A relatiuvely recent issue of Golf Magazine included two items that suggesting that Dr. Putt had been ahead of them in new ideas in putting. To prevent this newsletter from being just an exercise in hubris, Dr. Putt will exhibit a small measure of humility and discuss something inspired by a piece on the Golf Channel. Indeed, most new ideas are inspired by older ideas.
So here are our three topics for this newsletter.
1) "The New Way to Putt?" Not Exactly New!
2) "Be Your Own Stimpmeter" and Dr. Putt's "Reference Putt"
3) Rehearsal Swings and the Actual Swings--A World of Difference
1) "The New Way to Putt?" Not Exactly New!
In the October 2005 issue of Golf Magazine is an exclusive article featured on the cover entitled "The New Way to Putt." Well, it is not exactly new. On page 26 of "5 Steps to Better Putting," the book that sponsors this newsletter and the "Dear Dr. Putt" website, it is suggested that players develop a feeling for distance before every round by putting with her or his eyes while LOOKING AT THE HOLE rather than at the ball. The book adds that this is a "good practice exercise."
Obviously if this technique works in practice, it could be used on the course in actual play. Dr. Putt will concede that actually playing this way is not explicitly in the book. He will also concede that the testing performed by Golf Magazine lends scientific evidence that this improves distance accuracy. Empirical evidence is certainly worth having, even if Dr. Putt was pretty certain that this would work in the first place. The testing indicated that the average player would reduce error by about 25% on both long (28 to 43 feet) and short puts (3 to 8 feet) (see p. 97).
But if you are a relatively good player with the short stick (only one or so three-putts a round and the number of putts consistently in the low 30's), then this method could make you worse. Golf Magazine's test group included players with handicaps from 8 to 36 with 20 in the experimental group and 20 in the control group. Dr. Putt would like to see the relationship between improvement and handicap. But given the overall small size of the sample, the n's at each handicap would be too small for a statistically significant relationship. Dr. Putt would strongly suspect that the improvement falls dramatically at lower handicaps.
The great risk when looking at the hole is hitting the ball off center. A heel hit will make the putt miss short to the left and a toe hit will make the putt miss short to the right. So mishits affect both distance and direction. Do the added benefits of acceleration and hitting to where one is looking compensate for mishits? Perhaps Golf Magazine will do another study in a year or so testing this hypothesis! The bottom line for Dr. Putt is that he will continue to use this method as a practice method, not on the course.
However, if you lack confidence on really short putts, you might settle on a compromise position. Putt traditionally on longer putts, but look a the hole on really short putts.
Exactly where the dividing line is something you will have to decide. The answer rests on two observations. First, the longer the backswing the more likely you will mishit. Second, the faster the green, the shorter the required backswing for a given distance. Dr. Putt would surmise that on a green of average speed, the dividing line would be at about 6 feet, or two paces. But on fast greens it would be somewhat longer, even three or four paces. You may have to set a rule for yourself each time you play while on the practice green. For example, it might be that you will decide that all putts beyond three paces you will look at the ball and all shorter ones you will look at the hole. You may also want to limit "looking at the hole" to putts that are relatively straight so that you are never looking at an point outside the hole.
Finally, Dr. Putt should add a note when he edited this newsletter a few years later. Jordan Speith, who came on the scene some time after this newsletter was originally written, does often employ the "looking at the hole" technique on relatively short putts--with great success!
2) "Be Your Own Stimpmeter" and Dr. Putt's "Reference Putt"
On page 101 of the same October 2005 issue of Golf Magazine is a short article entitled "How to gauge the speed: Be Your Own Simpmeter." It suggests taking a one foot stance and then a backstroke of the same distance on a flat part of the green and hitting the ball normally with five balls, and then noting the average distance. This tells you how fast greens are that particular day on that particular course.
Great idea, except that you could have learned this from Dr. Putt in the "Dear Dr. Putt" letter entitled "Distance Control: Reference Putt Method," which was posted about two years ago. It can be found at: http://www.drputt.com/deardrputt/DistanceReference.php. Here is what Dr. Putt wrote then -- direct quotation: "The reference putt is one that you can do with ones eyes closed at a tempo that seems natural and with little to no effort. It has about a 12 inch backswing. For Dr. Putt, this backswing extends to about even with the large toe on his rear foot. Incidentally, the tempo one establishes here is one that should be maintained on all other putts. Putting speed is controlled by the length of the backswing, not the force at which the ball is struck. This is also discussed in the "Dear Dr. Putt" letter on "Tempo in Putting."
To establish the reference putt, take several balls (Dr. Putt uses three) to a level part of the practice green, assume your putting stance, and take a few practice swings, perhaps a couple with eyes closed. The backswing should be about 12 inches, as mentioned, whatever distance feels natural without feeling one has to make any real effort to extend any further. It should be a stroke that one feels can be repeated over and over again. Then putt each of the three balls without looking up or changing your stance. If you have the repeating stroke memorized, all the balls should be within a foot of each other. If not, repeat the process until you get them all close together and until you have confidence that you can putt the ball that distance every time using that stroke. For Dr. Putt, on his home course on most days, this distance is 21 feet, seven paces. Step off and note your distance.
Repeat this process before you play any round of golf. Make sure that you use a level part of the putting green. To ensure this, putt the balls in one direction, and then putt them back in the other. The average of the two is your reference putt distance. Of course, if you are really on a level place, there should be little difference (though the grain of the grass can make a little difference, but that is another matter for another letter). Of course, this distance will change on any given day and any given course. So you must re-establish your reference putt distance before you play each time.
What you now have, before you step on the first green, is a putting distance you KNOW you can hit any time you need it. Judge all putts in relation to this distance. For example, if it is downhill at your reference putt distance, you putt with a little shorter backswing. Uphill? A little longer backswing. With the grain of the grass? A little shorter backswing, and so on. Is the putt a little longer than you reference putt distance? Then take a little longer backswing, and visa versa.
Thus, you need to learn to note all the factors that can affect the required speed of the putt (slope, grain, moisture, hard or brown spots on the green, and even wind). You step off the distance on each putt as you walk the line of the putt, so you know exactly how it compares to your reference putt distance. Learning how to factor in all these things will not come instantly, but you will improve over time. But with a reference putt, you at least have somewhere to start each time, something you can count on and have confidence in. And that is more than most players have!" End of long quotation! There is more, but you will have to go to the letter to get it all.
Dr. Putt cannot help wonder where Golf Magazine got their idea for their much shorter article. Perhaps they just had the same insight. Dr. Putt will leave this for his dear readers to decide.
3) Rehearsal Swings and the Actual Swings -- A World of Difference
A few weeks ago as Dr. Putt was channel surfing he briefly stopped at the Golf Channel, where one can get enough advice to choke an elephant and paralyze even the best of swings. But that is another story. What caught Dr. Putt's attention was a piece by Dave Pelz documenting the difference between practice swings and actual swings of golfers at varying levels of skill.
The piece had three points. The first was on putts -- players with lower handicaps kept their putter face square to the line of the putt on the follow-through. Higher handicap players let the toe get ahead of the heel -- rolling the head around. This suggests that the in-line putting stroke is strongly associated with lower handicaps while the putting stroke on an arc is more likely to be found among players with higher handicaps. Dr. Putt and Dave Pelz agree on the in-line stroke -- a subject of many Dear Dr. Putt letters and previous newsletters.
The second point was one of rhythm and movement. Better players rarely froze over the ball for more than a moment. Their routine built rhythmic motion into the setup and swing. They were almost in constant motion, but motion with a definite tempo and smooth rhythm. Watch professional players and note that their routines rarely involve freezing over the ball. Dr. Putt has long observed that this same trait is characteristic of the best foul shooters in basketball.
The third point, and the point of emphasis here, is that while players of many different skill levels can have decent practice swings, better players have actual swings that look more like their practice swings. High handicap players have swings that bear faint resemblance to the practice swing. Dr. Putt means REALLY REALLY DIFFERENT! The videos were dramatic. High handicap players might not have even bothered to take a practice swing, because what they did over the ball was not even in the same universe!
So here is the lesson and something to give a try. On the practice range, take a good practice swing behind the ball. Then go through your routine and hit the ball focusing ONLY on how similar your actual swing is to the practice swing. Focus in particular on tempo and finish. When they both feel the same, Dr. Putt will bet that you are hitting the ball better. Something else to work on over the winter!