Think about This When You’re Stroking Your Practice Putts

Researchers like Dave Pelz have demystified the process of green-reading and stroking the putt on a proper line

At the beginning of the 2000s, researchers and club designers out on the front lines began making noises about a New Putting Century. They foresaw the end of a barbaric era in which putting is neither taught nor learned. They noticed aiming skills becoming a cause celebre among knowledgeable weekend players, and green-reading emerging as a popular art form–no longer a guessing game.

Their solution for the global putting malaise unites the eyes, the mind and the emotions and makes the putting stroke, itself, a natural by-product of new internal wiring. Consistent, fluid motion with the putter is certainly a goal, but in the future there will be far less glorification of the Crenshaw putting stroke or anyone else’s physical technique. The aesthetics of this ultra-simple act–“the least athletic motion in all of sports,” according to Chuck Hogan, “even less challenging than tiddling your wink in tiddlywinks”–will no longer be a fixation for instructors, television announcers and fans once the deeper causal layers relating to visual and mental acuity are uncovered.

As for the “yips,” no guaranteed cure is yet in sight. But as they say in medicine, we now have a much better understanding of the disease. Including how common it is. In fact, veteran coaches like John Redman (best known for his tutelage of PGA Champion Paul Azinger) spot those twitchy, spastic bouts of small-motor anarchy virtually every time they step on a putting green with more than four other people.

Yipping, according to Redman and others, is a glitch in the neuro-muscular works caused by doubt and confusion. (The psycho-cybernetics pioneer Maxwell Maltz coined the apt phrase “purpose tremor” to describe physical phenomena like the yips.) In today’s golf coaching environment, it’s natural to go after the yips with sports psychology techniques, i.e., to create an internal emotional stimulus of calm and confidence to override the anxiety that is jamming the signals we have to send in order to make a smooth stroke. The other, probably superior, tack is to change the visual stimuli that are causing doubt and confusion.

Putting’s subtle challenges have been uncovered in recent years by the work of coaches like Hogan, Dave Pelz and Dr. Craig Farnsworth. Pelz is the great modern definer of the putting process. It was Pelz who invented a robot putter, named Perfy, so that he could explore the extremes of repeatable putting motion. The Austin-based short-game guru, a former NASA scientist, was the first person to report widely on how golf balls roll across greens after emerging from a stationary chute, as opposed to being struck by a blade (Sad to say, 10 identical slides down the chute produce only about 7 holed putts, not the 10 you’d expect.) Pelz is also the force behind the World Putting Championship, first contested in 1996 and a fascinating window on the diverse, often idiosyncratic stances and strokes of highly successful putters.

If your own putting skills are “about average,” these progressive and demanding teachers would probably critique your abilities with severity, claiming:

1. You don’t hit your putts squarely
2. You don’t strike the ball with your putter’s sweet spot
3. You don’t aim or align yourself accurately
4. You don’t really know what to aim for.

Proof of item No. 1 lies in a study Pelz once conducted on a broad, diverse group of golf students. He stuck tissue-thin impact decals to the faces of the student’s putters, lining up the center mark of each decal with the center of mass of the putter (i.e., the spot on the putter face which, if struck with a pencil point with the putter hanging freely, will cause the head to bounce back straight, no twisting.) He then asked each participant to stroke a medium-length putt, after which he removed the decal and measured how far off-center the ball-club contact had occurred.

Pelz’s study used subjects ranging all the way from his tour-pro clients to the recent beginner. The results, which he presented years ago to an audience of teaching professionals gathered in New Orleans, were sobering. Tom Kite, surely Pelz’s prize short-game student of all time, “won” the competition represented by this study. Putt after putt, Kite was able to strike the golf ball using the center point of his putter’s face. When he was off, he was off by mere microns. Which means, Kite would virtually never have a putt come up short as long as he gauged the speed correctly and put enough force into his stroke. Do you realize the significance of that? If you don’t, you’ve never had a birdie putt stop on the lip of the hole.

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