Practice, as most of us employ it, is borderline worthless. This is because most of the practices typically employed during practice, have little chance of improving our performance under pressure. The type of practice that improves performance is, for the most part, rarely engaged in because practicing under typical “practice”conditions does very little to simulate the thoughts, feelings, and emotions we deal with once our performance actually means something. If we want to really improve our performance when it matters, we need to put ourselves in situations, often and repeatedly, that simulate the pressure we experience during competition. And nowhere is this statement likely more true than on the putting green.
The art and skill of putting is a funny thing. No element of the game requires less inherent hand-eye coordination or athletic talent. Putting’s simplicity makes it golf’s great equalizer. You roll a ball along the ground with a flat-faced stick in the general direction of a hole nearly three times its size. Sure, green speeds vary wildly, and there are those diabolical breaks to deal with, but despite that, putting is truly golf’s most level playing field, the one element of the game where even the highest handicappers can potentially compete straight up with the game’s most skilled. At the same time, there are few other situations (other than maybe the 1sttee) when we feel as much pressure as we do on the putting green.
Ben Hogan, during the latter part of his career, (years that were marred by poor putting) claimed that putting shouldn’t even be a part of the game because, in his words,
“There is no similarity between golf and putting; they are two different games, one played in the air, and the other on the ground.”
Now Hogan suffered a serious case of the Yips later in his career, and while this statement was likely uttered following a frustrating round of missed 3-footers, it serves to highlight not only the differences about putting the rest of the game, but how taxing on the nerves it can be for even the games’ greats. Its inherent simplicity, the slow pace of the stroke, and how much time we are given to contemplate it, are in truth what sets us up. It’s golf’s free throw. We very often know exactly what to do, and how to do it, like when we’re faced with one of those straight 3-footers, but with more time to think, it opens the door wide for the type of second-guessing that arises during those moments we feel a bit of pressure. And that’s the biggest part of the problem.
Now the self-sabotage that leads to missing relatively short easy putts, the reasons behind it, and practices to overcome that is something for a different article, because what I really want to get into at the moment is a practice that I think can help insure you never end up in that desperate place to begin with. Most of us rarely practice our putting, and when we do, it’s in about the most useless way we can. We’ve all done it. You grab a sleeve of balls just prior to the round, head to the practice green, and begin rolling them from hole to hole around the typical 9-hole route. Now I could go into a whole host of reasons why this isn’t very helpful, but the #1 reason it’s such a pitifully poor practice is this. There is no pressure.
Early in my career, I worked at a club where there was at least one money game on the putting green every day, and many nights too. The members (and staff) putted aces, 5 for $5, rabbits, and many other games for hours on end, and when the sun went down they often switched on the clubhouse roof-mounted floodlights and continued into the wee hours of the morning. Many days (and nights) I witnessed hundreds of dollars change hands on that putting green, occasionally from my own, but in my younger days that was fortunately an infrequent occurrence. Those money games were a cherished part of the culture of that club and an incredibly good arena in which to learn to practice under pressure. To this day, I’ve never seen as many really good pressure putters (many of very average handicaps) as I did during that period, and when I think back upon it it’s no small wonder either.
The problem with practicing golf, or just about any other sport for that matter, is that it’s difficult to practice under the types of pressure we compete in. And nowhere is that more true than when it comes to putting. In 4 or 5 hours on the golf course we might only have a half dozen putts that really mean something, and maybe only 2 or 3 of those knee-knocking 3 footers with the match on the line or the chance to win a bet. When I was younger and playing in those money games on the putting green I had a meaningful putt every minute or two, for hours on end, and you either learned to handle that pressure pretty quickly or your hard-earned paycheck was being signed over to someone else. Now I’m not bringing this up to encourage gambling, as I know for some people that can become a serious issue, but rather to point out how the opportunity to practice repeatedly under pressure helped me learn to deal with those situations. And with how infrequently we even get the opportunity to face that same pressure when we actually play, it’s important to try do our best to simulate it as often as we can during practice.
So when it comes to my own students these days, I don’t necessarily encourage gambling (I don’t discourage a littlebit of it either), but I do encourage putting and practicing for something. I’ll get three of them together on the putting green and say look, “You guys putt for 30 minutes and the loser has to do 100 push-ups”or something similar. I’ll tell students to putt their parent for who has to mow the lawn, do the dishes, or some other mundane household chore neither of them really wants to do. The point is to have something on the line, something that will make it really hurt to lose. You can even do it by yourself. Wait to practice putting right before lunch or dinner and make a pact with yourself that you can’t eat until you make 15 3-footers in a row or something similar. Because until you find a way to practice under pressureall that practice is really just that. Practice. And so you shouldn’t be surprised if, when the chips are down, it doesn’t translate to improved performance.