Dr. Bob Rotella was the first book on sports psychology and I owe him and his books a great deal of credit for my success in golf and in life. Below are his thoughts and proven strategies from
Simon & Schuster Source. New York. 2001.
The Heart Of The Game
Billy Mayfair, a PGA touring pro who beat Tiger Woods in the 1998 L.A. Open, does not have the prettiest putting stroke in golf. He brings the putter back outside the target line and he straightens his blade until it is perpendicular to the target line. He made a lot of putts that way even though the purists who saw him insisted he was cutting across the ball. Billy grew up in Phoenix and enjoyed putting from the time he started playing golf. He had little choice because his parents weren’t wealthy and when they dropped him off at a municipal golf course called Papago Park, they couldn’t give him money for greens fees or range balls. So the only thing he could do for free was to putt and chip around the big crowned practice green. And he did so five days a week after school developing into a splendid putter. Even though he never hit the ball enormous distances, he won a lot of junior tournaments. When Billy got out on the PGA tour in 1989 he did quite well and moved up to 12th on the money list in 1990. But then he started to slip, developing problems with his short game, especially his putting. Billy said that he became entranced by the unlimited supply of fresh golf balls to hit on the range, and consequently he spent less time on the short game and more time on the long game. At the same time he started to listen to the critics of his putting stroke (there were so many of them he decided they had to be right) thinking that this is what he needed to become a winner. Of course a player who starts spending too much time on his full swing and not enough on his wedges and chips will soon find himself facing longer putts for par.
Even the best players hit on average only thirteen or so greens per round. That means five times a round they have to get up and down, and if their short game isn’t sharp they’re going to be looking at a lot of six and seven foot putts that are no gimmes. For amateurs the short game is magnified even more because we usually only hit 8 or 9 greens at best.
Dr Bob Rotella had Billy rediscover the practice priorities he’d had as a kid and spend more time working on his wedges and his chipping as well as to think about his target and let the putt go, clearing his head of doubts and mechanical thoughts. Billy did and went on to win his first Tour event in 1993 and the Tour Championship in 1995. The best and smartest professional golfers practice putting as much as they do because they want to savor the joy of putting to win.
In his own words, “when you’re putting really well you see a line. It’s like a baseball player who’s hitting really good and the ball looks like it’s barely moving. Your vision is different.”
In any sport (and most areas of life for that matter) there are fundamental skills that good coaches emphasize in their teaching and insist their players execute. In basketball, I knew that every great team had a good attitude, rebounded well, played defense well, and shot free throws well. Those skills separated them from the merely good teams and the less-than-good ones. A merely good team wins on nights when its shooters are hot. Great teams win on nights when they don’t shoot well, because they always play defense, rebound, and shoot free throws. And they always take the floor with a good attitude.
Any golfer whose improved ball striking becomes an excuse for hating to putt is in danger of wasting all the time he’s devoted to his full swing. I see this syndrome threatening many of the successful professionals I work with. Typically they made it to the PGA or LPGA Tour by first learning how to get the ball in the hole. Quite often as Billy Mayfair did, this kind of player finds that his arrival on the Tour is a great opportunity to work on his full swing, perhaps the best opportunity he’s ever had. There are no restrictions on how many range balls he can hit. Quite commonly, these players become better, more consistent ball strikers at thirty than they were at twenty-two. But this only puts more pressure on their putting. Most of the professional tournaments boil down to putting contests. They realize that putting is almost the only culprit keeping them from the success they’ve dreamed of since they were kids. This can poison their attitude towards putting, turning them from a kid who naturally to a a middle-aged man who makes sour remarks about someone else’s putting success.
If you missed a short putt on the last hole of a tournament, would you remember it and admit it? Jack Nicklaus has a selective memory and he does not choose to acknowledge those missed. He was able to block from his mind all the missed putts. He kept and replayed the memories of made putts. He was able to retain a firm belief that the next one was going in the hole.
Creating a positive calm focus on your putting is the most important thing in putting. The first step in developing this attitude is changing the way your memory works. Michael Jordan used to say that he never pondered the mistakes he’d made in a basketball game for more than ten or fifteen minutes after the game was over. There’s nothing worse for your putting than dwelling on the putts you’ve missed. Where your focus goes, energy flows. So if you focus on all those missed putts, you will feel like a terrible putter and not energized to make more putts. This cycle works as well for a downward spiral: believe you are a poor putter –> you have less potential to make putts –> you take a less confident action/ putting stroke –> you miss lots of putts and have lots of 3 putts –> you believe you are a terrible putter –> you have little potential to make putts –> you take a very mechanical, confidence lacking action/ putting stroke –> you miss a lot of putts and have even more 3 putts… and so the cycle continues.
On the other hand, if you believe you are a good putter –> you have potential to make putts –> you take a focused confident action/ putting stroke –> you make lots of putts –> you believe you are an even better putter –> you have even more potential to make even more putts –> you take even more confident action in your putting –> you make lots and lots of putts… and so the cycle continues!
Consider the player who believes he’s a great putter. He thinks back pleasantly to the good putts he’s made. He never gripes, he never moans. He never lets himself be thrown by something like a bumpy green. When people ask how he’s putting, he usually responds, “Great!” Because of this attraction or pull to this part of the game, it’s easy to practice this part of the game and have fun and play even better. Players with good attitudes find it much easier to putt in competition. They are immune to doubts and fears about their technique. Spending a minute to 15 minutes each day thinking about nothing but making putts, reliving putts you’ve made and savoring the sight and the feeling again will “magically” give you the ability to putt much better.
How The Best Putters Think
Focus on the hole is essential. Hal Sutton set the course record at Keswick Hall after Dr. Bob told him to play a round using his normal putting routine with his eyes not on the ball but on the target. He had tried it beforehand on the practice green for half an hour and it worked dramatically. Sutton had the problem that I have suffered with as well, he’d start to feel the anguish of the three-putt before he’d even hit his first putt, “don’t waste that good drive and good iron shot by three-putting” (31). Now I’m not suggesting that nayone can set a course record if he putts with his eyes on the target instead of the ball. It is an exercise to help understand the feeling of being focused on the target just as much when he putted as he was when he hit longer shots. I think it’s a useful experiment for any golfer to try and I often encourage players I work with to do it. I think it would be very interesting to see what would happen if a group of people gave it a real test in competition. They don’t, primarily because they’re skittish about the possibility of mishitting or actually whiffing a putt. The exercise is helpful to a lot of players because it dramatizes the way good putters think. It’s a little bit like taking a child’s head between your hands and directing his gaze precisely where you want him to look. In this case, if focuses the golfer’s attention where it should be–the target.
All you would see from a computer print out of a good putters’ thoughts is: “my target is that little tuft of raised grass on the lip of the cup.” Their minds are quiet and clear. In our society, we’ve been educated to revere thought, to revere the conscious mind. And in some endeavors that’s fine: engineering, strategist, training your mind for personal development. But this cultural pressure makes it difficult for some people to clear their minds. What gets you into a peak state is when you are demonstrating positive confident body language and focusing on positive good things. In putting, you want to narrow the focus of your thoughts as much as possible, to shut down a lot of the conscious, thinking parts of the brain, the parts that give instructions. Putting is one of those physical tasks that are best left to the less intellectual, less rational parts of the mind.
Putting while looking at the hole
If you’re putting, you’ll make your best stroke and hole the most putts if you think only of your target. Its like when your car is in a spin and a wall is facing you. If you focus on the wall you will surely crash, but if you focus on the road to the left of you you will unconsciously steer out of the spin.
Golfers don’t mean to undermine themselves. Some of them don’t know that dwelling on the results of putts rather than on the simple act of rolling the ball to a target doesn’t help them. They don’t know that constantly being aware of the score doesn’t help them. Or if they know these things, they haven’t developed the mental discipline to shut those thoughts out of their minds when they putt. They might think that if they lose track of the score and don’t worry much about whether the ball goes in the hole, they’re not trying hard enough, not giving 100 percent. But it’s pretty certain Tiger isn’t thinking that way. In the clutch, at least, Tiger is thinking of the target. That’s why Tiger’s become one of the best clutch putters ever to play the game.
Putters have to be able to focus on a smaller target because the smaller the target you have, the better your brain and body can function in trying to get the ball there. A good putter’s target is never simply the hole. He is always trying to putt the ball into the hole, but the hole is much too big to serve as a good target. The smaller the target you have, the better your brain and body can function in trying to get the ball there. On short putts, you should pick out the smallest target you can focus on. It might be a blade of grass or a discoloration on the edge of the hole. It might be a scuff mark on the white liner inside the hole. I say that the brain and body “can” function well in reacting to a small target, not that they automatically do so. Some people, as their target gets smaller, tend to get more careful and controlling with their stroke. They can make a free stroke easily if you tell them simply to putt the ball to nothing. But the smaller the target gets, the tighter they get. Putters have to overcome this. They have to discipline themselves to putt as freely to a small target as they do when they putt to nothing.
Ideas on what to focus on:
- Make all putts straight. Suppose you think that the putt will break about four inches from right to left. Since four inches is the approximate diameter of the cup, measure one cup width from the edge of the hole to the right and pick out a blade of grass or a discoloration from there. Sometimes with a downhill putt on a dramatic slope, a player will pick the spot on the green that he considers the apex of the ball’s curving journey to the hole. Or it might be the point where a putt reaches the crest of a downslope and starts to go downhill. It doesn’t matter. Let the slope of the green and gravity break the ball into the hole.
Using the AimPoint style, you pick a spot of the putt based on the high point of the putt (that is on a perpendicular line between you and the hole). For non double breakers you pick a spot based on which side breaks the most. For sloping downhill putts, picking a spot from the apex (that is short of the hole) will help distance control. I have found this to be an effective method while stroking the ball looking at this spot.
- Dave Stockton’s method of rolling the ball over a spot an inch in front of the ball has helped me immensely with the short putts. He also advises to pick a new center of the hole so that you have a greater margin for error on your speed.
Don’t be concerned if you rarely or never see a line, or if your brain doesn’t furnish you with a “coming attractions” clip of the putt you’re about to make. That doesn’t mean you’re not a good putter. It simply means that your brain doesn’t work as visually as some other people’s. Don’t try to force yourself to see a line. Picking out a target and believing that it will work is equally effective.
If you do see a line, don’t be afraid to use it. It’s probably a very good representation of what the ball will actually do. It can help you putt more decisively. There’s only one problem that orientation to a line can lead to, and it’s analogous to the problem some players have when they select a small target and tighten up. A player can be too careful about trying to start the ball out along the line he has imagine. He can try to steer the blade of the putter along the line. That doesn’t work. Steering the putter, being too careful, strips a player of much his natural ability and accuracy. It interferes with the purity of the interaction between a target and the nervous system. Human beings are wired to putt best when the golf simply sees the target and reacts to it with as little conscious thought as possible.
To win in golf today, you have to be prepared to go low at every opportunity. By low I mean shooting not just in the 60s, but the low 60s. Obviously, to go low a player must be in command of his entire game–driving the ball well, hitting greens, sinking putts. Of the three, sinking putts is the most important. Quite often, professional golfers get their swings grooved well enough that they have a chance to go low. The ones who actually do it are the ones who are able to discipline their minds to think only of the target at every putting opportunity. The ones who fail to go low let other thoughts get in their way. They think that they’ve already gotten three or four under par, so they ought to be careful and preserve their subpar finish, or that they’ve used up their birdie putts for the day, etc. I’ve worked with a player named Tripp Isenhour who’s had that problem. When Tripp was at Georgia Tech, he was a good, consistent college golfer. He never shot a high round. He didn’t shoot many particularly low rounds either. Once he turned pro, he found that shooting a couple of rounds of even par was a good way to have weekends off and go broke fast. Tripp decided to quit golf in frustration. But when he decided to give professional golf another shot, Tripp and I worked hard on his attitude toward putting, particularly on thinking of the target and only the target. He had to learn that seeing the target and reacting to it meant that he was doing his best. He had to learn to be content with that, even on days when all of his putts didn’t fall, and particularly on days when nothing fell on the first four or five holes.
Tripp accepted these ideas. That along with a serious commitment to fitness, practice, and a lot of other good habits, helped improve his game. He made it to the Buy.com Tour after a year’s time. He set his sights on the ultimate goal of becoming a winner on the PGA Tour. I knew he was getting there when he called and let me know how he’d won the Mississippi Golf Coast Open. Tripp shot 70-75 and barely made the cut. In the third round, the field face miserable weather conditions, wet and windy. But that was the day Tripp discovered that his game was under control and he had a chance to go low. He siezed that opportunity. He birdied five of the first six holes, sinking putts from four to thirty feet. He was seeing his target, having no trouble believing in it. His touch was just right. “Let’s keep it going, keep rolling it to the target,” he told himself. “Relax and let it happen.” He fended off thoughts of how far under par he was or what the rest of the field was doing, and where he stood in the tournament.
Only later that day, after his round was over, would he learn that just one other player managed to break 70. He just kept seeing his target and rolling his ball to it. Tripp didn’t make all his putts that day. In fact, he lipped out six of them. But his mental discipline stayed intact through all eighteen holes.
At days end, he had a 63. He won that tournament on the strength of that low round. And that victory helped assure him of a promotion to the PGA Tour the following year. The key to all of that was clearing his mind and thinking only of his target.
Adam Scott’s clutch putts at the 2013 Masters
Although Adam Scott missed multiple putts down the stretch at the 2013 Masters, when it came to the 18th hole on Sunday, he put everything behind him, focused on the line and the hole (recalling past putts from history to help him with the read), and stroked the putt with a free confidence sending it in the hole.
Speed: Trust Your Touch
Once in a while, I work with a player who tells me he has no touch. He rolls the ball way past the hole all the time. Or he leaves it way short. Or he hits it way past on one hole and then, compensating, he leaves it short on the next. Or he can’t putt the fast greens at his best friend’s club, or he can’t adjust to slow, shaggy greens. When someone tells me this, I usually respond by tossing them a ball. They catch it, and I ask them to toss it back. Without thinking about it, they toss it precisely into my hands. “That’s amazing,” I say. “Your toss reached my hand exactly right. I didn’t have to reach out for it. It didn’t come in hard enough to sting me. I could just catch it.” The player nods, maybe grins a little. Then I play the same game of toss-and catch with an unfamiliar object like an ashtray or a stuffed animal. Instinctively the player adjusts to the weight of the new object and tosses it the correct distance. “That shows that you have good touch,” I tell him. “Your problem isn’t that you don’t have touch. Your problem is that you’re worrying about speed instead of putting to make it.” The last thing you want to do if you’re trying to make putts is worry about speed. Your brain, eyes, and nervous system are marvelously equipped to roll the ball at the right pace if you just let them respond naturally. All too often though, golfers get in their own way on issues of speed. They decide that they don’t have touch because they’ve left some critical putts short or rolled them too long. When I ask these players what their mental state was when they made these speed mistakes, they almost invariably confess that they were putting fearfully, afraid of making a mistake with pace. Well, even the players with the best touch in the world are going to mishit putts when their minds are in that state. I simply ask players not to evaluate their touch until they have some experience putting with the proper attitued. And the proper attitude doesn’t worry much about speed. It’s not that speed isn’t important in making putts. It is. But the fact is that Brad Faxon, like nearly all other good putters I know, never consciously think about speed when he’s putting. He trusts his touch. When he reads a green and picks out a line, he’s also thinking, subconsciously, of a speed that will make that line the correct one. When he strokes the ball, he’s thinking about rolling it on the line he’s selected, rolling it on the line that will take it into the hole. He lets the speed take care of itself. Nearly all the time, it does. I don’t think Brad has innately better touch than most players. He’s just more successful than most at trusting his touch. He tells me speed just happens. There may be times when firmness is the smart option, such as a straight, uphill three-footer on a green that’s been spiked up. There may be times when a delicate touch is called for. I don’t care what speed a player opts for as long as he’s trying to put the ball in the hole.
The proper pace of a putted ball has engendered more myths and hogwash than almost anything else in golf. Few people, I suspect, get through their first round of golf without hearing the adage “never up, never in.” It makes it seem as if the goal in putting is not to get the ball in the hole, but to roll it past the hole. At least if you roll it past the hole, no one is going to call you “Alice” and question your boldness, your courage, your manhood. Leaving a putt short has been transformed from simply a mistake to something effeminate. That made American golfers, who tend to be as macho as the next fellows, all the more determined to make sure they never left a putt short. I’m sorry, but a miss is a miss–whether it runs a foot past the hole or stops a foot short. You get no extra credit for getting the ball past the hole. Good players understand this. They know that if they;re trying to roll the ball in the hole softly, it’s possible that it will stop a bit short of the hole. If it does, it’s a mistake like any other. They go on.
The people who advance the notion that there are “green-light putts” and “red-light putts” tend to be, I find, people whose bad putting forced them into alternative careers as broadcasters. Giving them a microphone and encouraging them to talk about putting is a little bit like going to traffic court, taking all the people convicted of careless driving, and putting them in charge of driver education down at the local high school. The truth is that every putt is a green-light putt. That doesn’t mean of course that you must hit the ball hard on every putt. In the course of a normal round, especially on fast greens, there are going to be some putts like that. When he faces them, a smart player may decide to hit his putt just hard enough to get it into the hole. If he does, he also reads more break into the putt, knowing that a slower putt will be affected more by the contour of the green. But he doesn’t try to miss, doesn’t say to himself, “Where do I want to leave this ball for the next putt?” He tries to putt the ball into the hole, just as much as he would for an uphill, four-foot par putt. Occasionally, when I’m teaching amateurs, someone will hear this and say, “Well that’s fine for pros, Doc, but all I’m trying to do in that situation is avoid a three-putt.” Obviously no one likes to three-putt. But putting to avoid the three-putt is like trying very carefully to color inside the lines. It eliminates your artistry, your flair, your imagination.
It also defeats your own purpose. When a child is told to try very hard to color inside the lines, she generally fails at it, because by trying too hard she robs herself of some of her fine motor skills. When a putter tries very hard not to three-putt, he generally winds up three-putting more often, and for similar reasons. He doesn’t get the first putt on line, or he awkwardly leaves it too short or too long. And he will definitely make far fewer of his first putts. I’m not suggesting that a golfer who putts every first putt to make it, whether it’s uphill or downhill, fast or slow, will never three-putt. He will. All golfers do. But he will three-putt less often than the player who’s afraid of three-putting. And he will one-putt more often. In the long run, he’ll take fewer strokes. Players have to be ready to adjust to green speeds from one day to the next, fortunately, the brain can do this for us automatically. You might find that you haven’t got a feel for the proper pace on the first green you putt. But after that, your touch is going to get better. It will very quickly be as good as it was on your home course–as long as you keep your mind quiet and offer it no “instruction.”
Most players don’t like to wait for their brains to adjust, so I don’t have a problem with a player who gets to a new course early so he can spend some time on the practice green, rolling putts and getting a feel for their speed and the way they break. A player can also mentally shift his target backward or forward to help him compensate for a new and unfamiliar green speed. If the putt is downhill and fast, imagine a cup a foot or so short of the real cup, on the line you intend your ball to take. Putt at that. Conversely, for slow uphill putts, imagine a cup a foot or so behind your real target and putt at it.
I think that this is not as effective as simply trusting your instincts and putting to your real target. If however, you can’t bring yourself to do that on a fast or slow green, it’s better than the alternative of putting fearfully, trying constantly to “fix” your perceived lack of touch. The best way to deal with speed is to remember that you already have touch. You just have to believe in it and use it.
Gaining Control By Giving Up Control
When I meet with new clients on a practice green it’s generally quite easy to persuade them that clearing their minds and thinking only of their targets improves their putting. More often than not, a professional golfer with a clear mind a focus on a target will hole nearly all of his five-footers, lots of ten to fifteen footers, and a fair number of eve longer putts. He’ll turn to me with a pleased smile and say, “Gee, Doc, I putt really well when you’re standing here. I never knew it could be this easy.” It’s not. All to often that player who putted so well on the practice green will come in after his next tournament round with a 73 or 74 next to his name. He’ll tell me that he can’t understand what happened to his putting. “I was trying hard, really hard, to clear my mind and think only of my target,” he will say. “But it didn’t work. No matter how much I was grinding away at it, I still couldn’t make any putts.” As soon as I hear the word grinding, I have a good idea of what went wrong. Grinding is one of those concepts that is widespread in sport and, unfortunately, inimical to good putting. Grinding suggest that someone is doing his utmost to succeed. If he’s weight training, he’s popping capillaries to make sure he gets that last repition done. If we’re talking about a student, we’re talking about someone who might not have the highest SAT scores in his class, but who closes the library every night because he’s going to get into medical school no matter what. And if he’s putting, it suggests that he’s trying to will the ball into the hole. I generally admire grinders, and I believe in the transcendent importance of will. Free will is a precious, fundamental part of human nature, the part on which all true accomplishment is based. A strong will is very helpful in putting. But it’s helpful only when you’re behind the ball, preparing to putt. Will helps you discipline yourself to eliminate distractions and pick out a target. Will helps you work on that part of the putting process until you firmly believe in your target, believe that if you roll the ball to it, the ball will go in the hole.
But the application of will gets trickier when you are standing over the ball, ready to putt it. In fact, I believe that at that point, will can get in the way. The proper role for a strong will at this stage of putting is to support a firm belief in the golfer’s mind that all the preparation is done and the ball will go in the hole if he turns control of the action over to his subconscious.
But then free will must exit the stage and leave the scene to other actors. I have heard players say that they will the ball into the hole, and some of them have been successful putters. I believe that their will helps them focus their attention on their targets and eliminate all other thoughts.
But if they then continue to try to force themselves, through an act of will, to hit a perfect putt, I think any success they have is a tribute to their innate ability, their concentration and their belief in their targets. I think that they could putt even better if they stopped being so willful when they stroked their putts.
Paul Azinger is a great example. Long before he ever talked to me about his putting, Paul had been a successful player, winning lots of Tour events, a PGA Championship, and contributing to some memorable and emotional Ryder Cup wins. He displayed the strength of his will again when he battled and defeated cancer. When we started working together, Paul told me that despite all his success. he’d never actually liked the way his putting felt. To him it wasn’t athletic, free, or easy. He felt that he had an artificial stroke, one that he mechanically foced into the pattern he’d been taught was classic–a short backswing, a long follow-through, and a putter head that accelerated through the ball. I could see that tension, that artificiality in his stroke. In fact, I could hear it. Forced strokes look different from free strokes and the contact between putter and ball actually sounds different.
When I think of free strokes, I think of Darren Clarke at the 2011 British Open
I told Paul that his putting didn’t seem to fit with the rest of his game. When he was in a bunker, for instance, he hit beautifully athletic, relaxed shots that had more than once gone into the cup to win a tournament for him. How, I asked him, did he think about his bunker shots? “It’s like night and day from my putting stroke,” he said. “I don’t think about it. I just look where I want it to go, splash the sand, and it goes there.” Paul did not need me to spell out for him the obvious fact that if he wanted his putting to be as outstanding as his bunker play, he had to attain the same mental state on the greens that he had in the bunkers. He had to become relaxed, even nonchalant at the moment of truth. This can be very tough to do, especially if a golfer has already mastered the idea of picking out a small target (49). Picking out a minute target makes a lot of golfers want to make their strokes minutely precise. The challenge of putting consists essentially of doing the opposite–picking out a small target and then taking a free, uncontrolled stroke. I suggested that Paul think about gaining control by giving up control. This can be a hard concept to grasp. Players are told that putting is crucially important. They’re told that at the very climax of their putting routines, they can’t try very hard. They hear words and phrases like nonchalant, carefree, don’t give a damn. I tell them to putt as if they didn’t care whether they made it or not. Or to putt as if they had been preordained that the ball would fall no matter how they stroked it. A lot of players respond to that by saying, “huh?” I remind them of a few things. How well do they do with four-footers if they’re in a stroke-play competition where every putt counts? How well do they do with four-footers when they’re out with their friends playing a casual Nassau and someone concedes that four-footer? They miss a lot of the four footers that count. When they take a casual swipe at the putt that’s been conceded, they knock it in with remarkable frequency.
I remind them that even if they could somehow force their body to do everything perfectly, they still couldn’t will the ball into the hole. Putting machines hitting balls on flat greens still miss a fair number of putts. There are just too many variables that are beyond control. The turf can be imperfect. The ball can be imperfect. The wind can gust. Any of these factors can cause a putt to miss. But the main reason trying too hard doesn’t work is that it almost invariably diminishes the chance of making a good stroke. It introduces doubt to the mind. It tightens the muscles. It robs a player of his natural talent and destroys his rhythm and flow.
Sometimes an example from another sport helps golfers see this. In basketball, for example, I’ve noticed that teams often play better defense when they’re on the end of the floor where their bench is. But they play better offense on the opposite end. The reason is that their coach is yelling at them and they hear him. This raises their intensity on defense. Intense defenders are generally better defenders than casual ones. On offense, the coach’s voice can also raise intensity. But that rarely results in more scoring. On the offensive end a basketball team doesn’t need feverish intensity. It needs creativity, boldness, imagination, and confidence. It needs players who keep looking for their shot even when they’ve missed a few. When the coach is haranguing his players to work harder on offense, he’s not going to get more points. He’s going to get more turnovers, more missed shots, and more foregone opportunities.
Mike Weir’s putt on the 18th hole to send the 2003 Masters to a playoff he would go on to win. Absolutely clutch.
We’ve been conditioned since childhood to believe that losing isn’t pleasant. But it’s at least acceptable if the athlete gave 100% of himself. I’ve had players tell me that they can live with themselves if they try hard and putt poorly. But they can’t sleep at night if they putt poorly and have the sense that they weren’t trying hard enough. They don’t understand that the only relationship between trying your hardest and doing your best is that if you try your hardest you won’t do your best–in putting at least. The most persuasive thing I can say to someone who doesn’t get this idea is, “well if what you’ve been doing had been working, we wouldn’t be talking would we?” I don’t say it to be harsh, but because I know that old and destructive habits of thought are like weeds. They’re hard to kill.
Gaining control by giving up control only seems like a contradiction in terms. In fact, it’s a fairly common pattern in our lives. Take for instance a teenager. There comes a time in a teen’s life when his or her parents have to understand that they can no longer have complete control over their child’s life. They can’t dictate where she is at every moment, whom she speaks to, what she wears, what she does. If they try to dictate these details, the teenager is likely to rebel and, behind the parents’ backs, do exactly what they don’t want. Parents of teenagers are much wiser if they relax the reins and trust that the years they spent instilling sense and values into their child’s mind will pay off when they give the child some independence. Putting is like that. Take for instance a public speaker. When an inexperienced speaker is asked to make a presentation before an audience, it’s usually because someone admires her mind and figures she has something worthwhile to say, that she’s a person of accomplishment. Being an accomplished person, this inexperienced speaker sets out to eliminate the possibility that she’ll stand up behind the lectern, open her mouth, and not be able to think of anything to say. She desperately wants to avoid that. So she writes her speech down, word for word. She edits it. She memorizes it. She practices it. And when the time comes to deliver the speech, just to make sure she won’t leave anything out or stand up and draw a blank, she brings her text and reads it. And, of course, she reads it so dully that the admirable qualities of mind that caused her to be invited in the first place never come across to her audience. I’m fortunate in that I once had a teacher, June Dorian, who advised me to approach a public presentation as if I were having a conversation with one person–casual, relaxed, engaged. Putting is like that too. Take for instance, jazz musicians. Good jazz men relax. They let the music flow. Take for instance dancing. A lot of people think they can’t dance. But they go to a family wedding, have a couple of drinks, start feeling the music, and dance very well. They can dance if they don’t let themselves care about dancing correctly.
I’m not asking players to stop caring. I’m asking them to give themselves their best chance to make putts. And the best way to do this is to relax a little, perhaps even to pretend they don’t care, to remind themselves that even if they miss a crucial putt, the bank is not going to foreclose and their kids will still love them. Minimizing the importance of a putt is much more helpful than maximizing it.
Paul Azinger immediately grasped the idea of gaining control by giving up control. It appealed to him. Some players respond to one idea, others to another. You have to find a way to present an idea in a way that seems to the player instinctive and understandable to him. For Paul, that was “gain control by giving up control.” We started working on a few putting drills. I asked him to keep his eyes on his target as he began to draw his putter back. He did. I asked him to keep in mind the idea of gaining control by giving up control. He did. “this feels so free, so flowing,” he said pleased. I could see the difference in his stroke. It was longer, but it didn’t look artificial. It looked better. Contact between ball and putter sounded quieter. The ball seemed to roll a foot or two farther than he expected. (I suspect the changes in the sound and the distance the ball traveled were because a free, unforced stroke is more likely to contact the ball precisely on the putter’s sweet spot). One day in the midst of the process of developing a freeing and target oriented mental putting routine, Paul happened to be in a pro shot and he saw one of the long shafted putters. He picked it up and casually tried it on the floor of the shop. He immediately felt that his putting stroke got longer, more graceful and rhythmic, more natural, more free. He soon started using the long putter in competition, and he was using it when he won the Hawaiian Open, his first Tour victory since his battle with cancer. Did the long putter help him? Well, I know his putting got better. I think the more important factor, by far, was the effort Paul was making to get freer with his stroke to gain control by giving up control. But maybe the switch to the long putter helped him make the mental transition from a feeling that he was forcing his stroke to a feeling that he was simply seeing it and doing it. I have been around golf long enough to have a healthy respect for whatever works. If you think the putter you’re using will help you, it probably will. Conversely if you think the putter you’re using is worthless, it most likely will be. Most of the best putters I know long ago found a putter they liked. Years later they’re still playing with it, or something very similar to it. There’s nothing like Old Faithful!
The good putter, when he misses a putt, reviews his performance. He asks him/herself: “did I clear my mind of all thoughts but the target? Did I make a free, confident stroke? If he did, he did all he could do. If he still missed, he just mentally shrugs his shoulders. If all putts went in, he figures, golf would be too easy. That miss just makes it all the more likely that he’ll make the next one.
Making Putts Routinely
The devotion to an unvarying routine is one of the hallmarks of a good putter. Davis Love III who is a very good putter, employs the same routine whenever he putts, whether it’s in a practice round or on the final green at the Belfry with the Ryder Cup at stake. Young Davis wanted to be a great player, but he didn’t think he was much of a putter. I could see otherwise. Davis had talent as a putter. But, as I told him, he was getting in his own way. In this context, getting in your own way means permitting something extaneous that you generate to interfere with putting your best. If a player is about to putt and he starts silently lecturing himself about taking the putter head straight back along the target line, he’s getting in his own way. If he remembers the putts of similar length that he’s missed in the past, he’s getting in his own way. If he starts wondering whether he can make the cut if he misses the putt, he’s getting in his own way. If he starts thinking about how much money is at stake, or whether someone else is making birdies, he’s getting in his own way. One of the allies in combating these impediments is a strong putting routine. A putting routine has two intertwined components. One is the physical activity–taking the grip, taking the stance, practice swings, etc. The second, and more important component is the mental activity–reading the green, deciding on the line, clearing the mind, putting to make it, and accepting the results. When Michael Jordan and Larry Bird go for a free throw they have a ritual of taking their stance, dribbling/ spinning the ball in their hands, taking aim, and letting the shot go. They looked at the target and let the shot go without delay. If you can toss a ball into someones hands you are athletic enough to putt (basically everyone). Davis set about mastering a routine that captured his athleticism. It took hundreds and hundreds of repetitions before it became uncscious and automatic, but once Davis makes a commitment to something, he sticks to it. That’s why he began working with single ball on the practice green, and why he always practices the same rhythmic core of his routine.
Davis Love III winning the 1997 PGA Championship
The eyes and mind of a good player start to process information about a putt almost as soon as his approach shot stops moving. As he strides up the fairway towards the hole, his imagination comes into play. He sees the general contour of the land and he starts to envision how his ball will be affected when he rolls it. Much has been written over the years about reading putts. Some of it is no doubt valid, but a lot of it is pseudo-science at best. One thing I do know is that I’ve seen a lot of putts missed because golfers’ heads were churning with so much information about how to read greens that they were unable to focus on their targets. Experience often doesn’t help much in reading putts. It’s the older, more experienced players who have had time to absorb all the supposedly helpful data about reading greens who tend to become paralyzed by doubt. Kids who are new to the game seem to know better. They just take a look and whack it. They putt well in that unsophisticated way because they tend to go with their first impression of how the putt will break. If I have a cardinal rule about reading greens, that’s it. Your first impression of how a putt will break will be right more often than any other impression you might form. I don’t wholly agree with this viewpoint; if you have a doubt about your first impression and you know for sure that the original read was incorrect than obviously go with the second read. The goal of your reading routine is to come up with a firm, decisive idea of how the putt will break. Keep green reading as simple as possible. Putting is a game, an imaginative, creative, athletic game. You putt best when you’re feeling loose, decisive, and confident. Trusting your first impression helps you be that way.
The bottom line is that your first impression won’t always be accurate, though it will be accurate a lot of the time. You’re going to misread some putts, you’re going to be fooled sometimes by a tricky green. That’s the nature of the game. But your second and third impressions won’t be any more accurate (if you are questioning the read constantly)–indeed they’ll be less so. And the stroke you make with two or three impressions rattling around in your brain will almost certainly be less decisive and less confident than the one you make if you go with your instinct. If I saw evidence that players who reread the greens got that sort of putt in the hole and players who went with their first impression missed it, I might reassess my belief in the value of putting by that instinctive first impression. But I don’t. I don’t see any evidence that the second and third reads are any more accurate than the first. Everyone misreads certain putts, no matter how many times they read them. And when I walk a practice round with players, I often ask them to verbalize their first impression of a putt so I’ll know what it is. It’s amazing how accurate that impression. Remember that sinking putts is the object of the exercise. The goal in reading greens is to come to a point of clarity, a moment at which you are certain that you understand the way the ball will roll and you can make the ball roll that way.
If you’re executing a good mental routine, you’re going to feel the atmosphere around you change. It won’t of course. But your perceptions of it will. Players with strong putting routines tell me that they feel as if they’re stepping into their own little world. It’s almost like going into a bubble. Their awareness of the things around them fades as their focus on the putt they’re facing tightens and intensifies. It’s a pleasant place, this little world. They have the feeling they love to putt. They take great pleasure from their skill at it. They feel safe, secure, and competent. They don’t care what anyone else thinks or might think about the putt they’re about to hit. They are immersed in the challenge of putting it into the hole.
Pace of Play
I like to see players make their reads fairly quickly. Once in a while, with a long putt on a green that has some artificial humps, tiers, and ridges, it may be advisable to walk around a putt and see it from both sides of the hole. Do this only if you’re certain that you’re trying to find a way to get the ball in the hole, not looking for reasons why that’s going to be hard to do. But most putts aren’t that complicated. That’s not to say that you should rush through this phase of your routine. There’s an understandable concern about pace of play these days. But it’s important to realize that the problem of five-hour rounds doesn’t stem from people taking their time going through their putting routines. It stems from people not being ready when it’s their turn to play. It stems from people who waste time rereading putts. Your routine should not waste time of course. It must be something you can execute within the time limits allowed by the rules. But once you’re confident you’re within those parameters, don’t let anyone or anything rush you. Go through your routine at a deliberate, comfortable pace. If you adopt a routine such as the one I’ve described here, you will never have trouble with slow play. The player who begins reading too carefully winds up missing more putts. Soon he’s not only over reading, he’s fiddling with his stroke while playing competitively, trying to fix it (76). I tell people who feel they must try really hard to make putts (by reading and rereading) that putting is not math homework. Putting is a game, an imaginative, creative, athletic game. You putt best when you’re feeling loose, decisive, and confident. Trusting your first impression helps you be that way. Rereading greens makes it harder to get into that effective state of mind.
When Seve four-putted a green at Augusta he commented about it: “I putt and miss. I putt and miss. I putt and miss. I put and make.” People laughed, but it suggested to me something about the way Seve’s mind worked. Seve’s answer suggested that he was completely in the present moment on each of those putts. He didn’t say that the greens at Augusta were slick and treacherous. He didn’t ruminate about the iron shot that may have left him with a tough first putt. His attitude hadn’t changed from one putt to the next. He wasn’t affected by his misses. He had had four putts. He’d tried to make each of them. He’d succeeded on the fourth. He had done all a golfer can do. That’s why, in his prime, he was such a great player. A smart response to those inevitable misses is the last major element in a good routine. You must be resilient about missed putts. Remember that it’s how you respond to your misses that matters, not whether you miss. You can choose to be angry about your misses or you can choose to accept them. More often than not, anger is the enemy of focus. I prefer a player to react calmly to a missed putt–even two of them on the same green. Calmness says it doesn’t matter if he missed that putt, because the player knows he’s putting well and will soon hole some long ones to make up for the miss. Calmness says a player has too much confidence in his putting to get upset over a miss.
I don’t advocate getting angry about missed putts. More often than not, anger is the enemy of focus. A temper tantrum is a form of getting in your own way. If you’re irritated with yourself that you didn’t putt to make it, then at least you’re focusing on the real mistake. If you vow to do better at focusing your mind for the next putt, a bit of what Sam Snead called “sensible irritation” might actually be helpful.
It may help to keep in mind that putting is not supposed to be easy and greens have been designed to make two-putts a challenging goal that no player will always meet. You’re human, you’re going to make mistakes. Golf is a game of mistakes, and that makes it a game that will beat you up mentally if you let it. You might as well have some compassion for yourself. From compassion comes forgiveness and from forgiveness comes forgetting. The only constructive thing you can do about a missed putt is to forget it. That way, you can be free and confident on the next one. Your routine after making a putt isn’t so problematic. It’s fine to be happy if you hole one. Feeling the emotion helps cement the memory in your mind, and you want to remember your successful putts. You can overdo it though, take Hunter Mahan at the 2008 Ryder Cup for example. On the 17th hole, he made a bomb of a putt and went bananas, jumping and fistpumping around the green. He got really riled up and then went on to hit his next tee shot in the water.
Most people who become good at golf learn that it’s best to maintain a low, consistent level of intensity through good shots and bad, because the calmer you are and the quieter you keep yourself, the easier it is to play the game (82).
Putting in the Clutch
It’s been said that golfers who putt well under pressure have ice water in their veins, or that they don’t feel nervous. That’s just media baloney. Great pressure putters have the same nerves the same glands, and the same emotions that plague the twenty-handicap player in your foursome who always manages to blow the decisive three-footer. It’s how they respond to nervous jitters that distinguishes them. Their routines are the foundation of that response. As I’ve mentioned, golfers under pressure revert to their dominant habits. If your dominant habit is a routine that gets both your body and mind into a position to putt well, you have a big advantage over player who haven’t got a sound routine and find themselves trying to invent one in the clutch. Part of this is physical. As Jim said to me after his Tucson win, going through the same movements he’d gone through uncounted thousands of times was soothing to him. It reminded him that the final putt in the Tuscon Open was just a two-footer of the sort he’d made more often than he could remember. It reminded him of all the two-footers he’d made in practice. That’s a good feeling to have under pressure. I tell players that they should make all their practice putts feel as if a tournament is on the line, and they should make all their putts with tournaments on the line feel like practice putts. Routine helps them do that. But the larger part of it is mental. When a player who has a sound routine reverts to his or her dominant mental habit under pressure, it helps dispel distracting thoughts. It helps the player zero in on a target. That helps make the putt. Remember that when a player putts to make it, there is no past, nor is there a future. There is only the present moment, his ball, his club, and his target. Had the clutch putter thought about putts he missed, thought about whether there may be a playoff, the second place check, or any of a hundred other things that might happen, he probably won’t be a clutch putter. This is because these are the sorts of things players think about when they succumb to pressure. It’s not that they choke. They don’t. They simply let themselves be distracted by unhelpful thoughts of either the past or the future. Clutch putters don’t rely on tricks or gimmicks. They don’t have superhuman control of their bodies. They don’t avoid the churning stomach, the sweaty hands, the trembling hands. They simply do better than their competitors at enjoying the challenge, following their putting routines, locking their minds in the present, and putting to make it.
The Myth of the Perfect Stroke
Players turn conscious and deliberate when they start to putt because of all the information they’ve ingested about the putting stroke. That’s because of the ethos in the golf world that worships mechanical perfection. There’s a strong socialization process at work and it leads to conscious, unsuccessful putting. Note that golfers are frequently less than accurate in the way they perceive their own movements. The idea that there is a single correct way to putt is about as valid as the idea that there is a single correct way to write. Where would we be if all of us were told that the only way to write was to copy Shakespeare? We would be without a host of great writers, from Mark Twain to E.E. Cummings. The same goes for putting mechanics.
This is why some of the great putters I know make a conscious effort not to think about mechanics at all when they practice. I’ve seen people ask Brad what part of the stroke he’s working on when he practices. “Nothing,” Brad replies. “Oh, come on,” they say. “You must be working on something.” “I am,” he says, “I’m working on thinking about nothing mechanical.”
The worst way to make a great stroke is by thinking about its mechanics when you putt the ball. As we’ve seen, the physical work of putting is like riding a bicycle or signing your checks. It’s something best left to your subconscious. IF you consciously try to guid your putter along a path you’ve been taught is the correct one, you’re reducing the chances that you’ll make a smooth, solid, accurate stroke. That’s the way the human body works. On the other hand, if you allow your brain and the nervous system to perform at their best, without interference from your conscious mind, they can do some remarkable things. It’s only when players become conscious and rational about their strokes that they get into trouble. If a players who aims left makes it his business to force the putter to go straight up and down the target line, he’s going to miss left. He’ll be overriding his subconscious minds ability to make the adjustment that would have sent the ball toward the target.
If you want to have a flowing rhythmic, and elegant putting stroke, the last thing to do is think about flow, rhythm, and elegance while you are putting. This will make your stroke tight and strained, more like a jab at the ball. If you’re properly focus on your target, your body will naturally produce the most rhythmic, elegant stroke it can make. When a player I’m working with is sharply focused on his target, I can see that his stroke is smooth and flowing.
Don’t forget that putting remains more an art than a science. Immersing yourself in the so-called science of putting risks filling your mind with ideas of dubious value. You risk losing the attitude and habits of mind that characterize great putters. Imitation of other players can be a better way of improving your stroke. I have clients on tour who spend time on the practice green pretending they’re Luke Donald or Brad Faxon. They think their stroke needs a little of Ernie’s and Brad’s languid flow. So they imitate them. This mimics the natural process that kids go through when they pick up a game by watching older people do it. It bypasses all the lectures about mechanics that usually accompany putting lessons and therefore it poses less danger to your mental putting routine. But if any of the great majority of golfers asked me what I thought they should do about their putting stroke, I’d tell them: fall in love with the stroke you have. It’s more than good enough to get the ball into the hole.
Wet greens can be harder to figure than dry ones. Greens don’t hold moisture equally over their entire surface. Some areas, because of drainage and exposure to the sun, dry faster than others.
Basically, all that matters is that when you putt in competition, you putt freely and with confidence, seeing your target and letting the stroke go.
There are no universally applicable drills or practice programs that will help all players. Individuals need to find what works best for them in terms of practice drills and routines. If you’ve got a friend on the practice green with you, play a putting game with stakes on the line.
Good wedge play makes the difference between a lot of putts from ten feet and a lot of putts from three feet. If you knock your chips and pitches closer to the hold, you’re going to make more putts. I’ve seen improved wedge play elevate a professional’s game. It can be the difference between playing on the Web.com Tour and playing and winning on the PGA Tour.
There are always going to be people in the golf world trying to persuade you that their grip, or their putter, or their practice aid, or their stroke is the answer. There are always going to be people telling you that there’s no point in trying to be a good putter because you have no talent and it’s an impossible, unjust part of the game anyway. If you listen to them, you won’t keep your commitment to keep to these ideas.
Monitor your commitment with quality questions:
- Do you love putting on whatever sort of green you encounter, fast or slow, grainy or smooth?
- Do you welcome the challenge of putting?
- Do you take pride in how free and confident you are with your putter?
- Do you execute your mental and physical routine on every putt?
- Do you refuse to let missed putts bother you?
- Do you stick with your routine and habits of mind even when putts don’t fall on the first nine holes?
- Do you always putt to make it?
- Do you ever permit your fear of three-putting to dominate your love of one-putting?
- When you talk about your putting to others, do you talk about how well you’re putting rather than whine or complain?
- Do you try to recall the great putts you’ve made and forget the ones you’ve missed?
Don’t think of this commitment as a porcelain vase that, once broken can never be put together again. I don’t know of any player whose mind is always where it ought to be. Good players recognize when their commitments waver, and they set things right quickly. They constantly recommit themselves.
Remember to smile 🙂
Rotella’s Rules For Putting
- No matter how skilled you are with the long clubs, you’re going to make roughly 40% of your shots with your putter.
- The putting game is the place to look if you want to get a competitive advantage.
- The ideal golf temperament instinctively loves putting.
- In putting, the inability to forget is infinitely more devastating than the inability to remember. There’s nothing worse for your putting than dwelling on the putts you’ve missed.
- Thinking the way you have always thought will almost certainly assure that you putt the way you have always putted.
- You’ll make your best stroke and hole the most putts in you only think of your target.
- Orientation toward the target works because the subconscious brain is capable of quick, accurate adjustments.
- The smaller the target you have, the better the brain and body can function in getting the ball there.
- Never putt for a three-foot circle. If you aren’t trying to hole every putt you have, you are going to lose to someone who is.
- To gain control, give up control
- Devotion to an unvarying routine is one of the hallmarks of a good putter.
- When the moment of truth comes, look at the target, look at the ball, and let the stroke go without any undue delay between these three movements.
- Your first impression of how a putt will break will be right more often than any other impression you might form.
- Putt to make it.
- More often than no, anger is the enemy of focus.
- Good players handle pressure putts by developing a strong routine and relying on it in the clutch.
- Good putters learn to welcome nervous symptoms rather than fear them.
- The last thing you want to do if you’re trying to make putts is worry about speed.
- You already have touch. You have to believe in it and use it.
- A miss is a miss, whether it runs a foot past the hole or stops a foot short.
- Every putt is a green-light putt.
- The yips originate in the mind. Their prevention and cure are mental challenges
- If you think the putter you’re using will help you, it probably will.
- Pick a putter and a putting style that feel good to you and stick with them
- There is no such thing as perfect putting mechanics. There is no perfect way to roll the ball.
- Fall in love with stroke you have
- Practice in ways that build confidence
- Practicing for touch and pace is best done without a hole.
- Good wedge play makes the difference between a lot of putts from ten feet and a lot of putts from three feet.
- The principles of good putting will work for you as long as your commitment to them stands.