Inside Leonard’s Iconic Ryder Cup-Clinching Putt

Aaron Ungvarsky

Aaron Ungvarsky

PGA of America Professional, SwingU Instructor

Every Ryder Cup year, one moment inevitably gets played on a loop in the build-up to the event: Justin Leonard’s 1999 putt on The Country Club of Brookline’s 17th green. 

Leonard’s reaction, as well as the action of his teammates, shows the passion that the biennial event brings out in some of the best players in the world. While the emotion is clearly conveyed in the clip, amateur golfers can learn a lot from the stroke itself — a lengthy putt to the upper tier of a bi-level green.

SwingU’s Aaron Ungvarsky explains how you can learn from perhaps the most iconic moment in Ryder Cup history.

When facing a putt of considerable length involving a change in surface levels from one tier to another, or a putt that has two markedly different breaks, the key is to break the putt into two or more sections.

This helps the player focus on specific targets and the speed needed to traverse each section of the putt successfully with the ultimate hope of sinking the putt.

Here are some keys to making long putts that need to travel over tiers or ridges in the putting green.

Putting to a hole on an upper tier

  • The first step is to break the putt into two parts and determine which segment of the putt is longer. The perfect dividing point is the distance from where the ball lies to the crest of the tier and the next segment starts from the top the hill to the cup. The longer of the two segments is the most crucial to making the putt, so focus there.
  • For example, if a large rise in the green is a few feet in front of you and the pin is 30 feet beyond the top of the hill, you are best suited to focus on the second segment more intensely. This is because you will be hitting the ball firmly at the start, mitigating the break in the first part of the putt. However, the next 30 feet will need to be judged for both speed and break. Therefore, the second part of the putt is where we will focus most of our energy. 
  • Leonard had to play a putt with a fair amount of break before it reached the slope, then have enough speed to climb the slope and reach the cup.
  • In this must-make situation, Leonard needed to judge not only the longer portion of the putt perfectly, but also the shorter portion up near the hole. As a result, he hit the putt with considerably more speed than he would have if he needed only a two-putt.
  • Similar putts earlier in the day saw players favoring four-to-five feet of break while Leonard seemingly took dead aim.
  • Amateurs will always benefit from hitting the ball slightly harder than they feel is appropriate as the stats tell us that most weekend golfers struggle to get the ball to the hole.

Great tips for striking a long putt solidly

  • Place the ball slightly forward of center to get some top spin and increase the forward roll.
  • Ensure your eyes are over the ball and hands under the shoulders.
  • Set more body weight on the lead side to prevent a hanging back, flip stroke.