Surviving the Circle of Death
How many consecutive three-footers can one man make in a day? Our lunatic finds out
By Chris Rodell
Golf Magazine
June 2005

I needed the 3-foot putt to break 60, a golfing milestone no one dreamed a 14-handicapper could ever attain. I took a deep breath, drew back the putter and made a bold stroke.

I watched in bug-eyed dread as the ball lipped out on the left. My stab at golfing immortality had failed.

Many golfers would react to such cruel defeat by snapping their putters.

Me, I did the very same thing I’d been doing nearly non-stop for the past nine hours, more than 1,900 identical putts ago. I rearranged the five balls along a 3-foot circle around the cup. Then I started to putt again.

Just another march around golf’s "Circle of Death."

The July sun had yet to breach the green-crested Laurel Highlands when I’d sunk my first putt at the spacious practice green outside the John Daly Learning Center at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort & Spa in Farmington, Pennsylvania. I was determined to make 100 consecutive 3-foot putts or exhaust an entire day in the attempt. I was going to learn to putt the Jackie Burke Jr. way.

Burke, winner of both the Masters and the PGA Championships in 1956, became one of the game’s best putters by following up each round with a grinding routine: 100 straight 3-foot putts before retiring. "Man, the worst was being cold, tired and damn hungry and missing on the 89th try," Burke said.

There have been entire golf-filled summers where I’ve failed to make a combined total of 100 3-foot putts. The distance is so inconsequential it is considered "good" in the insidious gimme culture of many leisurely foursomes. At least until there’s a buck on the line. That’s when 3 feet becomes the scariest distance in golf.

And that’s just silly. A grown man with a club should never be afraid of anything that scuttles along the ground for just 36 inches. It was a fear I was determined to conquer. I called the 80-year-old Burke at Houston’s venerable Champions Golf Club he co-founded with Jimmy Demaret in 1959 and told him of my plan.

"Why the hell would you want to do that?" he wondered. "There aren’t many of today’s professionals who can make 100 3-foot putts."

He told me of the time when he bet Phil Mickelson the best dinner in Texas that he couldn’t do it on the first try. Mickelson missed on his fourth putt. Burke mingled some tantalizing inspiration with his bombastic ridicule.

"Any average golfer who masters the 3-footer will improve their games nearly 100 percent," he said. "Supreme confidence around the greens will fuel every other aspect of your game."

Sold. The day before I went to the bank and walked out with a fresh $100 bill and folded it into my money clip. If I could break 100, I would treat myself to an elegant meal.

Maybe a dozen carefree golfers were "lolly-lagging" putts at indiscriminate holes around the expansive surface when I carefully measured and marked the circle with a handful of tees. One guy came up and asked if I was going to be hosting a putting clinic.

"I’d like to think so," I said. I wanted word to spread. I envisioned a throng of about 100 people chanting in unison, "97! . . . 98! . . . 99! . . ."

I told the guy my plan. He watched as I struck the very first putt. It was 7:03 a.m. The ball dove into the hole with a satisfying click. So did the next three, but number five jerked left. A miss. I’d fallen 96 short. Hey! I was just like Phil!

The guy wished me luck and walked away. I scribbled "5" on a legal pad that would soon be crowded with numbers documenting each attempt. I made an 11 on my second round. After that, I went through a 90-minute stretch before posting anything higher than 13.

Then I got hot. I broke 13 . . . then 20 . . . then 30. I felt a giddy exhilaration when I passed 40. I was rounding the Circle of Death like a putt-sinking robot and thinking, "What if I never miss? Should I stop at 500?"

Thud. Number 42 rolled left. It was 9:35 a.m. Still, 41 gave me confidence that I could do it. A brisk Chardonnay will go nicely with the South African lobster tails, I thought.

The next five hours would make fairytales out of such optimism. I had a 33, a 32, three 20 somethings, a dozen sassy teenagers and, gadzooks, 107 rounds that failed to break single digits. I’d already spent seven hours bent like a question mark, an appropriate posture for such a quest. Was this worth it?

The fatigue and repetitive pain from the slouching, stooping and striking were becoming acute. Marathon putting was back-breaking work. Daly Learning Center instructor Kevin Shields stopped by to call me crazy.

"It can’t be done," Shields said. "A professional couldn’t do it. They do 20 and quit. One hundred in a row is impossible."

But what about Jackie Burke?

"Man, he had to be stretching it. I don’t think he ever did 100 in a row."

In these partisan times, it’s unavoidable that someone will misconstrue this as a political statement, but, gee, I never thought a man from Texas would mislead me over something so important.

Shields was flabbergasted I’d made 41. He was also impressed that I was willing to do something -- anything -- to improve my putting stroke, which he complimented as sound.

"Most golfers," he said, "say they care about how they score, but all they really care about is distance and a pretty swing.Good putters concentrate on process, not result. It’s like crossing a 10-foot balance beam: It’s the same process if it’s 1-foot off the ground as it is if it’s 10-feet above the ground. It shouldn’t matter if the putt is for a birdie or double bogey. It’s still the same simple process." Then he gave me an even better tip. He said, "Why don’t you step inside? We have a synthetic putting green."

After spending more than seven hours outside in the humid, 85-degree elements, I felt like I’d crawled from a hostile desert into a cooling oasis. It was air-conditioned. Soothing music was playing. The green was perfectly flat. Shields set out a cushioned chair in case I wanted to rest.

Somewhere the ghost of Ol’ Tom Morris was scowling grim thunder.

On my fourth try, I made it to 37. Fourteen rounds later I broke 42. A new record. The next 10 were routine, but the entire 50s were an adventure. I was way, way up on the tightrope working without a net. Number 59 was a thrill because of its iconic golf significance. Maybe that’s why 60 lipped out. It felt like such an achievement. It was 4:02 p.m. I’d been putting non-stop for nine straight hours.

I spent the next two hours back out in the blazing sunshine correctly convinced I’d fail to duplicate my magical 59. My high was 24. As 7 p.m. neared, I was an aching bouquet of foul odors. My hips felt geriatric. My back screamed for a chiropractor.

As I was making my 224th lap on the Circle of Death, I knew my darling daughter was home watching what was likely her 224th viewing of a popular Disney animation about the "Circle of Life" and asking her mother, "Where’s Daddy?" I’d already given my wife permission to lie in the hopes it would reduce the amount of therapy the poor kid will no doubt someday need.

I’d sunk 1,876 out of 2,105 putts over 12 hours. Now, there was just one thing to do: One serious round to determine how much of the $100 I’d spend on a dinner I was craving. A run of 40 would justify a rewarding shower, change and a nice steak.

But it was not to be. I wouldn’t be eating at any of the resort’s fine restaurants. Instead, I tossed the battered flatstick in the trunk and drove until I found a small cinder block tavern that looked as if it had been built to sustain beer-swilling rednecks through a long nuclear winter.

I pushed open the door and collapsed onto a rickety stool. I put the $100 on the bar and ordered a draft. The bartender saw Benjamin Franklin and winced."Ooh," she said, "I don’t think I can break a hundred, hon."

Join the club, lady. Join the club.

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