When it comes to using the flat-stick, there is nearly always one common denominator amongst people who struggle. Poor distance control. Sure, you will never be a really good putter if you’re hopelessly inept at reading greens and putting your ball on your intended line, but most three putts (or more) can be attributed to first putts that ended up far outside of “Gimmee” range.
When you watch a lot amateurs use a putter, they look like a beginner picking up the guitar for the first time and attempting to strum a few power chords. Watch a good putter (i.e. Dave Stockton, Ben Crenshaw, or Jordan Spieth) and it can be like watching a virtuoso with his or her preferred instrument. Sure, there can be different reasons for why people struggle on the greens, but in over 25 years of teaching I have found that far and away the most common reason is that poor putters “hit” the ball, rather than “stroke” or “roll” it.
The reason for the “hit” in most people’s stroke is really no small mystery. It is the body’s response to its sense that the stroke length and tempo doesn’t provide the player with enough energy to get the ball to go the required distance on a given putt. One of my favorite sayings is “the body is smarter than you are” and this is a prime example of that. If you don’t give the body the requisite tools to get the job done, it steps in and does what it can to hep accomplish your intentions anyway. Here’s why…
Proprioception is the body’s unconscious perception of movement and spatial orientation arising from stimuli in the body itself. These stimuli are detected by nerves within the body as well as the semicircular canals of the inner ear and they help us determine the relative position of parts of the body and the strength of effort necessary to employ during all movement. Your ability to run without watching your feet, hit a golf ball without focusing on your hands, or putt the ball a desired distance without actually focusing on how far back and through your arms swing are all made possible due to this “Sixth Sense”.
Proprioception is sort of like having a little subconscious computer that is responsible for firing or contracting certain muscles during physical activity based upon our intentions, which is what makes it physically possible to perform a complicated athletic motion like the golf swing. You aren’t forced to think about how to make the physical action once you’ve encoded it through practice because your subconscious computer makes the necessary adjustments based upon your intentions. And in putting, if your conscious intention doesn’t meet the necessary requirements for a given result, proprioception (your little subconscious computer) takes over and attempts to make the adjustment at the last second.
Now a lot of golfers gets stuck in a comfort zone when it comes to stroke length, not varying it enough for the different lengths of putts they face. Longer putts need longer strokes (and a slightly quicker tempo), to provide the necessary energy to get the ball to go as far as your intention without a quick burst of speed at the last moment. Fail to give your body that necessary energy, and it will attempt to get the ball to the hole despite your misguided intentions. This is the where the “hit” comes in, and while players that played back in the 1960’s and earlier might have been able to get away with a bit of a “pop” or a “jab” stroke (see Arnold Palmer or Billy Casper footage) when the average green speed was about 7 or 8 on the stimp-meter, today’s players commonly face green speeds of 11 to 12 or higher and at those levels that “hit” is a recipe for wildly inconsistent distance control.
The best putters today use more of a pendulum stroke, moving the putter back and through the hitting area at a fairly consistent rate of speed in both directions and varying the length of the stroke in proportion to the length of the putt. A true pendulum takes the same amount of time to complete a cycle whether it is short or long and has essentially the same rhythm and speed in both directions. One of the best ways to learn a pendulum stroke and to putt in rhythm is with the use of a metronome. Not a musician? You’re in luck, as the there are free putting metronome apps that you can download for most smartphones these days to get you started.
To find your natural rhythm start with the method proscribed by Dave Pelz. You do this by counting the number of steps that you take per minute when you are walking on a flat area (count your number of steps in 10 seconds and multiply by 6). When you have that number take 70% of it and you will know roughly how many beats per minute on a metronome your natural rhythm should be. Now go to the practice green and set your metronome on that number. Begin making putts of different lengths and try to match the first beat of the metronome at take-away and the 2nd beat at impact. You can adjust the tempo up or down slightly if you find that it doesn’t quite match what feels natural, but the important thing is to understand that the beat stays the same whether the putts are shorter or longer. On shorter putts your stroke will be shorter and slightly slower from a tempo standpoint. On longer putts the stroke gets longer and slightly faster to insure you still make contact on the beat.
When players have too much “hit” in their stroke, they consistently tend to make contact with the ball before the 2nd beat, getting too quick on their forward stroke in response to the inadequate length and tempo for the given distance. And despite the fact that at first that ingrained move may feel like what is natural, this is due to the amount of time you’ve invested in doing it that way. If after a bit of work with the metronome you notice it to be difficult to not contact the ball well ahead of the 2nd beat it means you’re a “hitter”. As a hitter, the longer the putt is, the more likely you will “hit” it, rather than “stroke” it or “roll” it and the more susceptible you are to distance control issues. Train yourself to consistently make contact with the ball on the 2nd beat and vary your stroke lengths depending upon the length of the putt and watch your distance control become far more consistent than you might have thought was possible. For centuries, musicians have used a metronome to learn rhythm and how to keep consistent time with a piece of music, so why not give it a try when it comes to learning consistent tempo with you putter because if you don’t learn to to take the “hit” out of your “stroke” your distance control with your putter will continue to miss the beat!