We’re coming up on the 25-year anniversary of a milestone in golf, one that would change the trajectory of many careers on the PGA Tour.
No, it’s not Tiger Woods’ professional debut. That was 24 years ago, at Brown Deer Park.
We’re talking about the day Fox Point native Skip Kendall showed Chris DiMarco the “claw” putting grip.
The story has been told many times, often inaccurately. But it is largely forgotten today because the claw – so radical back then that it turned heads – has become an accepted method of putting.
It’s a story worth retelling because if not for a rain delay during a PGA Tour event in 1995, it’s quite possible that DiMarco would have joined the dustbin of tour wannabes and that the succession of claw users who followed him – Phil Mickelson, Justin Rose, Webb Simpson and Sergio Garcia among them – would still be conventional putters and likely less successful ones, at that.
The 55-year-old Kendall, who lives in Orlando, revisited the story Saturday on the weekly “Garbedian on Golf” radio show on 97.3 The Game in Milwaukee.
Kendall was playing in a late-season event in ’95 and the players were huddled in the pro shop during a rain delay. He found himself standing next to DiMarco, who’d had a miserable season, missing 19 cuts in 33 starts and posting only three top-25 finishes.
DiMarco, a good ball-striker, had been afflicted with the yips, a putting malady in which involuntary hand spasms make it difficult, if not impossible, to make short putts. The yips have driven many players from the game.
“It was the end of the year and he’d lost his (tour exempt status for 1996),” Kendall said. “We’re in this small little pro shop and I happened to be standing next to Chris and we were friends and I said, ‘Hey, man, what are you going to do next year?’ He literally said to me, ‘Skip, I’m going to be a garbageman. They have great benefits and that’s what I’m going to do.’ I said, ‘Come on.’ Of course, he was joking, but not really.
“He said, ‘I can’t make (a putt) from six inches. I’ve completely lost it. I have the yips so bad I can’t play.’”
Kendall told DiMarco to grab a couple golf balls from a fish bowl on the counter and picked out a putter from a rack on the wall. He then demonstrated the claw, in which the right hand (for a right-handed golfer) is placed on the putter grip with the palm facing the body, two or more fingers extended diagonally or down the shaft and the thumb wrapped around the grip.
The claw effectively neutralizes the right hand by preventing the wrist from hinging and forces the golfer to “push” the ball with his arms and shoulders instead of “hitting” it with his hands.
Kendall had learned the grip years earlier, when he was a junior golfer playing and practicing every day at Brown Deer Park.
“There was no driving range (back then), so we spent a lot of time on the putting green,” he said. “There was a guy there that I always saw putting. He was putting his hands on the grip like the claw. I, of course, like a 10-, 11-year-old, was really curious. I went over to him and asked, ‘What are you doing?’ He said, ‘Well, I have the yips and I can’t putt.’
“I had no idea what the yips were. I mean, I’m 11. He said, ‘Well, it’s when your right wrist kind of takes over and you’re spastic and you can’t make it from a short distance. And so I put my right hand on that way and it locks the right wrist.’ He called it the 'pencil grip' because he felt like he was writing. His name was Bud Baker.”
For reasons Kendall can’t explain, the claw stuck with him and years later, he was able to demonstrate it to DiMarco.
“He thought I was absolutely crazy, because no one had ever seen that before,” Kendall said. “He told me later that the next day he was playing with his buddy and he had a 6-footer for par. It was straight downhill with about a foot of left-to-right break. He said, ‘Skip, not only did I know I was going to miss that one, but I knew I was going to miss the one after that one. And so I put my hands on the way you taught me the day before and the ball went right in the middle of the hole.’
“And the rest is history.”
DiMarco won on what is now the Korn Ferry Tour in 1997, regained his PGA Tour status and went on to have a successful career, winning three times and earning more than $22.6 million. He nearly won the 2005 Masters, losing to Tiger Woods on the first hole of a playoff.
His success with the claw helped convince others to try it. Mark Calcavecchia used the grip to win the 2001 Waste Management Phoenix Open with a then-record score of 28-under par. Kevin Sutherland won the 2002 WGC-Match Play Championship shortly after changing over to the claw.
Four of the 24 players at the 2018 Ryder Cup used the claw: Garcia, Rose, Simpson and Tommy Fleetwood.
Chuck Garbedian, the show host, suggested the grip should be called the “Kendall” instead of the claw. Kendall said he couldn’t take credit for it, because he’d learned it from Baker.
But if not for a serendipitous encounter in a pro shop during a rain delay nearly 25 years ago, it’s likely the PGA Tour would still be claw-less today.
“Now, there’s guys coming down the stretch trying to win major championships putting with the claw,” Kendall said. “So it’s pretty neat.”