Adam Scott has climbed to the World No. 1 spot largely by improving his putting. During the 2013 season, Scott gained only 0.05 strokes per round on the greens, 102nd on the PGA Tour. But since March -- when he started using a new green-reading method called AimPoint Express -- he's gained more than 0.5 strokes and vaulted into the top 15. Although data can't tell us how much of Scott's improvement is due to better reads, the Aussie has an opinion: "It's huge," he said.
Plenty of putts are missed before the putterhead ever moves. Why? Because of misreads. It's difficult to quantify the importance of green-reading -- since a putt's break depends in part on how hard it's hit -- but new research I've done with Columbia business school Ph.D. student Dongwook Shin indicates that about 40 percent of the strokes Tour pros lose on the greens is due to green-reading errors. (Directional mis-hits account for 40 percent and distance errors for 20 percent.)
Here's a test of your green-reading savvy: Imagine a clock face on a typical back-to-front-sloping green, with the hole at the center, and the 12 o'clock position representing a straight downhill putt. Which putt will break the most: A sidehiller from the three o'clock position? A downhill, sidehill putt from two o'clock? Or an uphill sidehill putt from four o'clock? (Assume that each putt is hit with excellent speed, so that it would roll 1.5 feet beyond the hole if it missed.) If you said that the sidehill putt (three o'clock) would break the most, you're in the majority—but you're wrong. The downhill putt from two o'clock will break the most and the uphill putt from four o'clock the least.
Why? A putt breaks because it is falling due to gravity. Since the putt from two o'clock is slightly downhill, it's hit more softly than the three o'clock putt, so it takes more time to reach the hole. Since gravity has a longer time to act, the ball breaks more.
The AimPoint Express green-reading technique that has helped Scott is a simplified version of the original AimPoint system. Pros such as Stacy Lewis have used the original system to great effect, but it's proven to be too complicated for many average players. Developed by Mark Sweeney, the more accessible AimPoint Express is catching on and has helped players of all levels find the correct line. (Even Lewis switched to Express.)
Here's roughly how AimPoint Express works. The golfer stands facing the hole and, using the feelings in his feet, estimates the steepness of the right-to-left or left-to-right slope on a 0 to 7 scale. He holds up that many fingers, with one edge of the extended fingers aligned with the center of the hole. The other edge of his fingers serves as a guide for the putt's starting line from which the ball will break. That's what Scott's doing (left).
While not as precise as the original AimPoint system, Sweeney says that golfers sink more putts with Express because it's simpler. "Golfers can hit good putts because they aren't worried about the aim being wrong," he told me. Scott has seconded that sentiment, adding that putting has been fun since the stress and indecision of the read are gone. Everybody knows that a confident stroke is a better stroke.
My advice? Green-reading is definitely worth practicing. These two drills should help you develop smarter feet and a keener eye.
2 DRILLS TO READ 'EM...AND NOT WEEP
1. Gateway to Glory
This drill helps me see the correct line on a hard-to-read putt. First, determine your aim line on, say, a 10-footer. Then take two tees and place them 6 inches apart and just a few inches in front of the ball, making a "gate" on your line for your putt to go through. Then hit your putt through the gate. If you consistently miss low, you're an under-reader. High? An over-reader. Use the feedback to adjust your aim accordlingly.
2. Get Level-Headed
Buy a digital level at the hardware store. Read a putt of 15 feet or less, using your feet to estimate the break, on a zero [flat] to 7 [very steep] scale. Now measure the break with the level, which reveals the green's actual slope percentage on a 0-7 percent scale [few putts break more than 7 percent]. When you're getting within 0.5 degrees of the level's numbers, you're an expert reader. [I'm on the level!]