Behind the Science, There’s Something Else Going On with Putting
Anyone who has played the game of golf for any length of time knows how difficult and exasperating putting can be. It makes no apparent sense for that being the case, but it’s true, and we all know it. The putter is not less difficult than the driver, despite the short distances we are dealing with.
Similarly, anyone who has taken golf lessons, usually dedicated to just the basic swing required to make contact, get the thing rolling, and hopefully into the air, knows the tremendous amount of physical discipline needed for good putting. The science behind such a seemingly easy action is profound.
Among my latest discoveries in the search for improved golf has been the International Journal of Golf Science, a regular offering of articles written in a style one might expect from NASA personnel on their days off. We can find anything there, including nuts and bolts reasons why amateurs are amateurs, and pros are pros. Every club in the bag is included.
When it comes to putting, one article caught my eye, a good sign because the article is devoted to what catches our eye. Putting is referred to as a closed self-paced action, and shares a mentality with archery, dart-throwing, and other such pursuits. The journal speaks of such things as “gaze behavior” and “Quiet eye” (QE), how we track our action, and what we are able to take into account around us. I couldn’t possibly give it justice if I tried to explain, but refer you instead to the genuine article.
As usual, such new questions I had never thought to ask led me to further questions, and as is often the case, questions lead us to life experience, individual to each one of us. From a review of my own track record on putting, I can contribute my own two cents, even though I can’t easily explain it. In contrast to the feeling of release in the driver, nothing scares us more (except perhaps a wedge to be shanked) than this in-our-face closed self-paced behavior. Putting terrifies us at some level. It is the conclusion of a hole, and a signal of final success or failure that acts as a symbol for our lives in general. Why are amateurs amateurs, and pros pros? According to my two cents, adjusted for inflation, most of us surrender in some way to the fear, adjust to compensate for what might happen, settle for a second-best resolution, and to a certain percentage, guess at what we’re doing.
While we’re talking about the eye, here ‘s what has sometimes disturbed my peace of mind on the golf course, memories of my brother saying “What in the world are you aiming at?” I look down at the putter during these twilight zone moments, and can honestly not see where it is pointing. I size up the line once, and see a massive break. Stepping back then re-addressing the putt, suddenly the break is gone. What happened to it? It was there a second ago. Completely disoriented, now I try making deals with it. Character builder from three feet with a steep break? I stab at it, intentionally and cowardly hit it with the toe of the club with a break built into my forward stroke, thinking it will believe me – all because I’m too afraid to believe my eyes and hit the dumb thing the way I honestly see it. My failure is baked in to my strategy.
Finally escaping the “which way is straight?” phase, there is still my brother’s “how far did you think that was?” phase to endure. Well, I feared three or four-putting so much that I created it by wimping out on the stroke. I know the green’s wet and slow, but I did it anyway. Now I’m still 12 feet away and more afraid of being humiliated than before.
For me, re-orienting my “Nervous eye” (NE) to a “Quiet eye” requires a day off from the driving range for an hour or two of honesty at the putting green. There, I reestablished some trust in my own ‘gaze behavior,’ and relearned to play the game with a little confidence, regardless of the result.
Our fears off the course should not reproduce themselves on the course – and maybe, just maybe, a little trained confidence on the greens might serve as a model for something else out there in the big, scary world. Whatever the case, we should hit it as we see it.