If you play golf long enough, chances are good that you will have a closet full of old putters that, for some reason, you don’t love anymore. The courtship and honeymoon phases were terrific, but then putts stopped dropping, the honeymoon ended and you started to eye other putters in the pro shop.
It’s okay, a lot of professional golfers go through the same thing. Even household names like Scottie Scheffler, Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas can find themselves doubting the ability of an old putter to get the job done or waffle between different putters in hopes of breaking out of a slump.
The problem is not isolated to just putters. Pros often get perplexed when they hit shots with their woods and irons and the ball doesn’t react the way they anticipate. It can mess with their heads and shatter confidence, which is crucial for success at the elite level.
This leads to an interesting dilemma: How can you tell when you need to improve your technique or if it is time to change putters or any other club in your bag, for that matter?
Scheffler is slow to change
Scottie Scheffler was among the worst putters on the PGA Tour last season, finishing with a Strokes Gained: Putting with an average of -0.301, which ranked 150th on the PGA Tour. That means Scheffler gave away 1.2 shots to the average player over 72 holes based on his putting, but since he had a historically good ballstriking season, he still won over $21 million and collected two titles.
Toward the end of the season, Scheffler put away his Scotty Cameron blade-style putter and started using a prototype TaylorMade Spider mallet. That putter was in the bag for a few events, but at the Tour Championship, the Scotty Cameron was back, even though Scheffler had other TaylorMade Spider prototypes brought to him on Tuesday before the tournament started.
Asked how he knows whether problems are with his swing mechanics or his equipment, Scheffler, who is currently ranked No. 1 on the Official World Golf Rankings, told Golfweek, “That’s a good question. I’m a firm believer that I could pretty much figure out how to play with just about any club. That’s why it’s so hard for me to switch into new equipment, because there’s just little, tiny changes. Even getting a new set of irons, I really don’t like having to switch into a new set of irons. There’s just little things that are different about each club. Like, they could make me five backup drivers in the TaylorMade truck and tell me they’re all the same and I’d hit ’em, and I’d be like, ‘Guys, I really don’t think that they’re the same.’ So, when it comes to testing equipment, that’s always where it gets really challenging, and really the best way to do it is just to put it out in competition. But it takes a lot of prep work at home with the new equipment to make sure it’s ready to go.”
Scheffler added that he has never gone through a swing change or tried to rebuild his swing before, so equipment that worked for him in the past should keep working in the future, but he conceded that when it comes to putters, he is willing to tinker. A tiny bit.
“I signed with [TaylorMade] at the beginning of last year, so obviously, the putter is something that they would love to be a part of my bag. They work really hard,” Scheffler said. “I have always liked the look of the Spider putter because it has all the visuals and everything on the top. But the performance of my blade putter is something that I’m used to. It’s what I’ve used since I was six years old. I’m just trying to find that balance point.”
Billy Horschel, winner of the 2014 FedEx Cup, struggled with inconsistency throughout much of the PGA Tour season, including an 84 in the first round of the Memorial Tournament. But before the start of the U.S. Open in mid-June, Horschel discovered something.
“The biggest key we found Tuesday of U.S. Open was all my lie angles on my clubs were about 2 to 3 degrees too upright,” Horschel revealed after a second-round 67 at Los Angeles Country Club. “Somehow along the process of switching manufacturers, and being on my own and everything, maybe my numbers just got a little off.”
Horschel said that having clubs that were too upright produced a ball flight that didn’t make sense, but adjusting his clubs to his ideal measurements made all the difference.
“It was causing me not to hit the cut that I would want to hit,” he said. “So from there, it gave me a lot of confidence that everything Todd [Anderson] and I have been doing in my swing was the right thing.”
Horschel, who now plays Titleist irons, said that at some point over the last few years, the information on his iron’s ideal lofts and lie angles was changed. He doesn’t blame Titleist or anyone else, but understands that he needs to do a better job of keeping track of his gear.
“I wasn’t diligent enough in everything. It’s nobody’s fault, but at least we’ve got it fixed now,” he said.
Adjusting his irons did not solve all of Horschel’s problems, but he did record a fourth-place finish at the Wyndham Championship in August, his best result of 2023.
The takeaway for recreational golfers is that before you make an equipment change, be sure nothing has damaged your clubs or changed them.
Rory takes reponsibility
For a player who had won four majors, three FedEx Cups and over $80 million in prize money on the PGA Tour, Rory McIlroy has gone through a lot of putters. He has used a variety of blade putters and mallet putters since turning pro in 2007, but seemed to have an epiphany during the 2021 Northern Trust.
“I said to Harry (Diamond, his caddie) after the first round, ‘I’m thinking about going back to the Spider,’ and then I proceeded to gain four strokes on the greens over the next two days with it,” McIlroy said. “But I think the thing with the blade is, the good days are really good, but the bad days are pretty bad, as well.”
Still, he used a Scotty Cameron blade putter at the WGC-Dell Match Play Championship in March and a Scotty Cameron Phantom X 5.5 at the BMW Championship in August, showing that he is still open to changing putters.
When Golfweek asked McIlroy at the Tour Championship how he knows when it’s time to change clubs instead of focusing on his swing or putting stroke, he described a situation that occurred this season.
“I think when you play as much golf as we do, your subconscious knows what shots you can hit and what shots you can’t,” he said. “I was over my second shot at Oak Hill on 18 on Sunday, and I didn’t have a chance to win the golf tournament but I was in the top 10. I mean, whether I made birdie or not on that hole, it wasn’t really going to make a difference. The pin was on left side of the green, and I just sensed myself aiming further and further right as I got over the ball. So I just couldn’t trust that I could hit the shot that I wanted to hit.”
According to ShotLink, the shot was a 164-yard shot from the left side of the fairway to a hole on the left side of the green. McIlroy’s ball finished 39 feet to the right of the hole.
“When I got in after that, I was like, ‘I need to do something here because I’m not able to hit … if I can’t hit a shot under basically zero pressure to a left pin, how am I expected to do it when [there is pressure]?’ So that was really when it’s, like, this is purely technique. I need to go and work on some stuff. I think the little bit of work that I did around, like, after PGA before that Memorial, Canada, U.S. Open, Travelers stretch, like, that really helped me go on to play some really [good golf] after that. Even though I played okay at Oak Hill, I wasn’t terribly comfortable, but I went on a really consistent run after then, and just that little bit of self-reflection and being like, yeah, that wasn’t a good feeling and knowing that, okay, I need to work on my technique a little bit so that I can trust what I’m doing a bit more.”
Recreational golfers feel doubt before hitting shots all the time, but McIlroy revealed that pros feel it, too.
“I think it always comes back to that,” McIlroy said. “You can make some equipment changes to try to freshen it up or try to just get a different look, but for the most part, it’s the person at the end of the club swinging it that’s usually the problem.”