Scratching Back Reinvigorated by a peculiar putting grip called the Claw, Mark Calcavecchia is again on top of his game and ready to contend

April 01, 2001

You know where you were the day JFK was shot, but where were you
on June 14, 1995? Mark Calcavecchia remembers where he was. "Like
it was yesterday," he says, shaking his head. That was the day
his putting stroke deserted him.

Wait a minute. He knows when his putting slump began...to the
day? That sounds goofy. Yeah, and that sounds like Calc, the big
kid who has never grown up. After all, this is the guy who back
in February, a week after having made 32 birdies and setting the
Tour's 72-hole scoring record, snapped his putter shaft in half
during a frustrating round at Pebble Beach.

This is the anatomy of a putting slump. It began on the eve of
the 1995 U.S. Open at Shinnecock. "I had just won in Atlanta, and
I was putting great," Calc recalls. "I was putting so well in
practice rounds on Monday and Tuesday that I didn't even have to
line 'em up."

However, during a Wednesday practice round with Phil Mickelson,
with a few wagers on the line, Calc's putting touch somehow,
some way, vanished. "I missed six five-foot putts trying as hard
as I could," Calc says. "I lost all my confidence. I went out
the next day and couldn't make it from anywhere. I probably had
36 putts both days. That was it, just like that. A complete
confidence-shatterer. I don't know what happened, but it
shouldn't have left me that fast. It was the weirdest thing."

Golf's sad truth is that a bad putter is a condemned man, and
over the past six years Calcavecchia has died a thousand
three-putt deaths. "I've had a full-fledged case of the yips many
times," he admits. "I once used seven putting grips in a round.
I've tried cross-handed, split-handed, eyes shut, the whole
thing."

He finally grasped at the Claw, a long-shafted putting technique
that Calc adapted to a short putter right before he teed off in
the Players Championship last year. He slips the shaft between
two fingers of his right hand and holds the club, clawlike. Last
year he rose to 63rd in the putting stats, up from 136th the year
before, and going into this year's Players, he had jumped to
third. He was third at the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic, then won
the Phoenix Open, shooting a 28-under-par 256 to break Mike
Souchak's 46-year-old scoring record. Three weeks later Calc
finished a shot behind Jesper Parnevik at the Honda Classic.

"I knew I could still hit it, I just had to figure out a way to
putt better," Calcavecchia says. "One thing about me, I'm so
damn stubborn, I always kept believing it was going to turn
around. Even putting s-----, I was still pretty much a top 40
player, and I knew I'd make enough money to survive. But it
wasn't any fun."

In the late 1980s Calcavecchia seemed headed for a star-studded
career. He almost won the 1988 Masters, then did win the '89
British Open at Royal Troon. He has had a decent career, but he
believes it should've been better. He has only the one major,
half of his 10 other wins came in the '80s, and there have been
way too many almosts--40 second- and third-place finishes. He
never harnessed his streaky brilliance, and by the time he
evolved into one of the Tour's most consistent ball strikers (he
ranked in the top 10 in greens hit in regulation three of the
last five years), he had also become one of the Tour's most
embattled putters.

He's 40 now and finally making putts again. That can be a
life-changing experience for a golfer, but Calcavecchia's life is
already in urban renewal. He split with his wife, Sheryl, and
divorce proceedings are under way. He bought a house about two
miles from his former home in Phoenix so he can keep in close
contact with their two kids--Britney, 11, and Eric, 7, the
hard-skating scourge of a youth hockey league. If Calcavecchia
feels as if he's starting over in golf, maybe he is in a sense.
Like that naive, gunslinging kid in '88, Calcavecchia will return
to Augusta National as a contender. He has seven finishes from
12th through 20th at the Masters and shot a record 29 on the back
nine in 1992, but except for '88, he has never been a threat to
win.

"Now that I feel like I can make a putt from three feet," he
says, "I can't help but have a better feeling than I've had
since the late '80s."

The touch was there in '88. Making only his second Masters
appearance, Calcavecchia came to the last hole tied for the lead
with Sandy Lyle. From an uphill lie in the fairway he tried to
hit a hard pitching wedge. "It was the wrong club," Calc says. "I
wasn't familiar enough with the course. I didn't think about
using that slope behind the pin. I knew when the ball was in the
air that it was going to roll back off the green."

He played a delicate pitch to within six inches of the pin to
save par and, he thought, probably to get in a playoff. But from
a fairway bunker at 18, Lyle hit his famous seven-iron shot,
taking advantage of the slope behind the hole to bring his ball
back within 10 feet. Calcavecchia watched on TV as Lyle rolled in
the birdie putt for the victory.

"At the time, I kind of wrote it off," Calc says. "I thought,
I'll win this tournament someday. Then my short game went to hell
and without a short game, forget it."

This year's Masters will have a little more meaning because
Calcavecchia didn't make the field last year after 13 straight
appearances and in 1999, at the height of his putting woes, he
missed the cut. "I've always said the Masters is my favorite
place to get to and my favorite place to leave," he says.
"Everybody is so jacked up about getting there because it's
Augusta, it's the Masters, and the atmosphere is so cool. Then
after a week of playing, you're ready to pull your hair out. The
greens kick everybody's ass, and it's like, Geez, get me out of
here."

If not for the Claw, Calcavecchia might dread his return to
Augusta. The Claw is a variation of a grip used by Chris DiMarco,
who applies a long-putter grip to a short putter. "I remember
when Chris first came out on Tour and Mark saw that grip," says
Drake Oddy, who has known Calcavecchia since their University of
Florida days and occasionally caddies for him when he's not
working for Joe Ozaki. "Mark said, 'Well, at least that's one
grip I'll never go to.'"

Eventually, he ran out of options. Calcavecchia was functional
using Bernhard Langer's method, gripping the putter shaft and his
left forearm with his right hand, but his shortish fingers made
him uncomfortable with that approach. He never got proficient at
cross-handed putting and began to flinch. He practiced with a
long putter enough to get respectable inside 15 feet and even put
one in his bag for a round at the Memorial a few years ago.

"He never took it out of the bag," Oddy says. "We got to the last
green, he chipped it close, and I told him, 'I've carried this
thing all day, at least use it once.' He goes, 'Naw, I don't want
to use it now.' He didn't want to embarrass himself, and maybe
mentally, he didn't want to cross that line."

Calcavecchia even tried the butt-of-the-putter-shaft-jammed-in-
the-stomach method that Paul Azinger introduced on Tour. "It
didn't work for him at all, but Calc will do whatever he can to
be better," Azinger says. "When you're using the Claw move, you
know people will talk. The first time you miss a short putt,
people are going to laugh at you. Calc doesn't care what anybody
thinks. He can drive it wild and get the I-don't-cares
sometimes, but he's unbelievably aggressive, like a barracuda."

Calcavecchia says the Claw works for him because his right wrist
is locked in place and his right hand is basically just along for
the ride. He still has a slight loop in his stroke, but it's not
as pronounced as it was. He sets up more on line, and the Claw
helps him forget mechanics and focus on the putt. He sought
advice from Brad Faxon, who stressed the mental aspect of putting
and the value of a routine. "I said, 'Calc, you're one of the
best drivers out here, but if you hit a bad tee shot, would you
change your swing or become negative?" Faxon says. "The second
you miss one putt, you change your grip, your stance, your
attitude. You're letting your putts dictate your attitude. Let
your attitude dictate your putts."

The results speak for themselves, and Calcavecchia is smiling
again. "I played five straight years knowing I pretty much had no
chance to win," he says. "I missed the cut at the Byron Nelson
last year, worked out, went to my hotel room, looked out the
window and saw the last couple of groups coming in. I said,
'Damn, that looks like fun.'"

Two fifty-six? Damn, that is fun.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY J.D. CUBAN COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO Conventional thinking Employing a normal grip, Calcavecchia seemed on his way to great things when he won the '89 British.

"I've had a full-fledged case of the yips many times," says Calc.
"I once used seven putting grips in a round."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)