On the Green
Of all the phases of the game, putting arguably has received the most attention when it comes to printed instruction. Ironically, most golfers won’t take formal putting lessons, but they have no problem reading everything they can when it deals with the flat stick.
Putting management, of course, deals with distance and direction. The best putters manage this part of the game noticeably better than others. Less-skilled putters may not think about management on the greens, but it does exist.
The first, and most important part of the equation, is distance control. Picking the right line is meaningless if distance cannot be controlled. Before distance can be controlled, the player needs to ask, what is the right distance to hit this putt?
There are two schools of thought regarding distance control. One says to charge putts, sending them a certain distance by the hole if the putt is missed, and the other says to lag putts, where a miss would wind up around hole-high. Research by Dave Pelz points out that the optimal speed to hit a putt is one with the force to go 17 inches by the hole if missed. The problem with that, as Geoff Mangum (Optimal Putting: Brain Science, Instincts, and the Four Skills of Putting) points out, is that this number varies depending upon the quality of the green. A green that is fairly smooth might have an optimal speed of just five inches past the hole, while a bumpy and slow green may have an optimal putting force of 30 inches past the hole. With today’s greens generally being smoother
than when Pelz did his studies back in the 1970s, it’s probably safe to say that putts hit with the force to go 6-12 inches past the hole represents the optimal speed on many greens. Mangum, in fact, recommends a speed of about two revolutions per second, or about eight inches past the hole.
To have our students gain mastery of distance control, the first thing that needs to be done is to make sure every stroke has the same tempo. It doesn’t matter if the putt is four feet or 40 – the tempo of both strokes is the same. A metronome can help students hone in on this. The only thing that changes is the length of the backswing and follow through.
Most golfers simply practice putting by hitting putts toward a hole and consider a made putt a good one and a missed one a bad one. While understandable, that’s not the best way to develop distance control. Mangum recommends golfers develop a “core stroke.” This involves making the same putting stroke in terms of timing, tempo, and force on the putting green (regardless of which course is being played), and observing how far the ball travels. You then make adjustments to this stroke based upon the distance of the upcoming putt. He believes this is the best way to develop touch (see “Untangling the Web of Putting,” Winter 2011, Golf Teaching Pro.)
Another method involves making sure all putts within a reasonably short distance, say 20 feet (6 meters) finish within one clublength past the hole if they don’t go in. Outside this range, inside a clublength, even if short, is acceptable. The point is to get our students to pay attention to the speed of putts on the practice green instead of whether they make or miss.
Very few golfers practice reading greens, but for those who aspire to be a great putter, it’s necessary. Pelz’s research from several years ago showed almost all golfers, even touring professionals, only see about 1/3 of the actual break when they read putts. A subconscious adjustment in putter face aim at address takes care of another 1/3, and manipulating the stroke accounts for the final third. As you can see, that’s a tough way to putt!
There are several activities that can be done to read greens better. One is to putt on a dew-covered green, so the actual path the ball travels can be seen. Another involves hitting some putts croquet-style, where the golfer faces the hole and hits some putts along a starting line. Because the player is directly behind the ball, he or she can easily see the true starting line, as standing aside the ball during a normal putting stroke can give us inaccurate feedback. Most people use an elevated string for straight putts, but it’s also valuable in giving accurate feedback for breaking putts.
If course management can be boiled down to two tenets, they would be, 1) plan to avoid the worst trouble in the case of an execution mistake, and 2) don’t plan strategy based upon the premise a perfect shot must be struck. Those two general rules of thumb, along with the information presented in this section, should provide golfers with the tools to play with both maximum performance and enjoyment.