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I've Got 99 Swing Thoughts but "Hit the Ball" Ain't One Pick Up the Pace to Pick Up Your Game
By Steve Eubanks Crown Copyright © 2007 Steve Eubanks
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“Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone”
But Could He Putt?
“Rolling the stone (rock),” or as the less hip among us call it, “putting,” is arguably the most important part of the game, and the putter is the most crucial scoring club in your bag. If you don’t believe me, count the number of shots you hit with each club during your last round. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
Depending on what you shot and the difficulty of your golf course, you probably hit your driver ten to fourteen times. If you’re a fairway wood sort of person, you might have hit your 3-, 4-, 5-, or 7- wood a couple of times each. Then you probably hit 6- or 7-irons once or twice each, a few more with your wedges. You most likely left a couple of clubs in your bag, never swinging them a single time. But, if you honestly counted your shots, about thirty or more of the strokes you took in your last round were struck with the putter. If you had a phenomenal putting day, the number might have been twenty- five or twenty-six. If you gacked a few, you could have had thirty- six, thirty-seven, or even forty putts, far and away the most strokes taken with any club in your bag. Granted, a few of thoseputts may have been kick-ins, but nonetheless, the short club with the least amount of loft gets a huge amount of use.
This should be good news. The putting stroke is the smallest motion in golf, the shot with the fewest moving parts that requires the least amount of physical exertion. All you have to do is roll the ball from point A to point B. No long, full shoulder turns; no delayed releases, full extensions, or weight shifts: you just roll the ball into the hole. What could be easier?
Unfortunately, golfers tend to complicate even the simplest of motions. If you hand a child a putter and tell him to roll the ball in the hole in the fewest number of strokes, he will, with a little practice, become a pretty good putter. But if you tell the child to
•hold the putter with an inverse overlap grip,
•stand with his feet shoulder-width apart so that an imaginary vector bisecting both his big toes will run parallel to the intended path of his putt,
•flex his knees,
•bow at the hips, keeping his spine angle straight,
•position the ball so that his dominant eye is “behind” the ball,
•use a pendulum stroke initiated between the shoulder blades,
•keep the hands, wrists, knees, and head “quiet,”
•accelerate the clubhead through the ball while maintaining the angle of the left wrist throughout the stroke,
•and don’t look up until the ball is five feet away,
you might as well ask the poor kid to create a cold fusion reactor. If he tries half of those things, he’ll be so tied up in knots he will be lucky to make contact. And these aren’t all the putting thoughts that are taught, not by a long shot.
Said 2006 U.S. Open champion Geoff Ogilvy about Sergio Garcia’s recent putting woes, “It looks to me like there is too much ‘thinking’ and not enough ‘doing’ going on.”
But if you give the kid an iPod with some rhythmic music, hand him ten balls, and tell him to roll as many as he can into the hole from fifteen feet away, he’ll make three or four while he sings the chorus of the latest Pussycat Dolls tune. Give him an hour and no instruction and he’ll make 50 percent of the putts from fifteen feet. In addition to the rhythmic benefits, the music is occupying the kid’s conscious mind, the part that likes to tell us “how to” do things.
Putting fits our music analogy better than any other part of the game, because good putting, like good singing, is 1 percent mechanics and 99 percent feel. To sing well you have to be able to hear the notes you are trying to hit, open your mouth and your throat, breathe with your diaphragm, and enunciate the lyrics while modulating your pitch by tightening and loosening the vocal cords. And if you think about any of that during a good tune, you’ll howl like one of those American Idol contestants Simon Cowell calls “dreadful.”
Good putters don’t think about the mechanics of their strokes while they are on the golf course. There are a bazillion different ways to putt well, and everyone’s way is going to be different. As putting guru Jackie Burke Jr. said, “The best way to putt is the way you putt best.”
The one thing all great putters have in common is that they look at the hole, visualize the break and the speed the ball needs to travel to get there, and hit it. Any thoughts about the stroke will interfere with your ability to make the putt. The technical or mechanical aspects relevant to good putting, whether that be in the preputt routine or something in the stroke itself, have all been learned, through rehearsal and correct repetition, prior to pulling the trigger.
Wynton Marsalis doesn’t think about the fingering of his trumpet in the middle of a concert. He feels the music and moves his fingers out of instinct, like punching the remote controls on a video game. The mechanics of putting are a lot simpler than the fingering of a jazz trumpet, so learning to putt through feel and instinct makes a lot more sense than thinking about the litany of mechanics in your stroke.
Besides, every individual’s technique and mechanics will vary, depending on what works best for them. On a putting green, Bobby Locke didn’t look much like George Archer, and Jose Maria Olazabal and Ben Crenshaw’s styles and strokes do not vaguely resemble one another. Yet their techniques all work brilliantly—
“THE WINDMILL SONG”
The Johnson Brothers’ 1971 hit mentioned in the preceding head had absolutely nothing to do with putting, but the title offers a chance to make an important point. If you’ve ever played Putt-Putt, you know the concept of the windmill hole. The arms of the windmill cover the hole as they rotate, which means you not only have to putt the ball on a line and speed to make it through the hole, you also have to time your stroke so that the ball gets there while the hole is unobstructed. If your timing is off, the windmill knocks your ball into Captain Hook’s Puddle Pond.
And yet the most inexperienced putters—kids as young as five who have never held a club in their lives—can putt a golf ball through the windmill. This miracle of biomechanics is possible because the Putt- Putt golfer doesn’t think about the mechanics of her stroke. She focuses solely on timing her shot to avoid the arms of the windmill. In so doing she uses the same part of the brain that tells you when to raise your hand and close your fingers to catch a ball that has been thrown at you. You don’t think about which muscles you use, or the angle of your wrist when you catch the ball. You look at the oncoming object and react. At the windmill hole, you look at the pace of the windmill and time your stroke accordingly.
In speed golf, there are no windmills, but I have very little time to contemplate much of anything. In the middle of a forty-five-minute round of golf, I barely have time to catch my breath, let alone verify that my shoulders are square or that my putter face is perpendicular to the putting line at impact. So I’ve got to trust my fundamentals and mechanics and react to the putting picture in front of me. Actually, not having much time is often a blessing in disguise, for it doesn’t allow my all-knowing and ever-interfering conscious side to convolute the motion.
Research in neuroscience now tells us that part of the difficulty in putting is that it is too easy. You have a stable, static stance and a lot of time to prepare for the task; you have a stationary target and have executed exactly the same movement thousands of times. The reason kids putt well at the windmill hole is that, from a purely neurological standpoint, the brain organizes things better when the target is moving.
Unfortunately, in real golf you don’t have a windmill. If you did, you would have to use the portion of your brain that deals with timing and rhythm. Too often, I see students working on the mechanics of their strokes while they’re trying to make a twenty-footer for par. As a result, these students stare at the ball for an interminable number of seconds, forgetting all about the hole and the path of ground the ball needs to traverse in order to go in. If they do look at the hole, it’s only for a second and only because that’s one of the items on their mental checklist. This is like staring at the dart instead of the dartboard—not a good idea, especially in a crowded bar.
To make more putts, every player should forget about his stroke and focus on the line and hole, just like you would have to if the windmill is covering it. In fact, if need be, look at the hole instead of the ball. After all, the hole is the ultimate destination and, last I checked, the greatest free-throw shooters in NBA history were all looking at the basket, not the ball.
The best way to develop your putting stroke is to practice with a purpose; that is, you have to have a specific idea of what you’re trying to accomplish and have accurate feedback. There is no magic bullet in putting, but I see far too many players practicing their putting without a clear idea of just what it is they need to do. They hit putt after putt without any real purpose or goal, which, in my opinion, is a monumental waste of time.
To make the process more effective, and more fun, I believe you have to play games with yourself on the putting green. These putting games are divided into two categories, much as they need to be for other parts of the game:
1.Games that help you develop and learn the motor skill
2.Tasks that help simulate a playing situation
Some good ones to get you started follow.
(ROLL THE) “ROCK AROUND THE CLOCK”
Every day, from the moment he first picked up a horn until the day he died as one of the greatest musicians of all time, Miles Davis went through one of the most elementary of musical drills: he practiced his scales. In the beginning, running through the scales was no easy feat. Like all early-learning musicians, Miles had to get the fingering and lip positions down. But even after he became accomplished, he continued to practice the scales, simply because they are the most fundamental element in music, and even the greats can never lose touch with the fundamentals.
To translate that same philosophy to the putting green, find a five- to ten-foot putt that has a fair amount of break from all sides. Mark off five “stations” with a tee, each station with a different break and slope (uphill, downhill, right to left, left to right). Begin at any station, and for four minutes, hit putts that enter the hole in a different way. Create a mental picture of how you want the ball to go in the hole and putt.
For example, say to yourself: “I want this putt to die in the right edge of the hole.” You can create a multitude of pictures by changing speeds and envisioning precisely where and how you want the ball to go in: firm, medium, and die in the hole—left edge, left center, dead center, right center, and right edge.
You get three tries at each mental picture. If unsuccessful, you have to change how you want the ball to go in at that station. If you can’t hit it hard in the back center of the hole on a downhill left- to-right putt, change the mental picture and die it in left edge of the hole instead.
As soon as you have made a putt with the chosen image, change pictures. Then repeat the same scenario at each station. This drill provides twenty minutes (most people’s maximum concentration time) of intense, highly beneficial training.
When you walk away, you will have a greater understanding of how to read greens and how to visualize putts going in. Good green reading starts with a specific “mini motion picture” of how we want the ball to go in the hole. Just categorizing a putt as “uphill and left to right” isn’t enough. It would be like telling a top dart player to just hit the board. You may find a specific way or speed that fits your putting best, and your green reading can then blossom with that preference.
“IT’S SO EASY”
During one of my first sessions as a student of the legendary Paul Runyan, who was known in golf circles as “Little Poison” for his Lilliputian stature and killer instinct, Paul had me practice a putting drill that left me shaking my head.
“I want you to put several balls in a circle no more than a foot from the hole, and make every one of them,” he said.
As silly as I thought the drill was, I did as I was told. After making fifteen in a row from one foot (heck, I couldn’t miss from that distance), I mustered up enough courage to ask Paul why he wanted me practicing putts I was never going to miss.
Paul gave a very serious stare before saying, “Do you have any idea how good it is for your mind, for your confidence, and for your psyche to see and hear the ball go in the hole every time?”
I didn’t at the time, but as I have continued to practice the one- foot drill I have become a better putter.
You will, too.
Take three balls and place them in different spots around the hole, each one about a foot away. Go through your preshot routine, just as you would if you were playing. Get used to seeing, hearing, and feeling the ball go into the hole. This simple task will boost your confidence the next time you have a putt of any length that matters during a round. Imagine that—never missing.
Consistently making one-footers is the first step in achieving unconscious competency on the putting green. Plus, it will teach you to aim better and start your putts on line. And it is a task you should continue to practice forever, no matter how proficient you become. Just as Miles Davis practiced his scales until he died, you should spend a few minutes making one-footers on the clock during every practice session. It is an amazing way to tune your mind in to making more putts.
Excerpted from I've Got 99 Swing Thoughts but "Hit the Ball" Ain't One by Steve Eubanks Copyright © 2007 by Steve Eubanks. Excerpted by permission.
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