Last fall, on a Saturday at the RSM Classic, Denny McCarthy’s putter caught fire. Not literally, of course, but if you do had being engulfed in flames would not have surprised viewers. On the back nine (his front) of Sea Island’s Seaside Course, the 28-year-old PGA Tour pro shot a 29, making putts of 28 feet, 9 feet, 7 feet, 31 feet, 23 feet and 23 feet again before he ended his hot stretch with an 11-foot birdie on the first hole. By the time it was over, McCarthy had clocked an amazing 5.56 shots on the field on the greens alone. And a question arose: did he have a shot at setting the shot-fained/putting record in one day?
Jack Ryan of the PGA Tour dusted the record books: In the strokes won era stretching back to 2004, the best individual putting performance in a round belonged to JJ Henry, who scored 8.36 strokes won in the second round on the field scored 2006 FBR Open (now Waste Management). That was almost a full shot better than anyone ever. In comparison, to match Henry’s record, McCarthy would essentially have to duplicate his absurd back-nine performance up front. And even if he somehow made it, he’d still just about catch Henry.
For the newbies, “shots up” is a measure of how much better or worse a player is doing against the field in a given round, tournament, or season. Specifically, shots won/putted will only isolate this number on the greens. It is a value that is relative to the other players and depends somewhat on luck; it rewards long putts, and while those putts still need to go in (which is hard enough), a truly historic round depends on having more than a few long tries.
McCarthy never caught Henry, of course – even for a great putter like the former USA runner-up, the odds against McCarthy’s nine-hole course were huge. And to do it again the same day would have required an impossible combination of skill and luck.
But it left us with another question: What the heck happened to JJ Henry this Friday 16 years ago at TPC Scottsdale?
When Henry, a 46-year-old three-time PGA Tour winner who competed on the Tour in 2001, was reached by phone at his home in Fort Worth last month, the first thing he had for us was:
“So, some guy who’s known to be a really good ball forward and marginal putter has the best hitting/putting days ever?”
His laugh gave him away. In fact, someone had told Henry years ago that he owned the mark. And my greatest fear that the Connecticut native would not remember a round so long ago was unfounded. He remembered it well and liked to talk about it. In a group message with friends, he had just shared a video from the day and wrote: “Winners win boys. Here Double J used to be able to putt with this belly putter.” He had previously shown it to his teenage son and told him, “Look at that. Her daddy could putt with the best of them back then.”
(Henry was staunchly self-deprecating in our conversation, but while it’s true that he was never among the game’s best on the greens – his best SG/putting was 55th that 2006 season – it’s also true that he it was seldom worse than average in its heyday.)
In fact, Henry had just returned to the belly putter this week at Arizona. He called himself one of the “original on-and-off belly putters,” someone who was off the tee for a very long time before it became almost universal, but who had his struggles on the greens. Entering his sixth season of touring, he started the year with two missed cuts at the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic and the Buick Invitational. His confidence in putting was shaken, especially by the bumpy greens at Poa annua in Torrey Pines.
“You finally arrive in Phoenix, everything is perfect, the greens are littered, you’re fired up,” Henry recalled. “I was 30 at the time and I said, ‘It’s time to go.’ And damn it, it was one of those days when the hole looked like an ocean.”
The round did not start promisingly. Coming out of a freeze delay on a cold morning, Henry went to the first hole planning to hit an easy 3-wood/wedge combo and hopefully make a nice birdie to start the day. Instead, still half frozen, he hooked his drive into the desert, lashed out and hit his wedge at 28 feet. Looking back, however, it became clear that he was on the verge of something special. That’s where it started, because he buried the long par putt.
What followed for the next five hours was breathtaking, but it started slowly. A nine foot on three. A 16-foot on four. A series of putts made within 10 feet to get him through the front. By the time he got to the turn, he’d gained three shots down the field — a solid number, highlighted by the long par putt on #1 that alone netted him .96 strokes, but wasn’t on the pace to even to get close to the top. Top 10 time.
Then, at the back, Henry just couldn’t miss – he rolled one from 16ft to 11, 27ft to 12, 26ft to 14, again to 15, again to 17. It culminated on the 18th, his gray khakis rippling in the wind as he buried a last eight-foot for par. Amidst that streak, he made seven straight birdies – missing out on a PGA Tour by tying for eighth straight by 16 centimeters – and finished with 10-under 61.
On the 17th hole, as he landed his third 26-foot shot of four holes, playing partner Jesper Parnevik and Parnevik’s caddy Lance Ten Broeck just shook their heads.
“I do this every day,” Henry told them. “What are you worried about? It’s normal.”
It was anything but normal. By the end of the round, Henry had made 218’6″ putts in 18 holes, averaging a 12’2″ shot. More importantly, he’s amassed an 8.36 SG/putting on the field, and if the last 20 years are any indication, this could be one of golf’s most unbreakable records. On the top 10 list, he is a full shot ahead of Paul Goydos in second place, but numbers two through 13 are within 0.7 shots of each other. Henry is way ahead and it’s not particularly tight.
Henry tied second that week (“JB Holmes ended up cutting me,” he recalled sarcastically as Holmes won by seven shots). Still, Henry credits that day with spurring him on to a career year. That summer he earned his first professional win at the Buick Championship in his home state of Connecticut. That autumn he fulfilled a dream by playing in a Ryder Cup, where he was one of the few bright spots in a particularly dismal year for the USA, defeating at Ireland’s Celtic Manor.
“Why do you suddenly seem to be able to do everything one day and the next day you can’t do it from three feet?” he wonders now. “It’s a crazy game, you know what I’m saying? I wish I could give you the secret sauce because we could probably bottle it and we’d all retire with it.”
But his next question went even deeper: How would his life have been different if it had never happened? That round, after two straight missed cuts, gave him confidence. He was a College All-American at TCU and his professional career had been solid up to that point, but he credits that round at Phoenix with making 2006 career-defining.
“On that day you’re adjusting the line at the right pace and you’re seeing the ball and your body and mind are working in unison,” he said. “Who says I would have done the same thing that day if the 28-footer hadn’t gone on par on the first hole? a good result, I will miss the cut this week. And the next thing you know you’re 14 years old and you’re leading the tournament and going to the tee on Saturday morning with your shoulders back. Who says that didn’t spur me on to win and play the Ryder Cup? And here I am. I’m 16 years later and still kicking around.” In fact, Henry has made 566 starts on tour and earned nearly $17 million. “It’s crazy how one tiny thing that happened on a cold day in February 2006 could have changed things.”
For his fans watching that day, what was most notable about Henry’s round was that he nearly made the consecutive birdies mark. Henry was unaware of this while playing and would not catch the power gained through punches for years.
In the end, his week at TPC Scottsdale was a small dot on the golf radar — a second-place finish in the winter desert. It’s only with time and advanced statistics that we know what happened that day that Henry unknowingly put down one of the greatest single-round putting efforts in golf history. It’s the kind of feat every PGA Tour pro dreams of, but only one has achieved, at least in this century.