Putting Is Not Rocket Science

Despite Tiger Woods’ recent personal woes, one cannot deny his brilliance for making crucial putts when he needed them.  Many people believe it was his ball striking and course management which were responsible for his incredible record, but there are players on tour equal to those individual skills, or perhaps even better.  Until now, Woods’ mind control and ability to get the ball into the hole was what won tournaments.

In 2008, Woods conducted a video press conference at Oakland Hills CC two months prior to the PGA Championship there in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.  At the time, he was recovering from knee surgery.  Many questions concerning his health and how it would affect his game were posed by the press.  But I was curious about his putting and asked this question, with Tiger’s answer taken directly from the PGA Tour’s media transcript:

Q.  Can you tell me when you are putting extremely well what is the last thought you have standing over the ball before you take your putter back?

TIGER WOODS:  “I couldn’t tell you what’s the last thought, I just, there’s a line or a point or a feel, it’s different from putt to putt.  Sometimes I’ll see like a lane, sometimes I’ll just pick a spot.  It’s easy to hit that spot.  Sometimes I’ll be working on my speed, sometimes I’ll ‑‑ I just see it and just get up there and just hit it.  Every putt’s different.  But you just know that every putt’s going to go in.  And that’s a pretty sweet feeling that no matter what speed I hit putts at, whether it’s going to run three, four feet by or it’s just going to die in the front lip, whatever speed you hit it, it’s going in.  Those are fun days.”

Again, mind control.  Woods wills the ball into the hole.  Interesting when you consider an automatic ‘Iron-Byron’ machine can be programmed to make the same stroke over the same line and still only make a portion of the putts for testing purposes.  Sometimes it seemed as if Tiger would make every putt he’d stroke, besting Iron-Byron  by a landslide.  If you’d like to read an interesting perspective with more detail about this phenomenon, check out new A Position writer Peter Andraes at www.peterandraes.com and read his 5-part series on Tiger getting his ‘Mojo’ back.

How do you rank putting?  Who is the best putter?  Many golfers will say ‘my opponent’!!!  Seriously, putting is tough to quantify because of the many variables within course terrain, speed of greens, course conditions, and weather considerations.   Up until recently, a player’s ‘putting average’ was calculated by the number of putts a player took when his or her ball landed on the putting surface.  This did not take into account a ball putted from the fringe or frogshair, or the ‘Texas wedge’ from further off the green;  nor did this method deal properly with those players who hit the ball closest to the hole, or hitting greens in less than regulation (on a par-5 in two shots).  Other methods of measuring are flawed as well:  ‘putts per round’ rewards those who miss greens and get the ball up and down; and averaging the number of feet per holed-out putts doesn’t work so well because it punishes good lag putters who may leave a second putt only inches from the hole.  Regarding course conditions, how would you determine variables of statistical averages when some players compete at more difficult venues or in all the majors with tougher, slicker greens versus some sites with point and shoot greens? The PGA Tour has in excess of 600 performance stats for every player yet evaluating putting performance was not one of the more accurate determinations.  Until now.

Researchers at MIT’s Sloan School of Management have come up with a method which corrects putting and scoring  imbalances and provides a more accurate portrayal of who can truly putt.  Watch for a new stat, ‘putts gained’ which the Tour’s Senior Vice-President of Information Systems Steve Evans says ‘is simple to understand but complex to calculate.’   So, I’ll spare you the details.   Until the new ‘putts gained’ stat is entrenched in the rankings and all the bugs removed,  the  only way to tell who’ s best is to pose the age-old question:  “if you could pick one person to hole out a crucial 6 footer in the final match of the Ryder Cup to determine the winner, who would it be?”

I’ve often said that should a magic genie grant me one never-fail golf wish, I’d choose to make every putt under 12 feet.  Did you know that half of all putts occur inside of 6 feet?  I suppose making every putt under 6 feet would be a good wish too.

Three-footers can be a royal pain.  They are so close it hurts to miss them – and why shouldn’t we make them all?

Over the years, new styles of putting have evolved and become popular:  lead hand low (crosshand), the long putter, the belly putter, and the ‘claw grip’.  Some folks swear by one method but cannot fathom another.  The ‘conventional’ method of putting most of us grew up with is not so conventional any more.

Regardless of the style of putting and type of putter you use, you cannot escape the fact that what you are trying to achieve is a consistent and repeatable stroke, good judgment of distance and green speed, and a proper estimate of the break on each putt.

And don’t forget, confidence in all of the above.  One caveat:  don’t become too overconfident because the gods of golf will always triumph.  A perfect example of this type of karma occurred in July during the 2010 Tournament of Champions, a  unique Michigan PGA event at Boyne Mountain Resort in Boyne Falls, Michigan, which equitably pits men, women, amateurs, professionals, juniors, and seniors against one another during three days of stroke play.  On day 2, 15-year-old Henry Do stunned the field when he posted 10-under 62, a tournament and course record.   During the post-round interview, young Henry said he ‘had it all figured out’  concerning his putting and now knew how to putt those tricky ‘mountain’ greens.   Of course, the final day didn’t turn out as he hoped:  Henry three-putted the last three greens to finish second.  His golf coach, the stellar Dave Kendall, of Miles of Golf in Ypsilanti, Michigan, could only shake his head with that all-too-familiar and half-knowing smile of pain.

Meg Mallon, Michigan native and winner of the 2004 U.S. Women’s Open said that on the final day of the tournament the hole looked as big as a basket as she made putt after putt.  How can you achieve this state of Nirvana? You can only try.  One thing you cannot do is assume you’ll miss…..because you will.

Sports and Clinical Psychologist Dr. Jackie Odom and I teach a class called ‘The Positive Golfer’.  We compiled a handout made up of various putting tips  both of us picked up along our golfing way.  When I stumble upon my own putting woes, this list always brings me back on target, which is why I’d like to share this little gem with you:

PUTTING IS NOT ROCKET SCIENCE (until it truly was…)

There are a few things which can go fundamentally wrong with your putting.  After that, it all comes down to ‘feel’.  This checklist will help to target the problem.

  1. Eyes over the ball – you should be able to draw a line directly from your eyes straight down to the ball (Exception:  if you use the belly putter or the long putter this won’t work).
  2. Move only your upper body and arms during the stroke.  Keep the lower body still.  Your legs can’t help.
  3. The stroke should be straight back and straight through.
  4. Keep the head very still.  Listen for your putt to drop into the cup and don’t peek.
  5. Keep your stroke at the same speed or accelerate through the ball.  Never decelerate.
  6. Your first glance is your best chance at reading a putt.  Over-analyzing wastes time and often casts doubt.
  7. Stance or style doesn’t mean a whole lot.
  8. The type of putter doesn’t matter much either as long as it is right for you.
  9. Make up your mind and trust your line.
  10. Don’t change your mind in the middle of a stroke.
  11. Relax and ‘feel’ the putt.  Let things happen naturally.
  12. Practice putts of 6 feet or less. If you can make the majority of those, what’s to worry about?
  13. Be observant when others are putting and learn from their mistakes and/or successes.
  14. Become an expert at reading greens; it is not that difficult if you note the grain of the grass, the slope of the green, the way the green is built into the surrounding area, and the direction in which the green drains.
  15. Practice putting with your eyes closed to develop feel and to train yourself not to move your head (if you have your eyes closed, there is no need for peeking).
  16. Keep track of how many putts you take each round and note the length of the putt that goes into the hole (a ‘putt’ is defined as a stroke made when the ball is ON the putting surface; however you may wish to track your progress by counting any time you use a putter around the green as a putt, even if it is on the fringe.)

And last but not least, remember that this is supposed to be fun.  If you have a particularly bad putting day, do what I did when 40 or so putts were a major part of my score during a long ago college match:  since proper etiquette does not allow the throwing of clubs, which includes badly behaving putters, I simply asked my teammate to do it for me after the match.  He gladly obliged and I must admit the sight of  an errant putter sailing down the fairway – safely away from anyone, of course – gave me great satisfaction and visual delight.  Don’t worry, it hasn’t happened again – and won’t.  Once was enough.  Besides, I’ve also learned that it isn’t the putter, it’s me, the putt-er.

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