If you could be outstanding at any one skill in the game of golf, you should choose putting. Of the 14 clubs in your bag, your putter is the one used to score. If you watch golf this weekend, you will notice that more than half of the air time is spent focused on putting. If you play golf for money, you will soon understand the importance of making putts.
When you practice your putting, what do you want to focus on? Such a simple little stroke sure has a lot of books written, gurus lecturing and practice gadgets focused on it. Geoff Mangum has broken putting into four skills in his book, Optimal Putting: Brain Science, Instincts, and the Four Skills of Putting. 1. Green Reading 2. Aiming the Putter 3. Stroke the ball where aimed 4. Control pace and distance. Mr. Mangum is as much a physicist as he is a teacher and he studies things like the optimal speed, putter weighting and how great putters set up to putts. I have learned a lot by reading and watching his material and I am sure you can, too. You can check out his teaching at Putting Zone.
I agree that these four skills make up the meat of good putting. When I teach putting though, I have found that teaching the stroke with rhythm and flow is the best first step and I would urge you to begin there while working on your game. A putting stroke is a swing that is based on momentum and flow. The sooner you learn this and link it with controlling the pace of your putts, the sooner you will become a great putter.
Your putting stroke needs to have a relaxed rhythm and by that I mean you can swing the putter with soft hands and arms and the transition from back swing to through swing is smooth. Once a beginner feels this motion, hd or she can begin to understand how to control pace. Many of you who have played golf for years still don't understand how to control pace and I would urge you to putt with a soft grip, closed eyes and song on your mind. A simple song like Twinkle Twinkle Little Star will serve you well. The putter will work away on the first twinkle and strike the ball somewhere within the second twinkle. Whatever your rhythm is, it will remain the same no matter how long the putt. Most tour players have a beautiful rhythm to their stroke. Here is some video of one of the best, Ben Crenshaw. Their audio is hard to hear, but it doesn't matter, just watch the rhythm. A note about having soft hands - they need to be firm enough to control the length of the putter, not so soft that the putter head moves loosely.
Once you can swing the putter in rhythm, you can start to learn to control your pace. Let's back up a step. When we were talking about swinging in rhythm, you were picturing 30 footers and a nice big swing. It is just as important if not more important to have that same nice rhythm on a five footer as it is on a 30 footer. Learning to control your speed doesn't apply only to long lags, but also short putts. If you have a five footer on a fast green with a lot of slope, you need to control your speed to enable yourself to match the break and the speed. The same rhythm you used on the 30 footers will be important on the short putts, too. I used to teach players to have more than one speed to hit a putt, but after reading Mr. Mangum's studies on pace, I will now teach only the correct speed, which is consistent for all putts. That speed allows half of the ball to be in the cup when the ball hits the back of the cup. See his writing for more information. When you practice, spend time hitting putts of all lengths focused only on controlling the pace. Don't putt twice to one target, but instead, keep giving yourself new looks of different distances and slopes. You can put some quarters on the green and putt to stop the ball right on top of the quarter. Here is a video of Phil making five footers. Check out his rhythm and the similarity in speed of each putt. That is a skill you should aspire to acquire.
Now that you have a rhythmic swing and you can control your pace, lets work on aim. Aim is a two-fold skill. First, you must be able to get the face of your putter square with your intended line and second, you need to be able to start the ball rolling on that line. If you aren't a great aimer, spend some time each day putting close to the hole. You want your eyes to be able to see both the putter blade and the hole to make the connection. Dave Stockton, in his book Putt to Win, mentioned that on short putts, his eyes weren't focused on the ball when he putts but on a spot a few inches in front of the ball on the line of the intended putt. To do this is an individual choice and I don't think it is needed to be a great putter, but I like the idea of practicing while focusing your attention on different things to get your eyes moving from the ball, to the line, to the hole. By this, I don't mean that your eyes should be moving around while you putt, but that you practice while focused on a dimple or the number on the ball. Then hit some putts with your focus on the intermediate point and finally, putt some balls while resting your eyes on the blade of grass where the ball will fall into the putt. This is a great practice activity to train your focus and place your attention precisely where you want it when you putt.
Aiming your putter is the first step and there are a bunch of ways to work on it, which we will cover, but you have to understand that the only true way to aim is from behind the ball, not over it. I had the pleasure to see Chuck Hogan deliver a clinic many years ago and he not only changed how I teach alignment, but also how I putted myself. In one hour, my putting went from streaky to great, because I listened to what Chuck had to say about alignment. I will share it with you here.
Chuck talked about the strengths of the brain and how our awareness was incredible. If we were playing any other sport, we would have an idea of where the target is no matter where we moved in space. A shortstop knows where first base is when spinning to throw to first after backhand a grounder. A basketball player can have her back to the basket and turn and shoot without a long look. The important thing when you set up for a putt is to see the putt from behind, see the line the ball will start on and then not get in your own way before you set the putter down behind the ball. Keep it simple. For me, that meant getting rid of my practice strokes when I addressed the ball. However, as always, what I do isn't important, because your process should be individualized for you.
When your aim is good, your task now becomes to start the ball on that line. There are so many theories on how to putt, but the bottom line is the face of the putter must be square when you strike the ball and strokes through it. If we go back to the rhythmic swing we learned at the beginning and remember to have a smooth transition, that transition will usually be based on momentum. If your stroke is momentum based, the handle of the putter will be moving the same direction as the face of the putter and gives you the best chance to swing the putter back to square. You can adhere to Pelz's directions and take the putter straight back and straight through or to Utley, who wants the putter swung on an arc. It doesn't matter as long as the face of the putter is square at impact and a few inches beyond. Here is a quote from Ralph Maltby's website on what is important:
"Putter face angle and path at impact are the two factors that determine the direction the putt will start in. The more important of the two is putter face angle. The breakdown is that approximately 85% of the balls initial direction is determined by the face angle at impact and only approximately 15% is a result of the putters’ path. The two together determine the direction and also if there is any side spin applied to the ball."
A good drill to do is to put a dime or penny 3-4 inches in front of your ball and see if your putt rolls over it. Trial and error with your set up, stroke and alignment will get you hitting putts that are on the line you chose.
There is already a blog on reading greens, called Read Greens Like a Kid. No matter what your level of play, learning to swing the putter rhythmically to match your stroke with the pace needed is the first fundamental needed to be a great putter. From there, make sure your aim and where the ball starts match up to send the ball on the line you choose. These fundamentals need to be mastered by anyone who wants to be a great putter. There is nothing holding you back from becoming a great putter if you decide that is a skill you want to master.