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Ryder Cup putting row: what have the flashpoints been, who is at fault... and what is 'inside the leather'?

·6-min read
Ryder Cup sportsmanship row brewing over players' failures to concede short-range putts - SHUTTERSTOCK
Ryder Cup sportsmanship row brewing over players' failures to concede short-range putts - SHUTTERSTOCK

The institution of a sportsmanship award at this year’s Ryder Cup has failed to prevent outbreaks of ill-feeling over “gimme” putts that were not conceded.

Home favourite Justin Thomas made an “inside the leather” gesture on Saturday after he was asked to complete a 2ft 10in putt on the eighth, while Lee Westwood looked decidedly unimpressed when he had to sink one of a similar length two holes earlier.

The “inside the leather” convention refers to the length of the putter’s shaft. Originally, this meant that putts shorter than the leather grip (or about a foot) should be conceded, although the practice now refers to almost the full length of the putter (more like two foot).

After holing his mini-putt on the eighth, Thomas held out his putter horizontally to demonstrate to his opponents – Victor Hovland and Bernd Wiesberger – that they should have conceded the putt.

On the sixth, meanwhile, the rookie pairing of Xander Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay perked up the crowd dramatically with their request that Westwood hole out.

The resulting buzz was so loud and intrusive that the American golfers had to hold out their hands and ask for quiet while Westwood made his tap-in.

There appeared to be words exchanged after that one, as indeed there had been on the same hole on Friday morning. In that instance, ironically enough, it had been Thomas and his partner Jordan Spieth who asked Sergio Garcia to hole a tiddler.

“It’s all part of the Ryder Cup, right?” said Garcia’s partner Jon Rahm on Friday lunchtime, in reference to Garcia’s tap-in. “People are going to try to play mind games.”

Soon afterwards Bryson DeChambeau's outburst in the afternoon fourballs, Jordan Spieth and Jon Rahm’s caddie, Adam Hayes, could be heard loudly disputing where exactly Rahm’s ball had crossed the water on the fifth hole. “I didn’t raise my voice, buddy,” Spieth said to his fellow American. Spieth later shook Rahm’s hand in a bid to smooth out the row.

But the timing of these disputes will not sit well with the institution of the Nicklaus-Jacklin Award, which is to be presented to one member of each team at the conclusion of the event.

The very name of the award is a reference to the most famous conceded putt of all: the three-footer that Jack Nicklaus gave to Tony Jacklin on the last hole of the 1969 Ryder Cup at Royal Birkdale.

“I don't believe you would have missed that, but I’d never give you the opportunity in these circumstances,” said Nicklaus at the time.

The two men were so close that they later collaborated on a golf course in Florida which they named “The Concession”.

Q&A: should the players be allowed to decide?

What were the putting flashpoints on day two?

At different moments, Justin Thomas, Bryson DeChambeau and Shane Lowry all made pointed objections to being asked to hole short putts that they believed were “inside the leather”. (More on that later.)

Lee Westwood also became exasperated by the same issue – his opponents’ refusal to concede a short putt. Especially considering that this piece of “mind games” (to borrow Jon Rahm’s phrase from the first day) drew some excited and disruptive shouting from the home fans.

Why were tempers so frayed?

The stakes are high, and the Europeans were under heavy pressure, both from the crowd and from a dominant American performance. In difficult, windy conditions, the combative side of both teams came out.

There is also a sense that certain players might have been looking for something to fire them up. All of those who made visible reactions had been searching for their best form. The most commanding performers of this Ryder Cup – the likes of Rahm, Sergio Garcia, Dustin Johnson and Collin Morikawa – have kept their own counsel and remained within a bubble of concentration.

Why is it called 'inside the leather'?

This is an old convention for when you should concede a putt. First lay your putter down, with the blade projecting into the hole. Now draw an imaginary circle level with the bottom of the grip (which used to be leather in days gone by). If the ball is within that circle, roughly two foot from the hole (assume that we are using a conventional putter here), then the putt should be conceded.

This explains the gestures performed by Thomas, Lowry and DeChambeau yesterday. Thomas held his putter horizontally to invoke the convention, after being asked to hole a putt of less than three feet. DeChambeau went furthest, placing his putter on the ground in a display that Sky Sports commentator and analyst Butch Harmon described as “classless”.

Does this happen often?

Players have always declined to concede putts and always will. It happens regularly at the World Matchplay, where Jason Day is particularly noted for not conceding anything but the tiniest putts. During the 2012 Ryder Cup at Medina, Matt Kuchar declined to give Lee Westwood a particularly short one.

The only difference this year is that the teams have got involved in some chippy tit-for-tatting. Lowry’s use of the “inside the leather” gesture was surely a direct response to Thomas’s show of irritation earlier in the day.

Who was at fault?

Ultimately, it’s up to the players on the course. There is no right or wrong answer. Who can say that Jason Day’s fundamentalist stance is wrong?

The most famous conceded putt was the one that Jack Nicklaus gave to Tony Jacklin at the conclusion of the 1969 Ryder Cup, thus ensuring the first tie in the tournament’s history. Ironically, this moment has been commemorated in a new sportsmanship prize (the Jacklin-Nicklaus Award), which is making its debut this year. Mind you, not everyone believed that Nicklaus did the right thing. His captain Sam Snead was furious, as were many of his team-mates.

On a pragmatic level, it’s worth noting that – this week at least – the teams who chose not to concede very short putts have usually gone on to lose. This started on the first day when Rahm and Sergio Garcia were surprised to be asked to hole a tiddler on the sixth. They made no visible fuss at the time, but Rahm suggested afterwards that it had been a turning point for him, triggering a period of “flawless golf”.

Should the matter be taken out of the players’ hands?

If all the players were forced to putt out on every hole, it would remove all the speculation and the potential for ill-feeling. But it would also slow the pace of play down even further, and make match-play more like all the rest of the tournaments. There is a fascinating human interaction involved in these decisions, which help to reveal the athletes’ personalities. It's all part of golf’s rich tapestry.

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