Golf is a game of sight, sound and feel, and feel is perhaps the most important factor, particularly in putting. The great putters through the years often have used different mechanics, but they all had great feel.
To improve your feel you must develop a clear understanding of pace in your putting stroke, you must have great patience and you must react to your target. Incorporating these traits into your game on the greens not only will help you make more putts but will help you keep your emotional equilibrium when you miss them. Knowledge builds confidence, and confidence breeds composure.
You certainly cannot ignore good mechanics. You must ingrain a fundamentally sound stroke. At the end of this article I outline what I believe are the fundamentals of grip, setup and stroke in putting, and I urge you to practice them. But, at the same time, you must incorporate the sense of feel for motion that will allow you to use these mechanics to best advantage.
It’s like a person learning to dance, he may know the steps, but he can dance until he develops a sense of motion and rhythm so he can time those steps to the music without having to think about them.
Good feel on the greens comes from a properly developed sense of pace. Basically, this means you stoke as a pendulum action in which you allow the putter to swing back far enough so you can accelerate through the ball toward the hole without forcing the action of the stroke.
The striking action comes from the stroke. Most players miss putts because they cut off the backswing and then force the action of the forward swing. Most players’ three-putt because they don’t have any sense of the pace, the length, speed and rhythm of the stroke, needed to get the ball to the hole. They either accelerate too fast through the ball or strike it too hard, or they decelerate on the forward swing and come up short.
The reason usually is that they are thinking too much about mechanics and the line of the putt rather than the distance to the hole and the speed needed to get the ball there. When I’m putting my best I’m thinking only of motion, how much motion, how much acceleration through the ball I need to get the ball to the hole. I’m not thinking of mechanics. Hopefully I’ve ingrained my mechanical stroke on the practice green. I’m only concerned about first the direction of putt and, most important, the distance and the speed needed. Then the stroke is automatic. If I try to make the stroke happen, I don’t putt very well. It’s tough to think of mechanics and feel at the same time. I may make a perfect stroke, right on line, but I’ve lost the feel for the amount of acceleration I need to get the ball the target.
a. Keep Grip Pressure Light and Constant
You develop a sense of pace by starting with a light grip pressure. As I indicate in the section on mechanics, you should have a little more pressure in the last three fingers of the left hand. Your grip pressure should be as light as possible while still allowing you to control the force of the strike you want to make.
As your stroke becomes longer, you instinctively will apply more pressure to control it. And the slower the green, of course, the more pressure must be applied. But no matter how light or how tight your grip pressure, it should remain constant throughout the stroke. Most putts are ruined because the grip pressure changes, often quite violently, during the stroke. This forces the blade out of the square position and off the line, and you have no chance of making the putt.
How important is it to grip the putter lightly? South Africa’s Bobby Locke, who won four British Open titles and briefly dominated the U.S. tour in the late 1940’s, was the greatest putter I’ve ever seen, and I doubt that anybody has ever held the putter with a lighter grip than he did. Locke never attacked the ball aggressively. He simply applied just enough pressure to control the force of his stroke. I didn’t like his mechanics - he seemed to hook every putt, as he did all his full shots – but his sense of feel, of pace, for all putts was fantastic, no matter how far he was from the hole. He probably made more long putts and left himself more tap-ins than any other player I’ve seen.
Lightness and lack of tension in your hands help you better feel the weight of the putter and get a kinesthetic sense for the stroke you want to make. I also find it helpful to feel the firmness and texture of the putting surface in my feet when I walk on the green. It helps me judge the pace I will need for my stroke.
b. Build Pace From Close to Hole
You develop a feel for motion and pace by beginning with a short putt, no more than 18 inches, on the practice green. Little success patterns build bigger ones. Start with a flat putt on a relatively fast green if possible. On an uphill putt, you’ll tend to jerk or force the stroke.
Try to get the feeling of accelerating the club through the ball just enough to make the ball die around the hole. To repeat what I said earlier, the striking action comes from the stroke. As the putt becomes longer, the stroke becomes longer, and the putterhead accelerates through the ball farther and faster. Obviously, you will not stroke through the ball nearly as far or as fast for a four-foot putt as you will for a 40-footer.
Learn to pace the stroke for the short putt, allowing it to happen without overcontrolling it, then move gradually backward until you have taught your muscles to feel the pace and the force necessary for putts of any length. To help develop this sense of feel for distance, putt several balls the same distance without looking up, then move to another spot and do the same.
It’s important in your learning process to feel the weight of the putter swinging back and forward. It helps you complete your backstroke and let the forward stroke happen without forcing it. A drill I find helpful is to take a putter with a heavier head and just let the weight of the putter swing it. Don’t try to handle it or overcontrol it while stroking practice putts. After you’ve learned the feeling of the putterhead swinging, go back to your regular club.
c. React to The Target
Pace, then, is the feel for acceleration related to distance. Once you have developed your sense of pace, put it to work on the course by allowing yourself to react instinctively to the target. As you prepare to putt, look at the hole, pick out the line on which you want the ball to travel and gauge the distance. Make a practice stroke or two to get the feel for the amount of acceleration you need to stroke the ball that far. Then keep the target in your mind’s eye as you make the stroke. Actually visualize the ball rolling in the hole.
If you have prepared yourself properly, your mind will direct your muscles to make a stroke of the proper length and speed, as long as you let it happen. But without that target reference, your mind has nowhere to direct the muscles. When you forget the target, you miss the short putts and turn the long ones into three putts.
The rewards for developing a well-paced stroke and relating it to the target are great. On long putts you will leave the ball close to the hole more often and have only tap-ins left instead of those pressure-building three- and four-footers. Unless my nerves are shaky and I’m letting my emotions or faulty thought processes interfere with my stroke, I never feel I’m going to three-putt a green. You can build that same confidence.
Also, you’ll find yourself making more putts, both long and short. There will be less tendency to jerk the putterhead off line and alter its facing. You’ll be able to judge breaking putts of any length better when you know your ball will be rolling at a consistent speed every time. Finally, I agree with Bobby Jones, who said that in the pace of the stroke is right and the speed of the ball is correct, the ball has a chance to go in the hole from the left, the right, the front and the back. But if the pace of the stroke is aggressive and the ball is moving so fast it must hit dead – center at the back of the hole, your chances of making the putt are not very good.
d. Patience keeps you on a steady course
No matter how well you stroke the ball, you are going to miss putts. Even the professionals miss a lot of six-foot putts and more than half of their 10-footers. The putting green is not a perfect surface and you are not a machine. This is where patience becomes so vital. If you are stroking your putts well and have the ball around the hole most of the time, don’t get discouraged because a couple of six-footers lip out.
I don’t think you can force things on the green. Some players I know feel they can make every putt they hit. I suspect Ben Crenshaw has that attitude, for example. That’s fine, but it’s not very realistic. It’s more important to get those long putts close. Don’t feel you have to make every putt 10 feet or under. Instead, take a calm approach and have the trust and patience to keep making the best stroke you can without overcontrolling the club. If you miss, go to the next hole, try to hit a good shot and get within range again, then make a good stroke. In other words, strive for perfection but never expect it.
And never second-guss yourself when putting. You can’t get over a putt and then decide that maybe you don’t have the correct line after all. All your mental effort should be made while you are away from the ball, assessing the putt. Once you get to the ball, simply aim the putter on the line you’ve picked out and concentrate on the target and the pace of your stroke.
You can’t become a good putter just by reading and thinking about it, of course. You have to do something about it, which means a lot of practice and a firm control of your mental processes so you can apply your skills on the course. If you do that, you will progress with this concept of pace and the mental approach that lets it happen, and more and more of your putts will start to fall.