Putting in Perspective

The Often-Neglected Key to Good Golf

October 30, 2009

The putting stroke is the simplest of the swings we use in the game of golf, and it probably should be the starting point, the foundation on which a golfer builds his game. It is also true that the target in putting is a sassy, sometimes inaccessible hole in the ground which starts at 4 ¼ inches and seems to shrink as the ball gets closer, which means putting is difficult even if the stroke is relatively easy. On top of that, the putter will be the most used (and abused) stick in the bag, with the ability to determine on its own which way our scores go. So, why do we tend to neglect putting in lessons, and in our practice sessions?

What makes the putting stroke a little easier to learn is the fact that there are fewer variables for us to control and therefore fewer parts to the swing. In putting we lose a dimension—there is no vertical trajectory for the ball (until it hits a cursed ball mark someone left unfixed). The ball obviously moves up and down with the terrain, but there is no vertical element that we have to create. It is also very rare that achieving enough power is a concern in putting.

The fact that we do not have to get the ball in the air, or hit it a mile while putting means we can develop a stroke with little or no weight shift, a smaller turn of the torso, almost no power boost from the hands and wrists–and we can use a shorter, more controllable club while doing it.

In this most rudimentary stroke we can start to sense the tempo, rhythm, balance, and feel of golf, and even get a head start on things like grip and posture (which generally do change somewhat with the other swings we use). In this sense the putting stroke is the foundation of more elaborate and powerful swings to follow. Most of the physics of the full swing are already present in putting—the putter swings in a plane, which guides the club head through the ball on a given path; the angle of the clubface is crucial; the accuracy of contact on the “sweet spot” will help determine distance and feel, and so forth.

So why do beginners rarely start by learning to putt?

In the world of golf-infancy there are a few reasons why we often skip over the most basic and simple stroke. When people have limited resources and can take only a limited number of golf lessons, we sometimes have to get started right away with the difficult swings and shots, like getting that ignorant ball off the ground and moving farther than we could kick it.

I see over 100 people for lessons during a typical golf season. Most of these will take multiple lessons, like my “Beginner’s Series” of seven lessons. The problem is that the full-swing in golf takes approximately a lifetime to learn. It comes as naturally to most of us as telekinesis.

The answer to this problem, of course, is for people to direct-deposit their paychecks to their local teaching professional’s bank accounts, take at least one lesson per week for the first three years they play golf, and then have a monthly “checkup” forever after. Under those circumstances I would try to convince all beginners to start with putting and then proceed to chipping, and so on, because there will be plenty of time to work on the more difficult shots.

But even in that perfect world, there is at least one more reason why we tend to overlook putting. Human nature.

From the days when we first realize with great amusement that we can affect things in our environment by swatting the dangly, spinning, colorful things above our cribs, most of us never give up the desire to whack stuff. What the word “golf” conjures in most minds (other than more four-letter words) is a fluid and beautiful motion that somehow unleashes a disproportional amount of power onto a hapless little ball. A well-struck ball, to those who can admit it, induces a guttural, almost impish desire to giggle as if we just took revenge on a cosmos that disallows our own ability to rise and fly on a gorgeous arc. We love to punish the little orb for the sin of gravity perpetrated against us by the big orb. We love to hit things, and we prefer to hit them hard.

Then there is putting. That frustrating little world where I have to count two strokes to cover a foot and a half of turf when I yip the first one. No justice here. No exercise of brute force. No revenge against the cosmos. It would be more fun if the hole was the wrong shape, and too small for the ball—then I could use my putter to beat the ball into the hole, and into submission.

So, the truth is that most people arrive at my driving range armed with a large desire to hit big shots, but with a modest checking account. These are powerful market forces I face as a teaching professional. We do tend to learn (and teach) golf upside-down—it becomes a habit to focus first, and most often, on the full swing and full shots. Even in my Beginner’s Series of lessons, putting usually comes on the third day, with chipping and pitching after that.

Even well-established golfers tend to neglect putting when it comes to practice time. The putter typically accounts for a third or more of our strokes in a round of golf; yet, how many of us spend a third of our practice time on the putting green (and even if we do, is it actually focused practice, or do we absently slap putts at the various holes)?

It takes a special person to stand on the green for hours and repetitively make hundreds of three, four, and five-footers—the shots that will likely determine how his next round will go. We want to be able to take those short putts for granted, which is why we walk up to them so slowly during a round–waiting for, praying for, and sometimes even asking for our playing partners to utter the most beautiful words in golf, “That’s good.”

Why spend time on something as unimpressive as lightly tapping a ball so that it can lamely cross a yard of smooth grass and slink cowardly into a hole with only the muted rattle of plastic to announce the stunning and historic achievement? Where is the driving range ball-picking cart? Hitting that thing is more fun than a carnival game, and it makes a lot of noise. My big-headed driver makes a lot of noise too, like an aluminum baseball bat, but the ball goes almost three times as far as a home run when I crank one out of the park. Now that is good sport!

But maybe it is not good golf. At some point golfers and teachers come to realize that golf is not purely a game of big swings and impressive, towering shots. It is a game of scoring. Even if we learn the game backwards by passing over the most basic of strokes, we must someday come shuffling home, no longer prodigal, and humbly pay our dues on the putting green. Eat our peas to earn our ice cream.

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