Wednesday, April 20, 2011, 4:28 p.m.
By Leonard Shapiro
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Almost lost in the thrilling Sunday denouement of the Masters -- the electrifying front-nine surge of Tiger Woods, the stunning collapse of 54-hole leader Rory McIlroy, the unprecedented four-straight-birdie finish by champion Charl Schwartzel -- was the admirable play of Adam Scott. The 30-year-old Australian had a piece of the lead with two holes to go and tied for second, only two shots off the lead, with some superb final-round golf himself.
If you are looking for a legitimate dark-horse contender at the U.S. Open championship at Congressional in six weeks, Scott ought to be at the top of any list of players with a decent chance to prevail in the Maryland suburbs on Father's Day, even if his best finish in an Open has been a tie for 21st in 2006.
Scott, with matinee idol looks, has been a crowd favorite for many years since he began playing regularly on the PGA Tour in 2002 at age 21. He had a gorgeous swing courtesy of Butch Harmon, Woods' original coach, and the conventional wisdom was that he had more than enough game to eventually challenge Woods or anyone else for the No. 1 ranking in the world.
Known for his brilliant ball striking tee to green, as recently as three years ago he had pushed as high as No. 3. With seven wins on the PGA Tour and seven more in Europe, Scott seemed poised to win his first major, and perhaps a few more after that as well.
But a series of nagging injuries coupled with a pathetic putting touch over the past few years have made this former winner of the prestigious Players Championship (in 2004 at 23) mostly a non-factor in big tournaments and many other events, as well.
Consider, for example, that over the past four years, he had finished no better than 147th in overall PGA Tour putting. Last year, he was 136th in putting average, 174th in putts per round and an abysmal 284th in total putting.
After playing in Hawaii at the start of the 2011 season, Scott went back to Australia for some work with his coach, Brad Malone, who suggested he try using a long putter.
''I hadn't really thought about it at all,'' Scott said during Masters week. ''I got home from Hawaii, and my coach had a long putter he'd been practicing with. He said, ''You should give it a go,'' because he thought it would do good things for my rhythm and short stroke. I enjoyed putting with it almost right away, because I enjoyed watching the ball go into the hole.''
Scott began using the long stick at the Match Play championship, and his runner-up finish at the Masters marked the third straight tournament he ended in the top six. He was back in contention again last weekend when he got to within three shots of the 54-hole lead at the Texas Open, where he was defending champion, before a final-round 76 in difficult, 35-mph winds left him in a tie for 23rd.
Still, Scott's confidence with the long putter has grown exponentially over the past two months, to the point where he said after the Masters that ''given the rest of this year and the way I'm putting now, I certainly see myself getting up into that mix to be No. 1 again.''
Despite Scott's recent success with his 49-inch Scotty Cameron Kombi model, there are still some purists who believe the putter, first used in the mid-1960s by Paul Runyon to cure a terrible case of the yips, has no place in the game. Never mind that the governing bodies of golf have allowed its use for many years. People like Tom Watson, Ernie Els and Colin Montgomerie, among others, would prefer to see it banned.
''It is not a golf stroke,'' Watson said years ago, when the long putter was in its infancy.
''Nerves and the skill of putting is part of the game,'' Els once said. ''Take a pill if you can't handle it.''
Still, plenty of big-time players, including Vijay Singh, a multiple major champion, Sergio Garcia and Tim Clark have used the long putter at various times, often with decent results.
If Scott had managed to prevail at Augusta, he would have been the first player to win a major championship with a long putter. Charles Coody, Bruce Lietzke and recently Bernhard Langer have all used the long stick to win senior major events. Supporters of its use argue that if the putter is such an advantage, why hasn't anyone yet been able to win one of the four majors with it?
Scott, still considered an exceptional ball striker, obviously would dearly love to be the first.
''The rest of my game was great, but it was being pulled down,'' Scott said in Augusta. ''It was hard to keep the rest of my game at a high level because poor putting was putting pressure on my longer game.''
That obviously is no longer the case. In fact, for Adam Scott these days, the longer the better.
Contact Shapiro at email@example.com or on Twitter at badgerlen.