by Lawrence Martin
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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 eminently learnable.

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.


  • 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.

Table of Contents/ Go to Preface/ Go to Step 1/ Go to Step 2/ Go to Step 3/ Go to Step 4/ Go to Step 5/ Go to Step 6/ Go to Step 7/ Go to Step 8/ Go to Step 9/ Front Nine Quiz/ Back Nine Quiz/ Golf Bibliography/ Internet Sites Listed in Book
Lawrence Martin
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