Absolutely Great Putting

The Search for the “Right” Stroke

March 19, 2006

Until Tiger came on the scene, Jack Nicklaus was widely considered to be the best putter of all time, at least in terms of making a putt when it is needed the most. Nicklaus’ unique crouching stance, open alignment, and the resulting stroke make one thing clear about putting—it is not just about having “textbook” mechanics. No doubt Nicklaus’ putting stroke managed to satisfy the laws of physics or he would not have dropped so many putts during his incredible career; but what set Jack apart was his ability to make a great stroke despite the gremlins of fear and all the other demons of distraction that whisper in our ears when we pick up the flat stick.

Having said that, people who do not use the putter like the tool of a cold-blooded killer, who are not hard-wired with a demeanor as aloof as my laptop—in other words, those of us who are not Jack or Tiger — do well to develop solid putting mechanics.

greatputting1The problem is that there is a bewildering set of options and choices; there are great instructors teaching different methods; there are at least three different categories of putters when it comes to the length of the club; there are a million different ways to grip the club, with names like reverse overlap and The Claw, and postures to choose from; and club designs — everything from a subtle, old-fashioned blade to these recent gargantuan potato mashers that would probably pick up 135 channels if you stuck it in your roof.

How can there be anything absolute in the tangled jungle of putting relativism? How do we know what’s the right thing to do when there are so many options?

For instance, in recent years, great players and their coaches have generally talked about “releasing” the putter. This means they let the putter swing in a soft little arc through the ball, the clubface opening slightly as the club goes back, closing slightly in the follow-through like a miniature swinging gate. This is different from the traditional concept of swinging the putter on a straight line, ideally keeping the face square to the target line at all times. Which way is the right way?

From my perspective, the way to sort out all these chaotic variables is the same whether we are talking about putting, chipping, pitching, or full swings. First of all, there are a few things that are certain: it sounds silly, but a good putt is one that goes in the hole; to go in the hole, a ball must travel a path with a good combination of direction and speed. So, for a golfer to be a good putter, he must consistently stroke the ball with a combination of complimentary direction and speed. Beyond the actual physics of the putter-face striking the ball, this is as close as we get to an absolute in putting: a good putt is one that goes in the hole, and a good putter is someone who manipulates the direction and speed of a ball to make it go in the hole.

The rest is not as important. I have told my students in the past I do not care if they stand on their heads as long as they make putts. One of the secrets of good putting is to keep mental focus on the absolute goal, to make the putt, without letting the method be a distraction. Good putters tend to have a mindset of where, not how.

But that does not help us sort out all the other variables: the different grips, setups, clubs, and styles. These things are the relative part of putting, meaning they can be different for different golfers.

Here is what I think about the relative parts of golf: the relative parts of the swing will help you achieve success in the absolute parts when they (the relative parts) fit together. Say what?

greatputting2What I mean is that certain grips will work better with certain putters, which work better with certain postures, which work better with certain swing types, and so on. From a mechanical standpoint, golfers tend to struggle when their method looks like a collage: they take a posture that does not fit with their method of swinging, which does not fit their grip, which does not fit their putter, which does not fit the kind of greens they play on. Maybe a player struggles because he tries to turn his shoulders on a plane that is too steep for the posture he has chosen (which usually leads to head movement); maybe he tries to swing the putter in an arc that does not match the angle of the shaft in the putter he has chosen. The trick is to make the pieces fit together, usually with the guidance of a teaching professional.

In other words, in putting (and really in all kinds of shots), there are a lot of ways to get the job done. There really is no “right and wrong” when it comes to method, but people tend to experience more success when their method is made up of parts that work together in harmony.

People tend to putt more like Jack and Tiger when they putt more like Jack and Tiger; they stay focused on the absolute goal—to make the putt. They make all the other, less important, pieces fit together like a complete set of tools to help them achieve the goal. And they spend countless hours on the practice green getting the repetitions that build feel and confidence.


  1. Shawana Cazenave says:

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    • John Rogers says:

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