MESQUITE, Nev. — Maybe there's somebody who knows more about putting than former PGA champion Dave Stockton. I doubt it. There definitely isn't anybody who knows more about putting who putts better than Stockton.
So when Stockton stopped by a media tournament here this week to enthusiastically share his thoughts on putting, and also to spread the word about his new instruction book, Unconscious Putting, it was the golfing equivalent of Rembrandt popping in to share his thoughts on painting. When Stockton talks, he does nothing but make sense. He says he likes to keep it simple and he does. His new book is only 93 pages. That includes pictures.
Right after Rory McIlroy suffered his final-round meltdown at the Masters, he got together with Stockton to work on his putting. Two months later, he pummeled the world's best golfers at the U.S. Open and won in a runaway. Not coincidentally, McIlroy putted brilliantly.
I'm not going to review Stockton's book here, but having perused some pages, I can guarantee you're going to want to read what the master of putting has to say. He believes feel and routine are far more important for putting than mechanics. You want to be a painter with your putting stroke, not a carpenter. Too much thinking is detrimental. Just do it. Even practice strokes, in Stockton's opinion, are an exercise in futility.
Stockton asked the gathered media in Mesquite to try a little test. Sign your autograph, he said, like you're signing a check. Then, take that autograph and try to write a copy of it just below it, but do it slowly. Once you start thinking about it, he says, it's virtually impossible to make a signature like the original. Stockton calls that "second-signature syndrome," and he says there is way too much of it in golf, especially in putting.
Here are some highlights of what Stockton shared with us media hacks. I thought a lot of it was gold, but decide for yourself and let me know what you think in the comments section below:
God couldn't learn anything from a plumb-bob
"Show me your putting routine. I think it's very individualistic. Your signature isn't like mine and it shouldn't be. Some of the dumbest pre-shot routines have come from touring pros. One of the worst ones I saw last year, this guy's initial start is a plumb-bob. God couldn't learn anything from a plumb-bob if a putt breaks six inches in 12 feet. You know it's going left but not how much. But it's stuck in this pro's mind that it's part of his routine that he's got to maintain."
Practice strokes? Take 'em or leave 'em
"Practice strokes are extremely important — I guess. If you play pool, do you step up beside the cue ball and practice the amount of stroke you're going to make before you hit it? I don't think so. When you come in behind the ball with the cue stick, do you hold it still and not move it? No, you move it back and forth and then you just let it go."
Your left hand has to go to the hole
"In putting, the left hand is the direction hand. That's the biggest thing I teach that's different from Stan Utley or Tiger Woods or others — they talk right hand. Tiger likes to use his right hand to guide the putter. But when Tiger's right hand goes through the ball, he doesn't flip it. I believe it should be a left-hand move. The left hand has to go to the hole. That was the biggest thing with Rory McIlroy. He tended to quit a bit at the end of his stroke, not much but it was just enough. It's two different games, really. Your left hand controls putting and low chips shots. Past that, every other shot in golf is right-handed."
95 percent of amateurs set up too square to the hole
"I like golfers to be slightly open at address to putt. I see the line from behind. I hold the putter in my left hand. I don't take practice strokes, I may swing my right arm a bit for some feel. I walk in from behind the ball, set my right foot about where it's going to end up, then I set the putter down ahead of the ball and look at the hole. As soon as I look, I set my left foot. When you do that, you're set up open because your eyes automatically do it that way. Now I look one last time, come back and focus on a spot an inch in front of the ball on my line. Then I stroke the putt. I walk in from behind my line so I never lose sight of my line. The person who steps up to the ball set up square, what is that person focusing on besides the perfect stroke? The ball. Have you ever thrown a dart? Do you look at where your hands are? Do you look at the dart? No, that wouldn't make sense. You look at the target. Ninety-five percent of amateur golfers set up much too square to the hole."
I want to paint a four-inch stripe, that's what a putting stroke feels like
"Most golfers, as soon as the putter hits the ball, all hell breaks loose. The putter either comes up or recoils. In football, a quarterback has to get off his back foot to pass, I've never seen a pitcher who doesn't push of the mound with his back foot. In free throws or darts, it's about the follow-through. How about putting? One golf announcer likes to say, 'Oh, so-and-so really released the putter well on that putt.' I want to throw up when I hear that. That connotes somebody hitting a nail with a hammer. I don't want to pound a nail with a hammer when I putt. I want to paint a four-inch stripe. That's what a putting stroke feels like to me."
I'm really interested in the last third of the putt
"I break a putt into thirds. In my first instruction book in the '90s, we had a drawing of a bridge in the book. I'm really interested in the last third of the putt because I want the ball to go into the cup with the correct speed. The break for the first third of a putt doesn't make much difference because the ball is going real fast. It's going the slowest at the end, and that's where it will break more."
We putted better when we were kids
"We putted better when we were kids than we do now. You know why? Because we used to walk up to the green. Now you drive up in a golf cart pin-high, get out and walk onto the green from the side. You've got no clue what the green is doing. As a kid, you walked up and you saw, it drains off here, it slopes away here. You see it, you feel it and you've got a picture of what you want to do."
It's very difficult to suddenly go from slow greens to fast greens
"My dad tried to get me to be an aggressive putter. His idea was that I never left it short but never knocked it more than 18 inches past, so the comeback putt wouldn't be hard. At one point, I had the record on tour, I went 960-some holes without a three-putt. Then came the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. I went out there the week before to play it. I'd won twice that year, I played a practice round with Jack Nicklaus that week and killed him. Pebble Beach was my favorite course. I was ready. During the 36 holes I was there, after 960-some holes without a three-putt, I had only 10 three-putts and a four-putt. That was not a good week. The USGA stilled rolled the greens pretty hard then. When I stepped onto the first green the first day, honest to God, my steel cleats wouldn't go in. I took one step and stopped and thought, 'What is this?' It was unbelievable how fast they can change the greens. That was the last time I went to an Open course the week before. It's very difficult to keep your stroke working if you suddenly go from slow greens to fast greens."
Phil let one missed short putt affect him the rest of the way
"I watched Phil Mickelson go to the tank at the British Open last summer. I hadn't dealt much with him for a while before that, he was working harder with Dave Pelz. Phil texted me during the Open and said, 'My game is coming around, I can really feel I'm getting closer.' I texted him back and said, 'Why don't you play the last round like you've already won four majors and 40-some tournaments and know how to do it and have fun?' So for 10 holes that last day, I saw a guy make every single putt. Ten holes, 10 putts. Then he missed a two-footer at 11. I didn't mind him missing it, but I didn't like the physical reaction I saw for the remaining holes. I had no idea what happened. Later, he said he was already figuring out how he was going to birdie the 12th hole. The only problem with that was, he hadn't finished the 11th hole yet. He made 10 putts in 10 holes but let one missed short putt affect him the rest of the way."
The best putters on the PGA Tour
"The best putters I saw on the PGA Tour were Ben Crenshaw, Steve Stricker and probably Brad Faxon. Among the older guys, Billy Casper. George Archer was great, Deane Beman was very good. Jack Nicklaus? He was good but anybody could make the putts from where he hit it.
Trying harder doesn't help your putting
"I worked with Yani Tseng after she came back from the Canadian Open where she shot 78. We get in the cart and drive past the putting green. She says, 'Where are you going, I want to work on my putting.' I said, 'I know you do.' We went to the first tee and I said, 'Hit me a drive.' She kills it, like 275. She hits the ball dead straight. We get in the cart and drive up, I stop 20 yards short of her ball because she would've had a pitching wedge in. Now she has a 7-iron. She hits that to four feet. On the green, I move her four-footer back to 15 feet and said, 'Now this is to win the tournament.' What kind of routine do you think I saw? I saw one four times slower than either the drive or the iron shot. She wouldn't have made the putt into a wastebasket. On the way back to the putting green, I asked her what she was thinking about on the first two shots. Were you thinking about the drive? She said, 'No, I pictured what I wanted to do.' Same with the iron. What about the putt? She said, 'I was trying.' We were all brought up with the idea that if we try harder, we do better. When it comes to putting, it's not the truth."
Byron Nelson won 19 times with one thought
I was sitting with Byron Nelson at the Masters one year and I asked him, 'What were your swing thoughts in 1945 when you won 11 tournaments in a row?' He got a big smile and said, 'Dave, I was practicing in West Texas before the West Coast swing and I discovered something in my swing that felt good. I used that thought all year.' I finished in the top 10 at the Masters that year, and I had seven or eight swing thoughts that if I got right, I'd be right in the hunt. This man told me he won 19 times with one thought. I didn't ask him what it was, it didn't pertain to me, but that was cool. He said he'd just hit enough balls to loosen up his legs and arms and then go to the first tee. I know that's not good for golf-instruction publications, but a lot of what I teach is mental. I don't care what length putter you use but I want your mental putting routine to be correct."
We all want the right distance more than the right direction
"If I have a two- or three-footer that means something and the greens are really fast, someplace like Merion or Cypress Point, I get my feet really close together. I'd rather have the ball farther back in my stance than too far forward. On longer putts, I stand slightly taller and wider — taller to see the line better. We all want the right distance more than the right direction. There are people who know that and still blow it eight feet past the hole."