TO PARAPHRASE BEN HOGAN, golf is two games, the full swing and putting, but golf putting tips are in a league of their own for variety and individuality. In the following series of tips, I hope to clear up some of the confusion and offer hard and fast ideas for improving your play on the greens.
Why? For the layman, watching these two parts of the game, one would think that putting would probably be the easiest to master, and yet so many people–from Tour pro to amateur–struggle with it. For one thing, a putting stroke may look very simple, but there's a lot that can go wrong. For another, the game's great putters have used many different styles. Consider that Bobby Locke used to "hook" his putts, Jack Nicklaus looked like he "willed" the ball into the hole from his famous crouch, Ben Crenshaw stood very tall to develop his silky style, and before they were banned in some cases a couple years ago, Adam Scott used a long putter to help take his game to a new level. Just holding a flatstick poses a myriad of questions: Do you use a standard grip, a cross-handed one or the claw? Do you swing straight back and through or on an arc? Do you use a mallet or blade? Short, mid or long putter? The options go on and on. As students of mine can attest, it can all feel a bit overwhelming.
Before you read any further, I want you to consider three things about your current putting pattern. Do you make solid contact? If not, you'll have to change your technique. Do you miss consistently to the left or right of the target? If your misses have typical divergent patterns, you must look at your technique to see if your aiming is flawed or the stroke is producing an off-line result. And finally, if distance control is an issue, you have to work on drills that can solve the problem.
Now, once you've answered those questions, read on and start integrating my tips into your practice sessions. I hope you see your scores fall.
GOLF PUTTING TIPS 1: READ THE GREEN
It's virtually impossible to sink a putt if you don't know which way it's going to break. To give yourself the best chance of making more putts, you have to learn how to read the greens. I do it in two different ways. First, I look more at the direct line of the putt. Does the cup look like it's tilting one way or the other? Is there any slope directly between me and the hole? How long is my putt? Answering these questions gives you the first bit of information you need. But also look at the general area around the green complex. Is there a nearby hill or mountain that might influence the putt's shape? Is there a lake or lowland area like a drain where water would run to? If so, it'll probably influence the putt's break.
All this information is vital so you can "guess" correctly on your read. Taking a quick look at your ball and the hole just won't cut it. Instead, look around to see what the general lay of the land is and use it to help you make more putts.
GOLF PUTTING TIPS 2: READ THE SPEED
Great putters control their distance well and make just about everything inside five feet. Although I teach my students to try to make every putt, different lengths require adjustments in one's thought process.
From within five feet, I make a very specific read of the putt and then hit the putt on that line with the proper pace. On putts that measure five feet, I focus more on the putt's line, with speed control a very close second, as speed always determines how you hit the putt.
From 15 feet away, I want to make a putt that both has perfect speed and is well read. I focus equally on the line and the appropriate-length stroke. If it doesn't go in, however, I want an easy follow-up putt, so make sure you get your speed right.
From over 30 feet away, I still want to make the putt, but I focus first on speed control and then on line. I want to make sure I'm comfortable with controlling my distance so I don't make a mistake that leaves me with a tough next putt. I'm certainly paying attention to the break, but distance control is the most important ingredient for these putts.
GOLF PUTTING TIPS 3: EVEN IT OUT
Whether you take the club straight back and through or on an arc–where your putter travels from inside the target line, squares up and returns in the followthrough to inside the line–I encourage putting strokes to be basically of equal length on the backswing and followthrough. A putting stroke that's "even" in its backstroke and forwardswing length helps players control their putter better than a stroke that's "short to long" or "long to short."
By using a ruler or yardstick, I can work on swinging my putter back and through at the same length and with a good rhythm. Since the stroke length is impacted by green speed, grain and slope, alter how long or short your stroke is accordingly. All these elements have an effect on your stroke's length, but I truly believe learning to control your length of stroke consistently is an important key in becoming a great putter.
GOLF PUTTING TIPS 4: EYES OVER THE BALL
One of the classic things to do on the green is to check where your eyes are at setup. Depending on your putting style, the placement of your eyes plays a key role in helping you make the stroke you want. To check your eye position, get in your normal setup and drop a ball from your eyes. Take note of where it hits. If it hits the ball, your eyes are directly over the ball, and you're in a great position to have a "straight-back and straight-through" type of stroke. If your ball drops slightly to the inside of the ball, you should be making a stroke that has some "arc" to it, letting the putter work to the inside on the backswing and then swinging it back to the inside on the followthrough. If your ball drops to the outside of the ball, then you more than likely need to adjust your setup to get into one of the two positions I just talked about, because there have not been many, if any, great putters who set up with their eyes outside the ball.
GOLF PUTTING TIPS 5: FIVE IN A ROW
Putt five balls from four different points around the hole, all from 3 to 5 feet, and watch your scores plummet.
If your distance control is good on lag putts, you should leave yourself a lot of short second putts. And if you're confident making 3- to 5-foot putts, you'll definitely save some shots and lower your scores.
To drain more short putts, lower your scores and boost your confidence, try this simple drill: Take five balls and try to make five in a row from four different points around the hole. It might take you a while the first time you try it, but if you stick with the drill, you'll gain confidence that you can make those "knee knockers" the next time you play.
Once you get really good at this drill, move back a foot or two and challenge yourself. One of the reasons the Tour pros rarely miss from this distance is that they practice these putts a lot. You should too!!
If you're missing too many putts to either side of the hole, here's a great drill to help you figure out why.
Notice how I'm hitting putts out of a "track" that I've set up with two shafts? I also have a tee placed on the target line as the ball comes out of the track.
If you're hitting putts and the ball is hitting the tee, you're doing great! If you're missing the tee though, check out these parts of your putting stroke: First, make sure you're aimed correctly. The "track" isolates your stroke, so it should be easy to aim, but always make sure your clubface is aimed square to the target first. The "track" also will let you know if your stroke has some pull or push in it. If you're having a hard time keeping your putter in the track during your stroke, you need to work on your putting path. If you're trying to swing the putter from inside to square and then back to inside (the Stan Utley approach), that's fine. Just take the inside shaft away, and the drill still works. If your path is off, you'll miss the tee. A pull stroke will miss left; a push stroke will miss right.
Finally, if your aim and stroke feel good but you're still missing the tee, you have excessive clubface rotation in your putting stroke. If you're opening or closing the clubface during your stroke and not returning the clubface squarely at impact, the ball will miss the tee. An open clubface at impact causes the ball to miss right; a closed clubface at impact will miss left.
GOLF PUTTING TIPS 7: QUIET WRISTS
Wrist action is the enemy of a good putting stroke. To keep your wrists out of your stroke, a good grip and setup is vital. Here's how to do it: Place the grip in the palms of both hands so your thumbs rest directly on the center–or flat part–of the grip. Also place your hands slightly "ahead" of the ball at address. This position, a slight "forward press," should give you a feel of a flat lead wrist and a bent trailing one. During the stroke, try to keep this position throughout. Your shoulders should "rock" back and forth, and your arms will swing during the stroke, but the wrist position that you've established at address should remain the same. Taking your wrists out of your stroke will help you control not only your clubface but also the length and pace of your swing. Set up well and keep your wrists quiet!
GOLF PUTTING TIPS 8: DISTANCE CONTROL
I think the most important aspect of great putting is distance control. Learning to hit the ball at the proper speed will give you a great chance to not only make putts but also avoid three-putts.
Here's a great drill for learning to control your speed: Find a level area on the practice green and walk 10 paces from the hole. Once you've stopped, you'll be about 30 feet from the hole. Now, take five balls and hit the putts, focusing solely on rolling the ball the right length. Then, do it over and over! After some practice, you'll develop a great feel for the stroke needed for this length putt. To test yourself even more, hit some putts with your eyes closed to see if you really have a feel for the putt. If you do, you now have a reference stroke for a 30-foot putt that you can use when you play. Obviously the green speed at different clubs changes, and you won't always have a flat putt, but this drill will help you control your longer putts.
GOLF PUTTING TIPS 9: ONE-HANDED DRILLS
If you feel like one of your hands is too dominant in your stroke or if you feel too "wristy," here's a great drill that will help you. From a distance of 20-30 feet, simply hit putts with one hand on the club. With some practice, you should be able to control your stroke pretty well and you'll also learn to keep your wrists "quiet" during the stroke, because it's very hard to control distance with a one-handed wristy stroke.
After you've mastered the one-handed stroke, take two clubs and hold one in each hand. Set up in your putting stance and notice how far apart the shafts are. Make some swings and try to maintain that distance throughout the swing. If one hand is more dominant–or "wristy"–than the other, the distance between the clubs will change. The goal is to swing them back and forth without any variation between them. If you pull this off, your putting stroke is "balanced" and you're in great shape to make lots of putts.
BONUS TIP: PLAY A ROUND
One thing many of my junior players love to do is compete against each other on the putting green. Learn from the younger players and play some games either with a friend or by yourself. Practicing like you play is very important. I suggest playing a "round" of golf on the practice green and keeping track of your score. Make every hole a par-2, read each putt and go through your routine just as if you're playing for real.
Another great way to improve your putting is to find time on the course where things aren't busy and hit extra putts. Mark your ball, read your putt and do everything you do when you're playing a round. Good practice will lead to good putting!
Steve Dahlby, PGA, is the director of instruction at Forest Highlands Golf Club in Flagstaff, Ariz. He's also the lead instructor of swingmentors.com and can be found at The Golf Club Scottsdale and McCormick Ranch Golf Club in Scottsdale during the winter months. Steve has worked with numerous players on the PGA and LPGA Tours.
This story was updated for clarity and readability on September 26, 2017