Putting is a puzzle. Always has been, mostly because almost every golfer on the planet is making it much harder than it needs to be.
Do I mean to say you’re doing it wrong? Yes, I do.
Think about it. You spend hours using alignment aids and grips to get the putter head to move straight back and straight forward. This is unnatural. The laws of physics state when the body is in an upright position, the arms will swing naturally in an arc because the center of the swing is the body. Moving the putter in a straight line is fighting physics.
Another problem is using two hands. If you toss pennies to a wall, go bowling, or toss a wad of paper to a trash can you use one hand. Two hands confuse the issue, so we use one hand and face the target or almost face the target. Golfers are using many grips to get the hands working together. It can be done, but it is difficult and questionable under pressure.
THE NATURAL STROKE
I’m about to show you a completely different way to putt that will keep you consistent under pressure.
First, do this: Stand several feet from a golf hole or a target in your carpeted living room. Roll a golf ball to the target, much like a bowler.
You did this by almost facing the target and rolled the ball with one hand. It was easy, accurate and felt natural.
Now take your putter and hold the end of it with your hand nearest the target (left hand for right hand golfer). Take your right hand, and use a split grip, as in Photos 1 and 2.
If you do not want to use a short putter, a longer putter is just as effective (Photo 3). Several students have just used their regular putter successfully.
The following is key. Line up the putter face and open your body 45 degrees or more facing the target as in Photos 4a and 4b. This puts your body open to the aiming line, in perfect position to use the putter as a push-piston.
Pull the elbow back to the length for your distance putt as in Photo 5.
You will notice the backstroke is straight on your line. Now push the lower hand, lower arm and elbow forward as in Photo 6.
Notice how the follow-through is still straight down the line. You have now made a stroke that is straight with no manipulation to make a straight line. This is a natural stroke. The top hand remains firm and does not collapse or bend during the stroke. It acts as the stabilizer while the bottom hand is the force. Or, the top hand is the rod and the bottom hand is the piston.
ONE HAND OR TWO?
Try another experiment. With a ball in your tossing hand, toss the ball to a target several times. Notice how far the hand swings back and then forward. Now, take your putter and putt the ball to the same target and you will find that the putting hand will swing back and forth the same distance as in the ball toss. Repeat this procedure to targets at various distances and you will notice the similarities in the swing pattern of the ball toss and the putt.
I taught this experiment to a club golf pro. Before each putt, he would stand beside his ball and then swing his hand as if rolling an imaginary ball to the hole. He did this to get the feel of swing length and power of the stroke. Once he felt the feel of the swing, he would putt the ball. He qualified for the U.S. Open.
That is all there is to it. Now for more detail.
The length of the backswing can also control putting distances. Experiment with a 4-inch backswing, a 6-inch backswing, an 8-inch backswing, etc., etc. Notice the length of each putt. Some golfers have found that for every inch of backswing the ball will roll one walking pace (step), or about two feet. Some have found one yard for every inch of backswing. To measure your backswing length you must find out the length of your putter head. If the length is four inches, then two putter-head lengths will give you an eight-inch backswing.
Lay a yardstick or other measuring device on the floor. Place a ball on the side of the yardstick (as in Photo 7) to mark the length of the backswing. Practice swinging the putter back and forth to various lengths and in line with the yardstick. With practice, you will notice how much roll you get with various swing lengths. I found my ball will roll about one walking pace or step for each inch of backswing. Many find the ball rolls two feet for every inch of backswing. Naturally, you have to make adjustments for the speed of your swing and speed of the greens. If you want a straight-back and straight-through motion, this is the most efficient way. Your low hand, piston hand, works much like rolling a ball to the hole. If you roll a ball to the hole, you do not swing the arm in an arc. You swing the arm straight back and straight through on the target line in a natural motion. With an open stance, the arm swings back in a straight line and forward in a straight line. This is a natural motion like tossing a ball to a target. You face the target and the arm swings straight back. Bowlers face the target and roll the ball to the pins. Remember, the key is the open stance.
Putting is a one-arm motion, just like tossing a ball to a target or like a bowler rolling the ball. Try this: With both hands together, toss the penny or object to a target using a putting stance. After several tries, assess the results. Now do the same with your toss facing the target and toss with one hand. Assess your results and compare which method was best.
The split-grip putting stroke is a one-hand swing. Using two hands together often causes interference with each other. Try this: Hold a pencil or piece of chalk in two hands and draw a horizontal straight line making sure you use both hands to draw the line. Now draw a line using only one hand. In most cases, the one hand draws the straighter line. If two hands draw the straighter line it is often because only one hand is used to draw the line while the other hand stabilized the action. For better putting, use one hand to stroke the ball while the other hand stabilizes the putter.
Some say a short putter causes back pain in bending over. A longer putter can be used just as effectively, as I demonstrate with several putters in Photos 8-10. Just make sure the putter is not stabilized to the body by holding the top hand away from the body with the elbow of the top hand pressed against the body for a stable support.
When Ben Hogan was struggling with the yips, he experimented with split grip putting. He was doing well, but he told Jimmy Demaret, his friend and PGA tour player, that he could not use it in a tournament because he did not want the people to see him putt like that. Ah, the traditionalist. Tradition did not stop Sam Snead.
DON’T MIND YOUR STROKE
Putting is mental. Kids and beginners can putt fairly well with very little practice until they get older. As they get older, btheir putting seems to get worse. There are various reasons, but most seem to be mental. Kids just putt. They are not hung up on the mechanics or thought processes. They just hit the ball to the hole. They have no fear and they do not see the difficulty in the putt – just hit it to the hole. Adults over-analyze, over-think, and over-fear in missing the putt. They think about how diffcult the putt is and they create in their mind the element of doubt. Doubt kills when executing any shot in golf.
Perhaps one of the big barriers to better putting is expectations. Golfers expect the ball to go into the hole. When the ball does not go into the hole, they have not met their expectations and they actually believe they are bad putters. Look at these statistics based on research by Dave Pelz in his popular book, Dave Pelz’s Putting Bible.
- Inside two feet: Everyone makes 100%
- Three feet: pros only make 85% to 95%
- Five feet: pros make 65%, amateurs make 50%
- Six feet: pros only make about 50%
- Ten feet: pros/amateurs 25%
- Fifteen feet and over: 10% for pros
PGA TOUR FIRST PUTTS PERCENTAGE
How does the average PGA Tour Pro perform on first try putts? Again, based on Pelz’s research which dates to the late 1980s but hasn’t changed to present day:
- 5 feet: 45 to 65% are made 10 feet: 15 to 30%
- 15 feet: 10 to 22%
- 20 feet: 6 to 16%
- 25 feet: 4 to 13%
- 30 feet: 3 to 9%
- 35 feet: 2 to 7%
- 40 feet: 1 to 6%
- 45 feet: 0 to 5%
- 50 feet: 0 to 4%
Pelz also offers the following statistics on first putts holed in PGA tournaments:
- 3 feet: 95%
- 6 feet: 50%
- 9 feet: 25%
- 12 feet: 15%
Notice the numbers beyond six feet. The percentage of made putts drops considerably. If you play the percentages, perhaps the best distances to practice are four feet to ten feet. If you are deadly in this range, scores will come down. From six to ten feet the chances are still good. After 10 feet, the odds are so low that excessive practice may not show results, as so many factors other than a good stroke keep the ball out. Things like the grain, dampness, mowing, green imperfections, wind, etc. will affect even a well-stroked ball.
To help get a perspective on our expectations, the next time you play golf record on a score card the length of your putts made. Do not record anything over 15 feet or five walking paces. Use the guide of three feet (one pace), six feet (two paces), nine feet (three paces) and 15 feet (five paces); just record to the nearest length. Do not be too precise as approximate distances will be satisfactory. This test may well surprise you and may be valuable as you see that your percentages are not that bad. You may even be in the pro range.
Now here is some more information to surprise you, and I am not being funny. If you want to putt better, hit the ball closer to the hole. Yes, it does work and the message here is to practice pitching and chipping.
The best chance for lower scores is to sink putts of 10 feet or three walking paces. This is where most putting practice should be. Practice the long lags, but you must make the short putts after the lag to prevent the three-putt.
Brad Faxon, considered one of the better putters on the PGA tour during his long career (he still plays on the Champions Tour), credits his excellent putting to the fact that he did not become a good putter until he did not expect to make every putt. This eliminated stress and anxiety. As we said – putting is mental.
As we approach the green, we naturally assess the situation as to roll, distance and direction. This is reading the green. When we get to the ball, we then do our final assessment on direction and distance from behind the ball and sometimes from various angles for the line of the putt.
We move to the side of the ball, stand beside the ball, and square our putter to the target line. Remember, line up the putter to the target, which is not always the hole (Photo 11). All putts are straight. Once the putter aligned to the target we move from the physical to the mental aspect. This is crucial.
Since we have already determined the line or direction of the putt, we forget it as we have already established direction. We now focus on the distance. Too often golfers are trying to focus on direction and distance – two conflicting thoughts at the same time. The mind cannot focus on two thoughts at once, so it is best to forget the direction and focus on speed of the putt for distance. Since our putter is already lined up for direction, forgetting direction is no problem. Remember, a single focus on distance after alignment of the putter.
LOOK AT THE TARGET AND GO!
Now, this next statement is going to throw some into a frenzy. Do not think of how hard to strike the ball. Look at the target so as the eyes can register distance. Give it a good look for two or three seconds. Now look down at the ball and strike the ball immediately before the body loses the feel for distance. Do not hesitate or the body will lose it. The eyes can measure distance and force.
As you look down at the ball, your focus is not on the ball but still on the distance to the hole. In other words, as you look down, your mind still pictures the target as a visual image for distance. This visual image of the target in the mind is what tells the muscles how hard to stroke the putt. The body now knows the force and distance. Your eyes have already told your mind and body how hard to hit the ball.
Need a little reinforcement? Again, take a ball and toss it to a target. Do this several times and then analyze how you did it. Did you notice how you had no thought process? You looked at the target and tossed the ball and you were fairly successful. Your eyes told your body how hard to toss the ball and it worked. Next, repeat the toss to various distances and you will notice it is done easily and efficiently. If you tell your body how hard to toss the ball while you are looking at the target, your muscles may be getting conflicting messages from the subconscious and the conscious. Conflicting messages result when your eyes tell your body what to do, through your subconscious, but your conscious thinking of how hard to hit the ball is also sending messages to your muscles of how hard to hit the ball. The muscles are now easily confused.
Have you ever been mad over a bad chip to the hole and you already were up in numbers or lost the hole? Most likely you just walked up to the ball, hit it without a thought, without even lining it up — and the ball went in the hole. Well, it was not just luck at work there, it was your subconscious, as the subconscious knew how hard to hit the ball and you did not interfere with the subconscious process.
To eliminate these conflicting messages, think back to when you tossed the ball to the target. Did you notice how quickly, efficiently and accurately you performed the toss? You looked at the target and tossed the ball with no thought process – you just did it. This is how to putt.
Did you notice how little time you took to toss the ball to the target? It was much less than when you putted to the target. When you putt, do it within the same time frame as when you tossed the ball.
Have you noticed the tendency to overcompensate? When the first putt is long, the next putt is often short or if the first putt is short, the next putt is often long? Again, conflicting messages. After we hit the putt short, we tell ourselves to hit the next putt harder, and so we hit harder and the ball goes too long
We must trust our eyes in registering the distance. We trusted them when we tossed the ball because it is a familiar action. Trusting the putt with our eyes may be foreign or unfamiliar because we are not used to it. We are much more used to letting the mind get in the way. We must learn to trust the eyes measuring distance.
The key to finding this trust? Practice. Practice. And practice again.
THE FINAL ANALYSIS
When we tossed the ball to a target, we used one hand only. We did not put our two hands together and toss the ball. It was a one-hand toss. When we putt, we will do the same procedure with one hand. We have two hands on the putter but the stroke and force of the putt is with one hand. Toss a ball with two hands and the results are not good. One hand steadies the putter and one hand swings the putter, like tossing the ball.
When playing, it is possible that we want to sink the putt so badly that we do not trust this new technique and we resort to our old way of thinking of how hardto stroke the ball. Old habits die hard, especially in golf, and it’s true throughout the bag, with every club. Just when you think you have a new move grooved, the old ways bubble back up. When this happens, learning is retarded. You’re held back and negative thoughts can creep in to affect every part of your game. In putting, since every stroke is so vital, the tendency to doubt is magnified and strokes are lost. No matter what, learn to trust the eyes and let the subconscious do its job.
When you read the green notice the grain, dampness, length of grass, etc. These will help your mind figure the distance and force of the putt. The subconscious will register these factors and will automatically adjust the force of your stroke. It is automatic.
Finally, what about looking at the target while striking the ball, as Jordan Spieth does on shorter putts? Experiment to find out if you like this method.
Dr. Gerald A. Walford is a longtime PGA Professional and sports psychologist based in Florida