Putting and Anxiety

Putting Requires Adaptive Athlete, Not Locked In Engineer

Most of us are probably familiar with the Bobby Jones quote, “a game played on a five-inch course – the distance between your ears.” It’s an axiom that resists argument, especially for putting. The brain is such a powerhouse, and yet so fickle and fragile. When I ran across this again, I was actually looking at another quote, and for me the two intertwined – Ben Sayers asserts that “a good player who is a great putter is a match for any golfer. A great hitter who cannot putt is a match for no one.” A golfer of any significant age has seen the truth of this on many occasions.

These two quotes in tandem suggest to me that if one is going to put real time and energy into the game, putting  and the short game should get the lion’s share of it. Two pros with serious teaching chops, Jamie Lovemark and Butch Harmon, have some excellent things to say about two essential aspects of good putting. Lovemark averages an 80% success rate from six feet, 10% higher than the tour average, and Harmon has a teaching resume that extends around a city block.
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The six-footer, or “character builder” is reasonable enough to make, and heartbreaking to miss. Lovemark asks if we want the ball to fall in on its last rotation. A lot of us think that way, but that would be hard for NASA to pull off. Think 18 inches past. Six-footers don’t usually break all that much, and don’t require overplaying the terrain. He suggests developing a shot clock. The first segment of one’s time over the ball is productive preparation. Go too long, and it’s pscyh-out time. Not a lot can go wrong with a six-footer stroke, and Lovemark cautions us to “be an athlete, not a robot” It’s not about perfect mechanics, and we tend to putt in an individualistic style anyway. Focusing on backstroke and follow through is counterproductive engineering. We wouldn’t shoot hoops that way from the three-point line – be an athlete.

Harmon speaks of the other big bad scary monster of putting, the lag. Our instincts tell us to hit it harder for longer distance – logical, no? Rather than encouraging a mishit, Harmon suggests longer pendulum back and forth, but the same pace. The anxiety-produced locking of hands and wrists limits the stroke one can make, a guarantee of trouble at long distance. Lag putting requires play in wrists and elbows, while the grip can be light. I’ll have to give this more thought, but Harmon describes the lead wrist to have bend at the address, flattening on the back stroke. The trailing wrist flattens through the forward stroke, creating the necessary power. A lag putt and a drive are not entirely dissimilar. A short, jabbed, or wild stroke is going to paralyze the ability to create distance. The psychological perception of a 50 foot putt is the same daunting sight as standing on the tee and seeing the water 250 yards out. We need sweep and a sweet spot, not a hernia.

A missed drive does not necessarily result in lost strokes. A good recovery game will get us back to the fairway, or on the green in regulation. Putting, however, is the central pillar of lost opportunities. A missed six-footer is the difference between victory and defeat, or for the recreational player, an OK or great round. A bad lag can mean that your six-footer is now for a bogey instead of par. Where a bad drive is a momentary interruption of one’s plan, bad putting is the most horrific wrecking ball ever taken to a scorecard.

So, this spring, I’m going to work on the year’s game from the green backward, with the words of Jones, Sayers, Lovemark and Harmon in my ears. That is, if I can crowd them into  the  five-inch  course  between  my  ears.

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