Monday, February 28, 2011

Reading Greens Like a Kid

Lots of people think green reading is a mysterious skill, while others believe it is a science to be studied.  It is a actually neither mysterious or scientific.  It is a skill that lends itself to the mind of a child.  Kids are open to possibilities and rarely enter situations with preconceived ideas.  Kids have a vivid imagination and naturally visualize things and events.  Kids don't worry too much about consequences.  They putt a putt to see what happens.  They have fun rolling the ball to make the putt.  They don't worry about missing.

Is this how you approach putting?  Do you approach the green with open eyes and and open mind?  Do you see the fun in a big breaking putt?  Can you see the path of the putt in your mind and roll the ball without worry, second-guessing or fear?  If you can approach putting as though you are a child, you will have taken the first step toward being a good green reader.

What goes into reading greens?  First, a recognition of the big picture.  Pay attention before you get to the green.  Unless the green is elevated, the information you take in will help you understand the geography that will effect your putt.  Here is what you are looking for:

  • The shape and slope of the green.  Look for high spots and low spots.
  • Features that will influence slope or grain, such as hills, valleys, creeks or lakes, and contours
  • Color and wear.  If the green is dry or the grass is worn, the color will be shinier and the green faster.
This is a green on the Norman Course at Red Sky.  This is a perfect example of a course architect altering the slope of the green so that it is in opposition to the geography.  This large valley off the right of the green is a natural geographical magnet of both slope and water patterns.  However, Norman built this green complex to slope to the left and away from the valley.  This type of design is best seen from 50 to 100 yards off of the green.  Make sure you pay attention as you approach greens, whether you are walking or riding in a cart.  

When you get to the green, your first job is to figure out if the putt is uphill or downhill.  While your playing partners are lining up or walking around the green, you should walk around your putt.  You have to look at your putt from the side to see the slope effecting uphill and downhill.  From behind the ball or behind the hole, you can see the slopes to the left or right.  

After you figure out if it is downhill or uphill, you need to visualize the speed of the putt.  If it is a short putt, you can control the speed of the putt so it will be your choice.  If you want to be great at reading and making breaking putts, you first have to be great at controlling your speed.  Most people think that means long lag putts, but it is crucial to be able to control the speed of 5-15 footers, too.  On every putt, you should choose to visualize it dropping into the front of the cup, or diving into the hole as a snake dives in a hole or firmly hitting the back of the cup.  That gives you three speeds and three visualizations.    If you have a hard time seeing those, imagine a basketball hitting the front rim and dropping in, a ball going cleanly through the hoop and a ball hitting the backboard and falling into the basket.  
This is the green complex on the 2nd Hole at The Old Course at St. Andrews.  As I was writing today's blog, I thought about the craziest putt I ever faced and it was on this green.  I aimed away from the hole to get the ball close.  You need a great imagination to putt on this green with all of its contours.    

You cannot choose the path of your putt until you can visualize and control the speed!  If you don't have this skill, this is where you need to focus your practice. 

One technique that might help you visualize the putt is to break it down into 1/2s or 1/3s depending on its length.  For example, if you have a 30 foot putt that breaks left to right, the first 1/3 or 10' will be your aim point and the ball will be traveling at its fastest speed.  It is simplistic to assume that it will break down into exact thirds, but for our purposes, I will use 10 feet increments.  The next 10' will usually include the break point or the apex of the curve.  It is often the portion of the putt where the energy of your stroke runs out of steam and momentum or gravity take over.  The final third of the putt, the ball will be moving at its slowest speed and the slope will have the most effect.  Break will always be accentuated when the ball rolls slowly.  This is important to remember for both the final 1/3 of the putt and for a quick downhill putt that you have to baby to the hole.  When you face an uphill putt on the other hand, you are usually hitting it firmly and the slope won't have as much effect on the ball. 

This picture represents a typical breaking putt's curvature.  If you putt from the green dot, the green line represents  your aim point.  The red dot is the hole, which means that the red line represents the line the ball will be traveling on to go into the middle of the hole.  The apex or break point is a bit past halfway.

The important image to take away is the red line or the last portion of the roll of the ball.  Most amateurs don't see that line or angle into the hole, which causes them to miss putts on the low side.  Watch a professional event and you will often see pros pause and look at the hole from the angle the ball will enter.  That gives them a clear view of the center of the hole for their putt.  If the hole is represented with a clock face, a straight line from the green dot to the red dot would lead to 6:00, but the red line actually enters the hole somewhere between the 7:00 and 8:00.  Choosing where your ball will enter the hole and seeing a line back from that center is a crucial step in visualizing your putt.

You have done your homework.  You know if the putt is uphill or downhill, you have chosen the speed to roll the ball, you have visualized the putt from beginning to end, now it is time to roll the ball.  When it is your turn to putt, simply aim your putter down the green line or your aim point.  Commit to that point and keep the picture of the putt in mind.  Now is not the time to look only at the hole, because it will skew you to playing less break.  Stay committed and roll the ball at the speed you chose down the path.  You had three steps prior to putting that prepared you for this moment, so trust yourself and let the ball go, just as you would if you were a kid.  

The qualities of a child, openness, imagination and lack of worry or fear are all inherent in this process.  Keep your head up, your mind and eyes open, visualize and roll the ball.  These are the steps to help you read break, commit to what you see and fearlessly send the ball on its way.  

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