In my informal research as a student of the game, I have observed that the older we get, the less adept we are in reading greens. This, of course, doesn’t always hold true, but witness Tiger Woods, Steve Stricker, Vijay Singh, Davis Love III, John Daly, and other pros in their late 30s and 40s. Their strokes seem solid and true enough but they are missing putts that they used to make routinely. Woods is the most graphic case of the bunch. The greatest reader of greens in the history of the game just doesn’t have it anymore. And unlike Johnny Miller’s prediction, I don’t think he’s going to get it back. Woods never missed from 3-5 feet, and from farther out, he was the best clutch putter on tour. No more. He’s still good, compared to other guys, but at best, he’s slightly above average. Stricker, chosen for the Ryder Cup team for his tremendous putting abilities, was terrible in that contest. And Vijay, who has retreated to the long putter, is 49 and hasn’t won in several years, after a marvelous stretch in his early 40s. Even John Daly, whose fluid, rhythmic stroke was the envy of all, still has that stroke, but often can’t find the line or the speed.
As for myself, I used to be a pretty darn good putter, helping me break 80 often years ago. I, too, still have a fluid stroke, keeping the head rock still, but, at 66, I just can’t sink many putts, particularly the short ones for par, the way I used to. It’s extremely frustrating after cozying up a decent chip or pitchto five feet (that right: the chipping’s not as good either) to miss a relatively easy putt for par. Demoralizing, really, and requiring a regrouping for the next hole, of which I am deeper in as per my ballooning score. With all the great equipment and helpful instruction, I’ve never struck the ball better from tee to green, but I just can’t read greens the way I used to in my younger days. I’m still good at reading the line of longer putts, by the way, of 25 feet and beyond, but my speed is often off by quite a bit. On the short ones, I have good speed but the line is off. Knowing this, is there any way to correct this disheartening situation? For, as the name of the Golf Channel show indicates, golfers want and need a fix.
To be honest, I’m still working on it, knowing more of what I should not do than what I should do. Back in the day, Palmer, Nicklaus, Casper, and Trevino were my models, for, despite their wristy techniques, those guys could read greens. Today, my models are McIlroy, Fowler, Snedeker, and Poulter, with Rory at the top of the list. First, they don’t approach a putt like it was a coiled rattler. Older golfers, who’ve lost their keen ability to read putts, treat the putt like the approach-avoidance conflicts I studied as a psych major in college, often in doubt from start to finish, never quite commited to the line and speed as they crouch down, get up, walk around, get down again, stand over, back off, call in their caddy surgeons for a second opinion, replace the ball and pull their coin, stand over and address the ball, turn their eyes to the hole a few times, and…back away again ala Jim Furyk or Ben Crane. First off, Rory enters the green after his approach like Robert the Bruce advancing into battle. He’s reading the putt as he strides, getting a feel for the lay of the land, perhaps through his feet and certainly his eyes. He’ll acknowledge the crowd’s cheers, but, believe me, he’s got that putt foremost in his mind.
With no other shot in golf is the mind any more important. Even an ounce of insecurity, one negative thought, a slight moment of doubt, will send infinitesimal twitches from the brain’s neuronal network to the synaptic nerves endings in the hands and fingers, raising the ugly head of indecision as the golfer stands over the putt. The origin of the yips, defined. With Rory, you don’t see this indecision much. Once he places his putter blade behind the ball, he pulls the trigger and sends the putt on its way. It’s as much a zen act of golf as I’ve ever seen. There is no fear in his stroke, and little indication of regret after he completes it. His mind, his body, his hands, his fingers, his eyes, are working in unison. And he doesn’t take a lot of time getting to this place before he putts. Again, he reads the battlefield green like a confident general, deciding where to strike, often without his caddy’s input, and sticking to it, come hell or high water. That’s key: Wherever the ball winds up, his goal is to strike the putt solidly on the sweet spot. This is where his hearing enters the fray. As in tee to green shots, he wants to hear that certain click telling him that he’s made pure contact with the putter. Yes, he wants to be aligned correctly. Yes, he wants to keep the head and neck still. Yes, he wants his eyes directly over the ball. Yes, he wants to minimize the movement of his wrists, making it more an arm and shoulder motion. Yes, he wants to pick a spot, over which he intends to roll the ball. But mainly, he wants to hear that magic click that tells him he’s done all the above antecedents correctly.
Poulter, Fowler, and Snedeker all have similar approaches to the putting game, for it is truly a game within the game of golf. As Davy Crockett, the great American frontiersman and legislator, once said, “When you know you right, go ahead.” No doubt. No fidgeting. No thinking. No backtracking. No fretting. Size up the putt from as many angles as you want. Decide on your line and how far back you’ll draw your blade or mallet. And stroke the bloody ball. Come hell or high water. No guarantees, except that you’ll know you’ve hit your target cleanly and solidly. The true target? The ball, which we tend to forget as we golfers age.
Marcel White says
Similar ages, similar problems. But different approaches.
You said: “I have observed that the older we get, the less adept we are in reading greens.”
I say: “… the less interested we are in squatting down to read greens.”
Now, more seriously, I’d say that I’m not the guy that can fix the putting problems you mentioned. But I have opinions that I can share.
I believe that in the examples you mentioned of “pros in their late 30s and 40s”, they still keep the ability to read greens but some brain cells are gone and this fact produced minor disturbing differences that we can’t see but have consequences we can measure. Perhaps they are less relaxed, less confident, are insecure, etc.
Yes, brain cells start dying very soon and at 30 they are certainly disappearing at a quick pace and can’t be replaced. The good new is that they are organized in a kind of network and, every time a path is corrupted, the brain works hard to find alternative ways. It can take a few minutes, hours, days, months, or if the damage is dramatic, the recovery can be impossible. A common example of minor disturbance occurs when suddenly we forget a word or a name of someone we know very well. Another example, in my opinion, is the dreaded yips (that you also mentioned in your post). And I’m preparing an article to explain how to cure it for those who believe in my theory. I’ve been affected 3 times in the last 6 years and I am putting better than ever. It works, guaranteed!
This is already a long comment and I’ll stop here. But we still have a lot to discuss about green and putt reading and also putting lines of breaking putts. I look forward to the email you promised to send me.
Keep playing golf and keep writing about it because your posts are very good.
Stephen Altschuler says
As usual, some well thought out points here, Marcel. Yes, my putt reading squats are getting more and more vertical with age. And brain cells? Mine require round the clock nursing care. And…what? You’re putting better than ever? Please. Please. Fill me in.
Thanks for the encouragement, Marcel.
First off, I don’t know who you’re sand bagging here but, I’m sure you still roll it great! Nice try though!
I think these kids have a complete lack of fear and haven’t realized the unfortunate reality that is indecision and second guessing. If you watch Sends on these short putts, he doesn’t do a lot of reading, nor does Rory.
They trust themselves completely. Trust it and let it roll!
Stephen Altschuler says
LOL. You know, Brett, I did roll in two nice birdie putts the other day, so, yeah, guilty as charged. But I was playing alone so I guess I sandbagged myself!
It’s true. The kids on tour have no fear. They just see the line, feel the speed, and let ‘er rip. The definition of zen putting.
Thanks for the comments.