The Rory Whisperer
Putting at the British Open is a different animal, and nobody had a better feel for it than Brad Faxon
By Michael Bamberger
HOYLAKE, England—When Brad Faxon first played the tumbling links at Royal Liverpool 40 years ago, as a member of the U.S. Walker Cup team, he was not a famously good putter. That came later, over time, as he kept his place on the PGA Tour year after year, through the 1980s and ’90s and well into the 2000s, often hitting it crooked but still making 451 cuts and winning eight times.
When detailed putting stats became more of a thing, about a decade into Faxon’s professional career, all the numbers did was confirm what Lanny Wadkins and Curtis Strange and Corey Pavin already knew. Faxon’s stroke had a rhythmic joy to it, and no matter how indecisive he might have been with a 4-iron in hand, standing over a slice lie, he looked right at home on the green. He didn’t stalk greens like he owned them, as Tiger Woods did. He walked on them like he knew what he was doing, and he did.
Now Faxon is back at Royal Liverpool, as a TV commentator for NBC and as a putting coach to Rory McIlroy, MBE.
(Here’s to you, QEII. This 13th Open at Royal Liverpool will be the first Open without Queen Elizabeth reigning over it since . . . 1951.)
Faxon won the last of his eight PGA Tour events in 2005 and by the time McIlroy turned pro in 2007, Faxon was in a club within the club, touring pros who were famous for one narrow and great thing, putting. Other members of the club in Faxon’s era included Loren Roberts and Stan Utley and Steve Stricker.
If you’re going to excel at one aspect in this sport, what could be better than having a world-class putting game? McIlroy has a world-class putting game. Of course he does. A certain segment of the golfing population seems to be fixated on his misses. It’s a modern disease, and it goes way beyond golf. In any event, the greens at Royal Liverpool (aka Hoylake), where McIlroy won the Open in 2014, are flat and slow, especially compared to the greens the players encountered last month in the U.S. Open at the Los Angeles Country Club, where McIlroy finished one shot behind the winner, Wyndham Clark. A slower green does require less precision. On a slow green you can strike the ball harder, play less break—and (now) use the flagstick like you are playing croquet.
“When I first got here 40 years ago for the Walker Cup, I recognized immediately that the greens looked like nothing I had ever seen before,” Faxon said this week. “The blades of grass looked more like petals on a small flower.”
Can you imagine having an eye that would pick up on that so quickly? But now is a good time to point out that Faxon can probably beat you in Ping Pong using a cell phone as a paddle. Really.
You don’t become Rory McIlroy’s putting coach without having some preternatural gifts.
“There wasn’t any cushion or give when you walked on the greens,” Faxon said. “And the only difference between the green and the fringe was that the green was cut down lower. The grass was the same.” Fescue and anything else the wind blew in.
Faxon urges his putting students to get in touch with their inner athleticism and their instinctiveness that, in theory, should make putting, the game within the game, fun. One of Faxon’s regular points when he talks about putting is to avoid the word work. Raking the backyard is work. Golf is on the fun-and-games side of the life ledger—at least it’s supposed to be. But, memorably, a reporter once asked Faxon what he was working on while on a practice putting green. “Not caring,” he said.
Harder than it sounds. Maybe you saw McIlroy on the last hole of the Scottish Open on Sunday. The putt kind of plopped in for the win, and when it did McIlroy’s first instinct was to laugh. Faxon was on the scene, watching closely. He knows that a putt does not have to be perfect to go dark and that a lot of seemingly perfectly struck putts stay out. Life.
Faxon has worked for years with the sports psychologist Bob Rotella, author of the book Golf is Not a Game of Perfect. PGA Tour greens are often perfect and uniform, with only a single type of grass and grain that is obvious to see. Seaside breezes blow all types of seed around and British Open greens are often not uniform at all. Really, that should free up a golfer over a putt, whether it is McIlroy or anybody else. It should allow most of the players in the field here to bury their perfectionist instincts.
“I never really thought about Open greens being different,” said Faxon, who made 14 British Open appearances, with one top-10 finish. “To me, you still had to roll the ball on a particular line with the correct speed.” Along with slope and speed, Faxon made sure to read the wind. You have to here.
Three-time Open champion Jack Nicklaus, famously, would hover his putter head over the ball when playing over here, afraid the wind might move the ball, resulting in a penalty. Golfers don’t have to worry about that anymore. Per a 2019 rule change, it’s no longer a penalty if the wind moves your ball while you are over it. You simply put the ball back, without a penalty. You can thank Dustin Johnson (Oakmont, 2016) or common sense or something.
“I never tried that,” Faxon said of Nicklaus’s hovering method. “It would make me scared the wind could blow the putter head into the ball.” Talk about light hands.
Faxon said he has mentioned a couple things to McIlroy this week, “reminders of what works well for him when he putts well.” Two keys, Faxon said, are for McIlroy to have his right elbow slightly tucked in—and to catch the ball on the center of the face. In other words, good contact, as one tries to do with the other 13 clubs. “Then get lost in being as creative as you can be,” Faxon said. Nice advice, if (borrowing from B. Franklin) “you can keep it.”
McIlroy was born in May 1989 and by the summer of ’91 his father, Gerry, a scratch golfer, had him putting at Holywood Golf Club, outside Belfast. McIlroy knows what it’s like to get lost in the creative process of putting. He has been doing it all his life. Gerry McIlroy started his son near the hole and worked away from it. Earl Woods did the same thing with Tiger.
Faxon, likewise, knows all about taking your father’s game and making it your own. His namesake father, Bradford J. Faxon Sr., who died in January, at 84, was the club champion at Rhode Island Country Club long before his son started winning titles there.
McIlroy fans get most nervous for him on putts from about five feet and in, when the expectation is to make and make and never miss. Millions of golfers through the years have faced the same mental dilemma. Putting becomes so much harder when you are only thinking about the bad things that can happen.
“My attitude was, Don’t evaluate a putt and decide whether it’s important or unimportant or difficult or easy or makeable or not makeable,” Faxon said. He wanted the same process, on putt after putt after putt, until the holes turned into a round and the rounds turned into years and then decades and now a lifetime in the game. “I was rarely able to do that consistently,” said Faxon, “but I was probably more consistent at it than most.” And therein lies a long and fruitful career.
Forty years later, Brad Faxon is back at Royal Liverpool.
Michael Bamberger welcomes your comments at [email protected]
Michael Bamberger was briefly a caddie on the PGA and European Tours, invented a golf club (the E-Club) that Lee Trevino used in his final British Open, spent 22 years as a writer at Sports Illustrated and joined the Firepit Collective in May 2022.
email: [email protected]