Perhaps the sports world knows no equal to the love-hate relationship that exists between the golfer and his putter.
"There's no medium with the putter; it's a total love-hate," said Anthony Kim, who begins the defense of his AT&T National title Thursday at Congressional Country Club. "I'm not big on abuse. But the moment I feel the hate, somebody in the gallery is getting a new putter."
Opinions on putter punishment varied widely in the 120-man field assembled at Old Blue for the third edition of Tiger's tournament, but there was complete consensus among those polled on one count: The putter is the cruelest club, hands down - or cross-handed, as the case may be.
Its cruelty stems from its lopsided importance in a game in which half of a player's allotted shots, most from a relatively short distance, come on the greens. The putter is the money club, the scoring club, the make-or-break club, the fickle friend seemingly always on the brink of betrayal. It has the power to make a giant out of a ball-striking midget or a quivering, hopeless mess out of a tee-to-green master.
"Everybody has wrestled with the fact that you can cover 500 yards in two shots and screw it all up by missing a 4-footer. That just doesn't seem right," newly crowned U.S. Open champion Lucas Glover said. "It should be the simplest part of the game, and yet it's the hardest. If you think about it too much, it will make you crazy. But that's the game. Putting makes or breaks the round. And at one time or another, it makes everyone nuts."
Nobody is immune. Sooner or later, anyone who has ever picked up a club looks into his bag and sees a 35-inch steel stake where his putter used to be. Tiger Woods, arguably the best putter in history, currently is struggling with his short stick. This week's host averaged a woeful 30 putts a round at the U.S. Open, falling on his Scotty Cameron sword en route to a tie for sixth in the season's second major.
Though his Cameron Newport II has been in the bag for 13 major victories dating back to its debut in 1999, Woods is squarely in the punishment camp when it comes to the club. His Newport has earned enough chits for him to overlook its betrayal at Bethpage, but he's not above abuse or benching.
"I think one of them was waterlogged... overnight," Woods said of a past putter. "Another one, I believe I played 36 holes one day back home, and the putter was along for the ride on the back but couldn't sit in the cart. It was tied to the back. Both of those putters are no longer in the lineup."
Most players, however, attempt to coddle the club into performing.
While Bobby Jones once noted that "no putt is too short to hate," he was famous for routinely sleeping with his blade. Jones' Calamity Jane was a hickory-shafted beauty, but classic good looks are no prerequisite when it comes to choosing golf's most coquettish mistress. Players will gladly embrace any style, length or grip that produces results, regardless of aesthetics. Blade or mallet, broomstick or belly, conventional, cross-handed, claw or saw - beauty is in the eye of the beholer.
"I'd putt with a cricket bat if it worked," former world No. 1 Nick Faldo once said.
Of course, even the game's best putters occasionally struggle with the fundamental philosophical inequity of predicating so much of the game on one short-range club.
"What can get to you if you let it is the fact that you can putt average, and it's real hard to go lower than a couple under no matter how well you hit it," said Jim Furyk, the owner of golf's oddest - and slowest - pre-putt routine. "But you can go out there and slap it around, knock in a bunch of putts and post a 66 real quickly."
That reality once drove Ben Hogan to suggest that perhaps putting should be abandoned altogether. Following his brilliant career, which devolved into a case study in putting woes, the Hawk proposed that each green should have a highlighted circle 20 feet in diameter displayed on it. Hit a shot inside that circle, and a player could claim a one-putt and head to the next tee. A shot outside the circle but on the green would result in a two-stroke addition. Snap those petulant short sticks, and let's get down to some real target golf.
"Hey, I like that idea," said Boo Weekley, a superb ball striker who ranks 140th on tour in putting. "If they did away with putting tomorrow, I'd be all for it, yes sir."
Like most players, however, Weekley has learned to cope with the troublesome club and its lopsided import.
"I've bent my share of putters, oh yeah," Weekley said. "Then I just find me another one that I like and stick with it until it runs out of mojo. I don't usually hate on 'em too much, though. Because the truth of the matter is it ain't the putter. It's the puttee."