MY FATHER, GAIL, TAUGHT ME HOW TO play, along with thousands of others. He’d often book five lessons in a row, and warn the student next in line, “Don’t listen to what I tell the person in front of you.” I agree with Dad: you can’t spoon-feed the same mechanics to everyone. That’s why we’ve had such success with Annika Sorenstam, Michelle Wie, Phil Mickelson and other big-name golfers. Our goal is to simply get golfers comfortable with putting.
Sure, we look at the stroke, but what’s more important — and something I’ve focused on during my 40 plus years of playing and teaching — are the fundamentals that come before it. If you can’t read greens, see the line, and become comfortable in your setup, then you’re toast. So keep your stroke (for now), and follow my five key pre-putt moves. They’ll have you putting lights out in no time.
1. GET A BETTER READ
Focus on the last part of your putt
GREEN-READING IS tricky, no doubt. There’s more to it than judging slope — speed determines the line as much as anything. But if you haven’t got a clue about how to read greens, go back to the ultimate basic: where would water drain off if it had accumulated on the putting surface? Course designers don’t build bowls in the middle of greens — they want water to drain off as quickly as possible, and not into an adjacent bunker. Check for drains around the green. Lakes and ponds are other good clues. These are natural runoff areas, and good indicators that the green slope favors that direction.
Once you figure out which way a putt breaks, give it another look from the low side. A lot of people do this, but they do it from the middle of the putt. The first third of a putt has almost zero to do with break, since the ball is moving so fast. What’s important is the last third — this is where the ball will be slowing down and turning the most, and this is from where you need to make your secondary read.
2. GET A ROUTINE
Treat putts like drives
LPGA player and 2008 Rookie of the Year Yani Tseng came to us following a bad stretch this past summer. We headed out to the practice area, but to her surprise, I blew right past the practice putting green and drove straight to the first tee. “I need to work on my putting,” she said, a little confused. “I know, but just hit a tee shot.” She pulled her driver and striped one. Same for her approach, an 8-iron that landed 8 feet from the pin. When we got to the green, I moved the ball back to 15 feet and asked her to make it. She didn’t come close.
“Can we go to the practice green now?” she begged. I told her we didn’t need to. The problem wasn’t her mechanics, but her routine. The concentrated, focused effort that she gave her full swings, complete with well-rehearsed, well-orchestrated pre-shot routines, was completely absent when she went to make her putting stroke. When you don’t have a routine, which starts from the moment you crouch behind the ball to the moment you finish your stroke, you’re lost. Those are the exact words Phil Mickelson used when we worked with him last fall: “I’m lost.” A routine — the same type of structure you give your “important” full-swing shots — is critical for putting success. Without structure, your mind will race and you won’t be comfortable.
3. SEE THE LINE
…and then never take your eyes off it
HERE’S WHERE MY THEORIES break from the norm. I never — never! — make a practice stroke to get a feel for the speed and my motion. When I’m stepping up to the putt, I’m thinking only about the speed and the line. Once I see my line my eyes never leave it. The reason why is that the moment you start making practice strokes next to the ball, you lose your view of the line and your chances of success. Plus, you make the game longer than it has to be.
My advice: Make your read, step in and putt. You don’t need a practice stroke. Think about it this way: Do you make practice strokes next to the cue ball when you’re shooting pool? Of course not, and pool is the most-hand-eye-coordination-intense game in the world.
I haven’t convinced all of my students to take this approach. When I was working with Annika Sorenstam in the 1990s, she was absolutely convinced she needed to make a few practice strokes to get the feel and speed right. In a bit of a compromise, I got her to start taking practice strokes while standing behind the ball, not after she had taken her stance. This allowed her to get her feel senses in order without ever taking her eyes off the line.
The easiest way to get the best view of your line is to “highway it.” From your crouch, trace an imaginary four-inch-wide strip over what you think will be the putt’s path. Don’t just draw it to the high point — draw it from start to finish, then pick a spot one inch in front of the ball and keep your eyes on that spot as you stroke through the ball. If you roll the ball over that one-inch spot, you should consider your putt a success.
4. STROKE, DON’T HIT
Putt like you’re holding a paintbrush
GOOD PUTTS ARE THE ONES that begin rolling end-over-end as soon as you make contact, and you can’t get this kind of roll if you’re slapping it, jabbing it or even hitting it. Your putting stroke should be more like a paintbrush stroke, not a flat-out hit. As soon as you start thinking, “hit,” the more likely you’ll be to stop your stroke once you make contact. Bad news. Putting strokes need follow-throughs, too.
When Dave Jr. teaches, he tries to get students to keep the ball on the putterface for as long as possible. That’s a great image to build the correct rhythm and pace. The longer the ball stays on the face (yes, you can control this amount of 'dwell' time), the easier it is to get it rolling smoothly toward your target. The next time you practice putting, think about how you move when you’re doing something that comes naturally to you, like fly fishing or even bowling. If you can repeat moves you’re good at in other sports when you putt, you’ll make a better stroke.
I’m amazed at Phil Mickeslon’s ability to do just that. During the President’s Cup in Saturday’s alternate-shot matches, he agreed to play with Sean O’Hair’s ball. On several 20-footers, his stroke was so smooth you couldn’t even hear him make contact, and I was standing right there. That’s one of the reasons I recommend putters with soft face inserts. Phil putts with a new Odyssey putter with a soft polymer face, and I think it will only make him smoother.
5. DON’T TRY TO MAKE IT
It’s not a white flag, it’s a battle cry
The more you “try” to make a putt, the less likely you are to sink it. Golf is such a subconscious sport — you play your best when your mind is on autopilot, when you just do it. If you’ve practiced your technique, gone through your routine and feel good about your read, then there shouldn’t be any need to try. Just putt and see what happens. There’s not a single thing you can do with your stroke that will make up for a bad read or a bad routine, so forget about it.
Try this test. Write your signature on a piece of paper, then, just underneath it, try to copy your original signature going as slowly as you can. It’s impossible. Your first attempt was beautiful because you didn’t think about doing it. You tried on the second attempt, and look what happened.
During one of my Masters appearances I asked Byron Nelson about his 11-event win streak in 1945 and how he maintained such dominance. He said that he discovered something at the start of the season that just clicked — a simple swing thought that made everything easy. He’d hit balls just to stay loose, keeping that swing thought in his mind. And there I was with a checklist of 60-plus things to get ready to play Augusta. Sure, golf shouldn’t be as easy as Nelson made it out to be, but in essence that’s what it’s all about. It’s not about hoping to hit good drives or sink putts. And it’s not about trying. It’s just a matter of being comfortable.