WHY ARE YOU STILL A HACKER?
by Lawrence Martin
Return to Lakeside Press
Step 7. Take putting seriously
If I had to pick a second feature near universal among hackers (after not
lining up shots), it is that they don't take putting seriously.
Hackers think it's not worth their earnest attention -- in contrast, say,
to the full swing, which all hackers admit is difficult to learn
and deserves much study and practice.
But consider this obvious point:
a 200 yard drive down the middle of the fairway = 1 stroke
a 2-foot putt = 1 stroke
You know that, of course. But now look at it this way. If you mishit a drive
so it lands 20, 40 or 60 yards away from your intended target, that is a recoverable
mistake; you can make it up on your next shot. Say you are on a par 4, 360-yard hole.
You aim to hit your drive 200 yards to the left side of the fairway, but instead
your drive goes 180 yards to the far right, in the rough. Well, that mistake is
largely recoverable with your second shot. Instead of a hoped for 160 yard
second shot with a 6 iron, you now have a 180 yard second shot with perhaps a 7-wood.
You really haven't lost a stroke yet, you've just made your second shot more difficult.
Good players recover from these situations all the time.
Now suppose your second shot lands 30 yards from the green instead
of on the green. Again, that mistake is recoverable with a good third shot.
From 30 yards out you could, in theory, hit your third shot close to the pin
and still make par. In fact, it is not at all unusual for the player with a weak drive
but good short game to out play the better driver whose short game is not so good.
But now let's say you are on the green in three strokes, and your putt is a 12-footer.
If you miss the putt, that stroke is not recoverable; it is lost completely,
because you were going for the hole and there is no way to "make it up."
Obviously we don't make many 12-footers, but from 12 feet away you certainly want to
be in a position to hole your second putt. Miss the second putt and that stroke
is also not recoverable, and so on. Each putt intended for the hole
is "lost" when it doesn't go in, and can't be made up.
On a par 72 course, 50% of the strokes are allotted to putts -- 2 per
hole (36 total). Most greens should be two-putted, although 3-putts are common
when you land far from the pin, particularly with undulating or heavily sloping
greens. On average, though, you should aim to make 18 or fewer putts per 9 holes.
Certainly if you three or four putt every green, you will balloon your score to
unacceptable heights. After all, the difference between 3-putting and 2-putting
every green is 18 strokes!
Understandably, you are not expected to hit your tee shot 250+ yards, or hit
a fairway shot to the green from 200+ yards away. For most amateurs -- certainly
all high handicappers - such shots are simply beyond accomplishment on
any consistent basis. But it is entirely possible for you, regardless of
handicap, to 2-putt a green once you've landed -- at least most of the time.
Of course the pros all know the importance of putting in scoring, hence the
adage "drive for show, putt for dough." The pros actually average about
29 putts per round in tournament play.
For amateurs the following adage applies: drive for ego, putt for score.
Putt well, and you will always beat the poor putter who happens to drive
the ball farther than you do.
The easiest way for the hacker/high handicapper to improve his or her score
is to learn to putt well, to avoid 3- and 4- and 5-putting most greens.
And the only way to do that is by taking putting seriously.
Let's say you keep an honest score, and it is 112 for 18 holes, or 40 over par.
Analysis of the score reveals that you 2-putted 8 greens, 3-putted 8 greens and
4-putted 2 greens, for a total putt count of 48 (43% of the score).
Now imagine you scored one putt
better on just half the greens, so that your putt total is 39. Your total
score is now 103, or 8% better! And you can achieve this sort of
improvement, because putting is much easier to learn and practice
than any other part of the game.
Here is a typical hacker scenario: Having finally reached the green on a long
par 4 hole, Susie the Hacker feels both elated and exhausted; it's taken her
6 strokes to find the green, and her ball is about 35 feet from the hole.
Now she feels the course "owes her" the hole so, without much
thought or preparation (after all, the difficult part is done with),
she strokes the putt with gusto. The ball keeps rolling past the hole and
stops 15 feet away. Her second putt again misses and goes 4 feet beyond the hole;
now she must putt slightly downhill. She hits the ball (her third putt) and it rolls two
feet past the hole. By now she is really "owed" this hole, and she rather
nonchalantly taps the ball toward the hole. And guess what? Her 2 foot putt
lips out and travels another 3 feet! But that's not her fault; she didn't spend
much time on the putt, and in any case it almost went in. Obviously,
she reasons, she could have made that fourth putt if she had really tried.
So after the fourth putt she picks up her ball and counts --- four putts!
I wish I had a nickel every time this scenario is played out on the golf course (OK,
a dollar). Sometimes it's three putts, sometimes four, sometimes five.
Always the score is not accurate, because the last missed putt is pretended
as if holed out. More important, having reached the green, and faced with a long
and difficult first putt, the hacker just doesn't take the task at hand
as seriously as she/he should.
Why don't hackers take putting more seriously?
From my position near the bottom of the amateur food chain, I see three
likely reasons. First, many hackers are used to playing "putt putt" golf on
smooth, flat and artificial greens, and don't see putting as a new skill
to be mastered. Of course, the typical real green is anything but smooth and flat.
It curves, it undulates, it has subtle slopes and "breaks" that can bedevil the
most experienced golfer. In fact, putting is not easy; it
takes skill and that skill can only come from practice and experience. However,
it does not take athletic prowess or the swing of a Tiger Woods, so it is
The second reason is the amateur's emphasis on learning to drive the ball.
Go to any driving range and you'll see people banging ball after ball with their
driver or 3 wood or a long iron. Even though everyone knows 1 putt = 1 stroke,
emphasis in practice is invariably on the drive or long ball, not on putting
(or any of the short game, for that matter).
There are dozens of drills for learning to putt, but it is safe to say most
hackers have never practiced them. You'll see far fewer people putting at the
range than banging a bucket of balls (assuming there is a decent putting green,
and often there isn't). Furthermore, when people do practice putting,
there is no method; they just plop a few balls down and putt away.
No specific drill, no routine to hone their skills.
The third reason is an off-shoot of number 2: pros rarely teach or emphasize putting,
because teaching time is necessarily spent on learning to hit the ball in the air. Most
golf instruction is oriented toward hitting the ball, with very little
emphasis on scoring. But that's what putting (and the short game) is all about.
Furthermore, it is easy to putt the ball, just difficult to putt it well.
Just about everyone can putt out in 3 or 4 strokes.
But not everyone can hit a drive, or a fairway shot, or a pitch from 100
yards to the green. Those shots have to be taught before putting, or the rank amateur
will never get to the green. So, because of time factors and lack of
emphasis on scoring, the pros don't emphasize putting, even though it is
almost half the game.
Putting is difficult
Putting is difficult, no doubt about it. It requires an even tempo.
It requires "reading" the break in the green and hitting the ball the
right distance to account for the break. At the highest level of play, it even requires
knowing which way the grass is growing. Most importantly, it requires touch or "feel"
for the green that can only come from practice, practice, practice.
But the good news is that putting requires no physical strength beyong swinging
your arms a short distance; anyone who can swing a club can become a good putter.
That means, in theory, that an elderly person who can't hit a driver more than 125
yards can learn to putt as well as any good golfer. Unless you suffer from some
nervous disorder that prevents a smooth pendulum swing, YOU CAN LEARN TO
PUTT WELL AND LOWER YOUR SCORE.
Chances are, you could lower your score quicker by practicing putting than by
practicing any other shot. Here's what I recommend.
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR TAKING PUTTING SERIOUSLY
- First, get yourself a good putter. Try out several in the store. Be selective and
choosy. Most putters vary in length from 33 to 35 inches; the right length is up
to you ("standard" length is 35 inches; the 5-foot, shoulder high putters you
sometimes see on pro tour are not ordinarily used by amateurs.)
Don't skimp on the putter; it is not unusual to pay $80-$100 for a good one;
remember, you'll be hitting about half your strokes with this one club.
- Take at least one putting lesson from a pro (preferably more than one if
possible). A good pro will work with your own comfortable set up to achieve an
even-tempered swing, the essence of good putting.
- Read about putting, to get a feel for how the pros approach the subject and
to glean whatever pearls you can. See
The 19th Hole,
Ben Crenshaw Tips, and
Golf Tips [Short Game] for some of the tips
on the internet. Also, there are over two dozen books in print on
putting alone! You won't learn to putt from any book or internet site, but you
will gain an understanding of what's important and what's not. For beginners,
read the chapter on putting in
Golf for Dummies, by Gary McCord. This is an excellent overview of the
topic, with advice from one of golf's most colorful pros. Another book focused
on the high handicapper is
Putting Secrets for the Weekend Golfer, by Steve Page. The publisher
states the book is "tailor made for weekend golfers -- those who usually
shoot more than 90 for a round -- showing them how to knock five strokes
off their game." In fact, all such claims are only hype unless you follow the
instructions closely, which invariably comes down to PRACTICE. Finally, if
you really want to immerse yourself in the subject, then read
Putt Like the Pros: Dave Pelz's Scientific Way to Improving Your Stroke,
Reading Greens, and Lowering Your Score, by Dave Pelz. This
book proably contains more information than you need or want to know, but keep
it in mind when you are ready for the highest level of instruction.
- Before every round, practice putting for at least 5-10 minutes. Start with
putts from 6 feet away - called by some pros the most important stroke in golf. The
tournament pros sink 50% of their 6-foot putts. Line up 10 balls around the hole and
see how many you sink. Then practice sinking 12 foot putts. Finally, practice a
few lag putts (very long putts that lag to the hole).
- A dirty ball won't roll as true as a clean one. Do what the pros do. Pick up your
ball on the green after you've marked it. Clean the ball or at least get rid of
clinging dirt, and replace it. Make sure to remove your marker before hitting the ball.
- When playing a round, get into the habit of studying the putt before you reach
the green, i.e., when you're approaching the green but not yet on it (usually coming
from the fairway). Look at your line from this distance, examine the
slope and break, see if you can determine which way the grass is growing.
Then on the green examine the line more closely.
- Read the line of the putt by standing some distance behind the ball.
It is usually not necessary to walk to the far side of the cup to also read
the line, but do what it takes so that you have a feel for where the ball is going to go.
And remember that your feet are lined up parallel to the target line (assuming you are
square to the target line). Don't make the mistake of lining your feet up with the target
line, because the ball is always several inches in front of your feet. If
your feet are lined up to the target line, the ball will necessarily be right of
the target line.
- When putting from long distances (e.g., more than 10 feet),
recognize that DISTANCE IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN LINE. This means that
it is more important that you stroke the ball so it goes the correct distance,
than that it follow the proper line.
This is because your ball will usually not drift more than a few
feet to either side of the hole if you've lined it up and read the proper break.
But the strenght with which you stroke the ball can send it many feet short or long
of the cup. We've all had the experience of hitting
a 10 foot or longer putt that misses the cup by millimeters to one side,
only to roll another 8 to 10 feet beyond. It the ball stopped inches from the cup
(proper distance), the second putt would be a cinch.
So again, when putting think: DISTANCE IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN LINE.
DISTANCE IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN LINE. DISTANCE IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN LINE.
As a practical rule, you should aim your ball so that if it misses the cup it travels
no more than 18 inches past it.
- Unless you are in match play and your opponent concedes the putt, you
should always putt out. This (to me) is one the biggest mistakes hackers make.
Even pros miss some 2-footers. You should always putt out
to establish confidence in your putting ability. (Conversely, nothing erodes
confidence like missing a 2-footer, but it happens.)
- Learn putting etiquette, such as don't walk in front of another player's line.
You can best learn this by observing and playing with more experienced golfers.
- For every round, record the number of putts you shoot per hole. You
should aim for 36 putts or less per 18 holes.
Note that using your putter OFF the green does not count as a
putt. Only putts stroked on the green count as putts.
- Above all, TAKE PUTTING SERIOUSLY. IT IS CLOSE TO HALF YOUR SCORE. Once you begin
to take putting seriously, you will improve.