Even the Best…
Scott Hoch, by every measure, had a very successful PGA Tour career. He won 23 times, was ranked as high as 11th in the world at one point, and competed for the U.S. on the Ryder Cup team twice.
But despite these lofty statistics, what he will unfortunately always be remembered for is missing a two-foot putt that cost him the 1989 Masters. On the first playoff hole against Nick Faldo, Hoch could have won his first Major by brushing in what most weekend golfers would consider a “gimme.” Instead, the crushing pressure of the moment proved to be too much, and Hoch’s two-footer missed wide left. Faldo went on to win the playoff, and his first Masters, on the next hole.
Augusta National was also the scene for another infamous Major loss that was caused by a missed short putt. This one occurred over 40 years earlier. In 1946, Ben Hogan had come from behind in the final round of The Masters to catch the tournament leader, the relatively unknown Herman Keiser. After missing his 12-foot birdie attempt on the 18th hole to win outright, Hogan could have gotten into a playoff with Keiser by tapping in his short 3-foot comeback putt for par. It wasn’t to be. The reason we even know who Herman Keiser is today is because Hogan missed that short putt, vaulting Keiser from near obscurity into the annals of golf history with his unexpected win.
There are countless other similar examples as well. The stories of embarrassing and devastating missed short putts are both fascinating and heartbreaking.
There are a few takeaways from all of these stories. The first is that anyone, even the best golfers in the world, can occasionally botch one of these can’t-miss short putts. The second takeaway is that you should understand and appreciate the affect that jumpy nerves can have on your ability to perform under pressure. These PGA stars would normally make those types of putts 99 out of 100 times, but with everything on the line and when the lights are the brightest, execution can be impacted.
And the third takeaway (the most obvious one) is that holing these short, makeable putts is really important, not just for PGA Tour players, but for amateurs of all handicap levels trying to save strokes during a normal weekend round. Missing 3- footers isn’t going to cost you a Masters, but it could cost you a club championship, a win in your annual scramble event, or a buck in your Saturday morning $3 Nassau. Or it could just be the difference between finally breaking 100, or shooting in the high 80’s instead of the low 90’s.
That is the subject of this chapter: how to sink the short putts that you are expected to make.
But First, Some Statistics
We’ve already discussed the frequency with which golfers of different handicap levels are able to make various lengths of putts. But the table below lays it out clearly, showing the actual probabilities that golfers have of making various putts, based upon both the length of the putt and on the skill level of the golfer. The first two rows are the primary ones that we will focus on in this chapter, the short putts that golfers expect to make or at least have a reasonable probability to make.
Distance Tour Pro Scratch Golfer 90’s Shooter 3’ 99% 93% 84% 5’ 77% 66% 50% 8’ 50% 41% 27% 10’ 40% 33% 20% 20’ 15% 14% 6%
There are a few interesting observations and conclusions that can be made from these percentages:
- Once high handicappers are outside of 5 feet, they have a great deal of difficulty in 1-putting. In fact, from just 8 feet, 90’s shooters will miss the putt more than 7 out of 10 times.
- Until 90’s shooters get to within 5 feet of the hole, they will miss about 73 - 94% of their second putts.
- With only a 6% make rate, high handicappers should shift their focus once they get out to 20 feet from trying to make the putt to trying to lag the ball as close as possible.
- To reiterate: the name of the putting game for high handicappers is to get within 5 feet of the hole, and then to work hard at sinking a higher percentage of those short ones.
On putts of five feet or less, there are several keys to keep in mind if you hope to start increasing your make percentage.
- Practice repetition
We’ve made the point previously, but there’s no substitution for practice when it comes to getting better at sinking short putts. Fortunately, these types of putts are easy to work on. You don’t even need to be out on your course’s practice putting green to improve. You can work on your short putting skills right on the carpet at home.
There is a technique in learning called “little and often.” The concept is that it isn’t necessary to dedicate large blocks of time to learning, but rather to spend shorter amounts of time, but to repeat them frequently.
This is relevant for practicing short putts as well. From the comfort of your living room or TV room, you can spend short amounts of time practicing (10 minutes or so) every day, or at least several days per week. This will have a huge impact on your short putt performance.
- Take Your Time
A lot of short putts are missed simply due to carelessness. Even on these very makeable putts, it’s essential that you never hurry and that you stick with your pre shot routine. These are not putts to be taken for granted.
- Have a Specific Entry Point
Many of these shorter putts will be mostly straight, having little or no break. But even 3-footers can occasionally have some break that you have to take into account. The best way to do that is to determine the specific entry point of the hole over which you want your putt to roll.
A good mental image is to picture the hole as the face of a clock. If your putt is dead straight, the entry point for your putt would be 6 o’clock. If the upcoming putt will have a little right-to-left break, focus on what part of the clock face would be the proper entry point, perhaps 5 o’clock or 4 o’clock depending on the amount of the break, and devote all of your focus on hitting the putt on the path that will allow the ball to enter the hole at that point. Left-to-right breakers would obviously call for the same analysis, on stroking your putt on a line, and at a pace, to enter the hole at 7 or 8 o’clock, again depending on the amount of break you need to play.
By narrowing your focus to something smaller, like the numbers on the face of a clock, rather than on the full width of the hole, you can be freed up in your stroke by knowing that, even if you slightly miss that specific number on the dial, you’re likely to still make the putt.
- Maintain a Fluid Putting Routine
There is often a tendency, particularly on short 3-5 foot putts, to become stiff and rigid over the ball. Because there is some added pressure to make these putts (due to the expectation that you should make them), it can be easy to unknowingly get away from your normal routine as you instead focus on the outcome of the putt. Being outcome-focused, though, is a sure way to reduce your effectiveness on short putts. Stay focused on your pre-shot routine so that you’ll be less focused on the importance of the outcome…and the pressure that comes along with that.
- Good Putts Begin With Proper Aiming
When golfers miss short putts, it’s often due to a problem with aim. Players are not always effective at aiming the ball to their target and getting it started on the intended line. Here’s the reason why:
In most sports that involve aiming, the participant takes aim while looking directly down the target line (think of a basketball player shooting a free throw, an archer aiming at his target, a bowler rolling his ball at a particular pin, etc.). In these types of sports, the athlete is taking advantage of “binocular” vision, which is the ability to maintain visual focus on an object with both eyes.
When you putt, however, you are standing to the side of the ball, and your vision of the target can be somewhat skewed from this angle. When this happens, where you think you are aimed is not always where the target actually is.
Even small errors in aiming can result in missed putts. As an example, an error of just 1° in aiming your putter face translates into 2.1 inches off-target at 10 feet! The importance of aiming correctly can’t be overstated. In fact, Dr. Jim Suttie, co-author of The LAWs of the Golf Swing maintains that nine out of ten putting errors are the result of aiming your putter face incorrectly.
So how can golfers correct this mis-perception problem? A common way is to put a line on your golf ball and to then, while crouching behind the ball and looking directly down the target line (using both eyes, of course), align the ball to the target making sure that this line is pointed directly where you want the ball to start. Then, armed with the confidence that you are indeed aimed correctly, face angle at impact and pace become the only issues.
By the way, there is an ancillary benefit to using a line on your ball, and that is the feedback it gives you about your stroke. If your stroke is good, you will see the line rolling end over end on its route to the hole rather than wobbling one way or the other, which would tip you off to a possible stroke path or face angle problem.
- Square Face Angle is All-Important
We’ve known for several years now that the club face angle at impact is by far the biggest determinant of the direction in which the ball starts out. Data from launch monitor tests have proven this conclusively. This is true with every club in the bag, but the relative influence of this ”face angle effect” is greater as the loft of the club being used decreases (i.e., the effect is greater for a 5-iron than it is for a 9-iron). So, by the time you get down to the putter, with a loft of just 3° or 4°, you can appreciate the importance of having a face that is square to your intended target line.
It is hard to overstate the importance of face angle as a factor in making putts from short distance. Consider that, from 5 feet away, a face angle that is open or closed to the target line a mere 2° will cause you to miss the hole! And since we’ve already discussed the need of higher handicappers to increase their make percentage on short putts, it’s clear that to do so, you will need to be able to control the putter’s face angle. All the hard work you did in reading the putt for break, getting your putt lined up, and judging the speed of the putt will be lost if your putter face is not square to your line at the moment of truth.
So how can you manage the putter’s face angle to give you the best chance of being square at impact? Well, the first step would be to determine how much, if at all, this is a problem for you. In the preceding section we talked about drawing a line on the ball as a way to help ensure proper aim. But, as we suggested, that line can serve a dual purpose. It also can help you gauge whether your face angle is square at impact.
Start on the practice green to check whether this is a problem for you. With the line properly aimed down your target line, stroke some 5-foot putts and watch how the line you drew on the ball rotates as the putt rolls. If the line has a pure, end-over end rotation, that is a pretty good indication that face angle is not a major issue. But if the line appears to wobble during the ball’s route to the hole, you can assume that face angle (or possibly a faulty swing path) is a possible culprit.
Often, the cause of a face angle that is not square can be traced back to two key setup issues. One pertains to your grip, the other to your stance:
Grip - Many amateurs assume that the grip they should take with their putter is the same as the grip that they take with all of their other clubs. That is not correct. The proper grip with an iron or a wood calls for the heel pad of the player’s lead hand (left hand for right handed golfers) to be placed on top of the grip. The reason: having the heel pad on top allows the player to more easily release the club through impact, which results in a certain amount of face rotation.
In putting, however, excessive face rotation is exactly what you should be trying to avoid, as the timing required to return the face to square at impact can be difficult to perfect, particularly under pressure when your nerves can cause you to be a little “twitchy.” To avoid excessive face rotation, place the grip of the putter more along the lifeline of your lead hand, rather than beneath the heel pad. This grip position will limit face rotation during the stroke. Result: a better chance of returning the club face to its initial square address position.
Stance - If you look at the best putters in the world, most of them have a similar characteristic in their setup that can be easily observed from behind (from a down the line view). You’ll notice that the angle that their forearms hang at address is the same as the angle of the putter shaft.
In other words, a straight line could be drawn from the forearms down through the shaft. This is a position that you should emulate. If the forearms and the shaft are on different planes, that creates another lever in the swing, and introduces possible face angle inconsistencies. Lining the forearms and the shaft up, so that they are on the same plane, helps to ensure less face rotation of the putter.
- Center Face Contact
One of the least discussed, yet most important, ingredients of solid putting is the degree to which you can hit the ball on the precise sweet spot of the putter face. Hitting the ball even a little bit off-center can have a profound effect on both the distance that the ball rolls, as well as accuracy.
Striking the ball off-center will cause the putter face to twist during impact, which alters the spin axis of the ball. With a putt, the effect is dramatic, since the ball is in contact with the ground, and even the tiniest change in the spin axis of the ball will quickly send the putt off-line. The further from the sweet spot that you strike the ball, the greater the effect, meaning that the putter head will twist more and the ball will be thrown off-line to a greater extent.
One way to diminish the effect of putts that aren’t struck on the center of the face, is to consider using a putter that has a very high Moment of Inertia (MOI). MOI is a measure of the amount of twisting that the putter face experiences when a ball is struck out toward the toe or in toward the heel. High MOI putters are designed in such a way as to lessen that twisting effect of the putter head. As a result, putts that miss the sweet spot will still roll almost as far as, and almost as accurately as, a putt that hits the center of the face. It’s easy to see why these types of putters are so popular nowadays.
- Accelerate Through Impact
A frequent cause of missed short putts is deceleration of the putter head through the ball. This is often caused when you take a backstroke that is too long, and then subconsciously conclude that you must slow the forward stroke down to avoid going well past the hole.
Putts hit with a decelerating stroke can have inconsistent results as you’re often less able to get the ball started on the intended line, and you’re also obviously less able to judge the proper pace.
On these short putts, you need to accelerate the putter head through impact. For 3-5 foot putts, a good guideline is to make sure that the length of your follow through is longer than the length of your backswing. It’s also a good idea, when practicing your short putts, to stroke the ball with enough pace so that it hits the back of the cup before dropping into the hole. Doing this will ensure that you’re not making a defensive, decelerating stroke.
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