Before honing your putting on the practice green, you first need to decide what it is that needs to improve. Happily, when putting, as with every other shot in golf, you only have to get two things right – line and length. Hit your putts at the correct pace, on the right line, and you will take no more than 18 a round (assuming you don’t chip in from off the green). There are several ways in which you can dramatically improve your putting and, equally dramatically, improve your scores.
How to practice on a putting green
If you can, make a trip to the course just to practice your putting. Here we have a drill used by pro golf Beef before he starts a tournament. Start with getting hang of the pace of the green because unfortunately every week the pace will change and being able to figure out the speed of a green is vital in your efforts to improve your short game.
To begin, take 5 balls one behind the other about 4 feet apart and place the flag no more than a foot behind the hole you are aiming for. The idea here is to get the ball in the hole or to stop before it hits the flag, avoiding puts that are too long or too short.
Again, set yourself small challenges or targets to introduce an element of jeopardy. Phil Mickelson famously used to set himself a target of how many he had to hole before he could finish – in his case 50 or 100. Miss one and he’d start again. Do the same thing but with only five balls, for example. You will be surprised, once you’ve holed four, at how much tension you will feel standing over the fifth, which is a good thing as it replicates the anxiety you feel on the course.
How to practice putting at home
If you can’t get to a proper practice green, any floor space of at least six to eight feet on a carpet (but not shagpile) will do. The benefit of putting on a carpet is that it will be slower than a well-maintained green, so encourages a more positive stroke. If you don’t have a practice aid that returns the ball to you, use a glass or cup laying on its side. Do not become fixated on holing every putt; what you’re initially trying to do is groove a smooth, repeating stroke. Set yourself small challenges. Hit 10 putts, for example, with no ambition except to get all 10 past your target. As you improve, tell yourself to hole three consecutive putts before you can finish.
How to stop leaving putts short
First, look at a spot 12-18 inches beyond the hole and aim for that, not the hole itself.
Second, make sure that your backswing and follow-through are the same length. To make the ball roll further, think about increasing the length of both, rather than speeding up your stroke. Trying to hit the ball with a faster motion is not a recipe for success. Dave Stockton, one of the best putting teachers around, said that you should imagine your putter head as a paintbrush, so that you stroke through the ball, and not the head of a hammer, with which you’re trying to tap in a nail.
Third, maintain a constant pace throughout the stroke.
Fourth, loosen your grip. On a scale of 0-10, if you squeeze the putter handle as if you’re trying to strangle it to death, that would be 10, while holding it so loose that it slips out of your hand would be 0. Aim for a grip pressure around 4-5. One mental image is to imagine you’re holding a small bird firmly enough that it cannot escape but not so much as to crush it. Tension is the enemy of a smooth stroke and gripping the club too tightly restricts a free-swinging motion.
Fifth, and probably most important of all, do not look up too soon. This is probably the most common cause of poor putting – in their anxiety to see where the ball is going, the golfer looks toward the hole before they have finished their stroke. On short putts, listen to hear the sound of the ball falling into the cup before moving your head (you might wait a long time, though). On longer putts, count to two, or tell yourself to look at the patch of grass where the ball was, before looking up to see where it’s going.
You are going to three-putt during your golfing life. It is much better to do so by knocking the first one past the hole than it is by leaving it woefully short. Consistently under-hitting putts eats away at your soul.
Missing on the low side
This is far less of a problem than leaving putts short but nonetheless, if it’s something that afflicts you consistently, remedial steps need to be taken. Most of the putts you face will have some degree of slope or incline between you and the hole, causing the ball to break in that direction. Start by checking your alignment. Use the manufacturer’s name, or a line that you put on the ball yourself as your guide. Point this towards the side of the hole that has the slope. All putts are straight, they’re just not all in a straight line towards the cup; they can be inches, or even feet, towards one side or the other, so that’s where you aim. Missing on the high side – that is, allowing too much break – is also called missing on the pro side because the best golfers are more likely to allow too much than too little.
A word on plumb bobbing. Don’t bother. This is where you see someone standing behind their ball, holding their putter in front of them like a plumb bob to try and gauge the degree of slope. Very few tour pros do this nowadays because they have learnt, over decades of experience, that it’s a waste of time.
How to read greens
Start before you get there. From 20-40 yards away just look at the general topography; is the green higher on one side than another, or is the back more elevated than the front? Once you reach the green, have a look from both sides of the flagstick. Don’t get too hung up on reading the speed of the green. If golf is your livelihood, by all means pace around like a caged tiger for several minutes, studying the putt from every angle but as a handicap golfer all that does is make your playing partners furious. If you’re not the first to play, use the time those playing partners spend over their putts to study your own so that when it’s your turn, you’re ready to go. As a general rule, what you see when you first study your putt is probably what there is, so trust your judgement and don’t spend an eternity second-guessing yourself. Is your putt into the grain or down grain? You can often tell by looking at the way the green has been cut, if the grass looks shiny as it runs towards the hole, your putt is down grain and will be a bit quicker. That’s all you really need to know.
Practice does not make perfect but it can make for dramatic improvement. Know what it is you want to work on (line or length) and focus on that. Practice with a purpose; set yourself goals and targets so that the outcome of each stroke matters. Relax your grip pressure, have the same length backswing as follow-through and, most important of all, don’t look up too soon.
About the Author
Martin Vousden - Golf Writer
Martin Vousden joined Today’s Golfer in 1988 as a staff writer and quickly rose to become editor; under his stewardship it became Britain’s best-selling golf title. He then became launch editor of Golf Buyer and Swing magazines, before moving to Scotland to take over at ScottishGolf. After five years he became (and remains) a freelance journalist, having written for numerous titles, including Golf Monthly, Golf Punk and The Clubhouse, which is based in Malaysia. He lives in Angus, about 12 miles from the Carnoustie course that beats him up every time he plays it, so he joined Kirriemuir GC. His handicap of 19.3 rises inexorably with every passing year.
Martin’s golf bag contains:
Ping G400 driver
King Cobra F/Speed 3-wood
Kane Golf 5-wood
Callaway Big Bertha 7-wood
Wilson D9 irons, 5-gap wedge
Yonex Z-Force sand wedge
John Letters Golden Goose lob wedge
Putter: GEL Ruby or Odyssey 2-ball blade (depending on which is behaving itself)
TaylorMade Distance Balls (yellow, just because he likes the colour)