Before honing your putting on the practice green, you first need to decide what it is that needs to improve. Happily, when putting, as with every other shot in golf, you only have to get two things right – line and length. Hit your putts at the correct pace, on the right line, and you will take no more than 18 a round (assuming you don’t chip in from off the green). Unhappily, this level of golfing perfection has never been achieved, even by the world’s best, and one of the most famous quotes in golf comes from Bobby Locke, who said: ‘Drive for show and putt for dough.’ It is no coincidence that Locke, one of the greatest wielders of a flat stick, also said: ‘Among golfers the putter is usually known as the payoff club and how right that is. Putting is in fact a game in itself.’ It is also an art that looks deceptively simple – even your granny will have a go on the crazy golf at the seaside – but it is infuriatingly difficult to do well. However, there are several ways in which you can dramatically improve your putting and, equally dramatically, improve your scores.
More important than driving, iron, wedge or bunker play, putting is, in fact, the bedrock of the game. In all likelihood you will hit twice as many putts as tee shots in a round but how often do you practice this essential skill? First, you need a little bit of analysis. Over your next three rounds, alongside your score for each hole, write in smaller letters the number of putts you take. Thirty-six would be reasonable; 32-35 good and below 32 is excellent. Also, if you can, make a mental note of the ones you missed; were they on the high or low side of the hole, short or long? If you are comparable to 90% of golfers, you will find the great majority on the wrong line finish underneath the hole because you haven’t allowed enough break, and the rest never get as far as the cup. The game has been played for over 650 years and we’re still waiting for the putt to drop that doesn’t reach the hole. With this in mind you might assume that every golfer would make a conscious effort to make sure the ball reaches, or passes, the hole but we literally and metaphorically fall short time and time again.
Why should this be? Simple answer: Fear. We can see what lies between us and the hole but the far side of the cup is unknown territory. Also, seeing your ball travel towards the hole, even if it comes up short, is reassuring. Watching it go beyond, and ever further from the hole, is worrying. It’s why you often see golfers look genuinely upset and start shouting: ‘Whoa!’ as their ball goes past. However, if your ball goes past the hole, you can at least see how it behaves, what break it takes, and use that information to hole the one coming back. One thought that might help is simply acknowledging, as you stand over the ball, that there are only two possible outcomes – you’re either going to hole it, or miss. That’s it. Accept the possibility that you might not make the putt and you could be pleasantly surprised at how this frees your arms to make a smoother stroke.
How to practice putting at home
If you can’t get to a proper practice green, any floor space of at least six to eight feet on a carpet (but not shag pile) will do. The benefit of putting on a carpet is that it will be slower than a well-maintained green, so encourages a more positive stroke. If you don’t have a practice aid that returns the ball to you, use a glass or cup laying on its side. Do not become fixed on holing every putt; what you’re initially trying to do is groove a smooth, repeating stroke. Set yourself small challenges. Hit 10 putts, for example, with no ambition except to get all 10 past your target. As you improve, tell yourself to hole three consecutive putts before you can finish.
How to practice on a putting green
If you can, make a trip to the course just to practice your putting. Start with one ball only – you so often see people on putting greens hit three balls to the same target but when you’re playing you don’t get two extra chances if you screw the first one up, so introduce a note of reality by trying to replicate what actually happens on the course, where you only get one opportunity.
To begin, concentrate on length, as leaving putts short is the most common fault among amateurs.
Again, set yourself small challenges or targets to introduce an element of jeopardy. Phil Mickelson famously used to place a number of balls in a three-foot wide radius around the hole and set himself a target of how many he had to hole before he could finish – in his case 50 or 100. Miss one and he’d start again. Do the same thing but with only five balls, for example. You will be surprised, once you’ve holed four, at how much tension you will feel standing over the fifth, which is a good thing as it replicates the anxiety you feel on the course.
Get a friend to join you and set up competitions between you. For example, both putt to the same hole, nearest the cup gets one point, a holed putt is worth three points. The winner of the first round chooses which hole to aim at for the next. The first to reach a specified target, say 20 points, is the winner.
How to stop leaving short putts
First, look at a spot 12-18 inches beyond the hole and aim for that, not the hole itself.
Second, make sure that your backswing and follow-through are the same length. To make the ball roll further, think about increasing the length of both, rather than speeding up your stroke. Trying to hit the ball with a faster motion isn’t a recipe for success. Dave Stockton, one of the best putting teachers around, said that you should imagine your putter head as a paintbrush, so that you stroke through the ball, and not the head of a hammer, with which you’re trying to tap in a nail .
Third, maintain a constant pace throughout the stroke.
Fourth, loosen your grip. On a scale of 0-10, if you squeeze the putter handle as if you’re trying to strangle it to death, that would be 10, while holding it so loose that it slips out of your hand would be 0. Aim for a grip pressure around 4-5. One mental image is to imagine you’re holding a small bird firmly enough that it cannot escape but not so much as to crush it. Tension is the enemy of a smooth stroke and gripping the club too tightly restricts a free swinging motion.
Fifth, and probably most important of all, don’t look up too soon. This is probably the most common cause of poor putting – in their anxiety to see where the ball is going, the golfer looks toward the hole before they have finished their stroke. On short putts, listen to hear the sound of the ball falling into the cup before moving your head (you might wait a long time, though). On longer putts, count to two, or tell yourself to look at the patch of grass where the ball was, before looking up to see where it’s going.
You are going to three-putt during your golfing life. It is much better to do so by knocking the first one past the hole than it is by leaving it woefully short. Consistently under-hitting putts eats away at your soul.
Missing on the low side
This is far less of a problem than leaving putts short but nonetheless, if it’s something that afflicts you consistently, remedial steps need to be taken. Most of the putts you face will have some degree of slope or incline between you and the hole, causing the ball to break in that direction. Start by checking your alignment. Use the manufacturer’s name, or a line that you put on the ball yourself as your guide. Point this towards the side of the hole that has the slope. All putts are straight, they’re just not all in a straight line towards the cup; they can be inches, or even feet, towards one side or the other, so that’s where you aim. Missing on the high side – that is, allowing too much break – is also called missing on the pro side because the best golfers are more likely to allow too much than too little.
A word on plumb bobbing. Don’t bother. This is where you see someone standing behind their ball, holding their putter in front of them like a plumb bob to try and gauge the degree of slope. Very few tour pros do this nowadays because they have learned, over decades of experience, that it’s a waste of time.
How to read greens
Start before you get there. From 20-40 yards away just look at the general topography; is the green higher on one side than another, or is the back more elevated than the front? Once you reach the green, have a look from both sides of the flagstick. Don’t get too hung up on reading the speed of the green. If golf is your livelihood, by all means pace around like a caged tiger for several minutes, studying the putt from every angle but as a handicap golfer all that does is make your playing partners furious. If you’re not the first to play, use the time those playing partners spend over their putts to study your own so that when it’s your turn, you’re ready to go. As a general rule, what you see when you first study your putt is probably what there is, so trust your judgment and don’t spend an eternity second-guessing yourself. Is your putt into the grain or down grain? You can often tell by looking at the way the green has been cut, if the grass looks shiny as it runs towards the hole, your putt is down grain and will be a bit quicker. That’s all you really need to know.
Practice does not make perfect but it can make for dramatic improvement. Know what it is you want to work on (line or length) and focus on that. Practice with a purpose; set yourself goals and targets so that the outcome of each stroke matters. Relax your grip pressure, have the same length backswing as follow-through and, most important of all, don’t look up too soon.