Whoever said you wouldn't need to apply knowledge of parabolas outside math class sure looks silly now.
Greens come in all shapes and sizes, and we love them all the same, but some are more work than others. Mastering how to compensate for their divots and slopes, as well as the forces that be, is one of the most integral and impressive facets of being a good putter.
Those forces include gravity, momentum, force, and friction.
The shapeliness of the surface of the green comes from topographical features like:
- Drainage infrastructure
- Water flow
- Grass formation
- Sand surface
- Bunker shape
- And foot traffic.
These conditions create slopes. When natural forces and natural terrain collide, we're met with breaking putts as a result. This means the ball veers off the predicted pathline (the baseline), which would be a direct line from the tee to the hole. Most golf greens are not perfectly flat, and, quite frankly, if they were, golf would be no fun.
Within these landscape 'imperfections,' there are a variety of variables playing a role in how the ball moves.
Fast Green vs. Slow Green
When referring to a "fast green" what is meant is there's little surface friction or resistance working against the ball by things like too-long grass (blades left uncut too long and have become directional and uneven), and the lawn is instead firm, dry, uniform, and smooth.
If the grass isn't well kept it can direct and push the ball slightly off course. Balls will roll easily and quickly along a fast green, and that must be taken into account when deciding how forcefully to hit the ball.
Slow greens will have surface flaws that can slow or move the ball off the path and generally fight the motion of the ball. The hole may be situated in a spot that requires the ball to roll against the grain of the grass, for example.
Gravity plays the largest role as slopes happen on the up-and-down axis where gravity also has dominion; what goes up must aggressively come down. This phenomenon, in relation to a moving spinning ball, is called "precession". Gravity is a powerful force, both pushing and pulling (to oversimplify) the ball downwards to the lowest point of the sloped ground. It's best to account for it and work with it.
Force of impact is what pushes the ball forward on its course. It's the transference of energy from the stroke hit to the ball.
Momentum is the continued forward movement gathered from the earlier impact force.
Friction is the resistant force pushing against the ball backward on its course, impeding its goal. Time & natural loss of momentum, resulting in deceleration, would technically fall into this category too.
Things that will cause more deviation of the neutral baseline (break) include:
- Fast green
- Slow ball/gentle hit
- Downhill decline
- Longer putts.
Since fast greens are an easier ride, putters will hit the ball lighter. When the ball is moving more casually towards the hole, it's more vulnerable to succumb to the strong force of gravity. The natural fall line of the slope will take over and carry the ball down the literal path of least resistance.
On the flipside, it may seem that downhill putts would result in faster moving balls, and therefore less break - but it is not so. The ball actually moves slower on downhill putts since it's hit with less force, and most of its journey is in the deceleration phase where momentum gently carries it along, helped by gravity, which soon takes over. Declining slopes can cause 3-4x the break as uphill putts. The longer the putt is, the longer gravity has to influence the ball.
How to Putt a Breaking Hole
Reading breaks on the green isn't an easy skill to learn. Embracing and compensating for the variables is going to take trial and error, a fundamental understanding of why breaks occur, and maybe even quadratic functions.
In a breaking putt, because of the natural slowing of the ball over the distance/length of the putt (so nearing the hole) and the dominance of gravity increasing in that phase, you'll always find more severe breaking closer to the hole than the tee (a crooked parabola).
This refers to the most severe/furthest part of the curve deviating from the baseline to the right or left - or the 'peak' of the parabola-type curve.
The baseline refers to the direct straight line from the tee to the hole that would be taken if the terrain was perfectly flat.
The aim point is where the learning comes in. This is the compensation point that's calculated based on the curvature formula. Picking a point at which to aim (other than the hole) feels a bit bizarre at first, especially since there's no visual cue, but it's essential in getting the ball into the hole.
Taking into account the natural fall line of the gravitational slope, the terrain's surface texture, and the steepness of the conditions, you'll have to find a spot above the apex to aim at in hopes the ball rides the correct curve-line as gravity/factors take over.
This aim point must become your hole. Do not look at the hole, do not think about the hole. Find the apex with your best prediction, and then aim slightly above it. Position your body in line with this new aim point and path, using the help of tools like the Pro Path Putting Mirror, and commit to that destination. Trial and error will help you correct force and path until it turns into the hole successfully.
A great way to learn this technique is to use pathway gates, like the ones that come with the Pro Path Putting Mirror, to line up the course you're wanting/predicting the ball will take and to help visualize that new aim point. Having a visual cue to aim at and send the ball through, results in more accuracy and gives detailed feedback for rerouting.
Compensating for invisible forces will likely take some practice but the process is made so much easier with training and drill tools like the Pro Path Putting Mirror and its practice gates. Find them here!