s the greatest short-game player of all time, let alone greatest there’s ever been.

    Tiger deserves this recognition because regardless of whether he has the best touch in the game is not the question—it's that he has performed with unrivaled talent on and around the greens in the most clutch, significant moments.

    For example, in 2008 at the US Open, Woods, fueled by the momentum of a few outstanding recovery shots, sank a birdie putt on the 18th hole to extend the championship with Rocco Mediate, which he’d go on to win.

    How about his dramatic finish at Bay Hill in 2009? That was a double-breaking, downhill putt on an extremely slick, undulating green, but he made the unthinkable a reality.

    Tiger ascended beyond any and every expectation after his magical touch on the 16th hole of the 2005 Masters.

    In the video clip, you can watch him strategizing the shot, visualizing where to land the ball, and even anticipating where the ball might pick up speed due to the mountainous tier he had in his way.

    With the poise of a champion, Woods executed what this golf fan believes to be the greatest shot in golf history (with Mickelson’s shot behind the tree at this year’s Masters following just behind).