If Mark Twain thinks golf is "a good walk spoiled", then putting must be a brief pause to make you reconsider ever walking again. With about 50% of our score being determined on the green, we are constantly in search of the "secret" to getting the little white ball to disappear into the cup. Lucky for us, there is no shortage of really smart people also looking for the answer. The first 8 months of 2008 have been no exception, with a golf cart full of research papers on just the topic of putting. Is the secret in the mechanics of the putt stroke or maybe the cognitive set-up to the putt or even the golfer's psyche when stepping up to the ball? This first post will focus on the mechanical side and then we'll follow-up next time with a look inside the golfer's mind.
Let's start with a tip that most golf instructors would give, "Keep your head still when you putt". Jack Nicklaus said it in 1974, "the premier technical cause of missed putts is head movement" (from "Golf My Way") and Tiger Woods said it in 2001, "Every good putter keeps the head absolutely still from start to finish" (from "How I Play Golf"). Who would argue with the two greatest golfers of all time? His name is Professor Timothy Lee, from McMaster University, and he wanted to test that observation. So, he gathered two groups of golfers, amateurs with handicaps of 12-40, and professionals with scratch handicaps. Using an infrared tracking system, his team tracked the motion of the putter head and the golfer's head during sixty putts.
As predicted, the amateurs' head moved back in unison with their putter head, something Lee calls an "allocentric" movement, which agrees with the advice that novice golfers move their head. However, the expert golfers did not keep their head still, but rather moved their heads slightly in the opposite direction of the putter head. On the backswing, the golfer's head moved slightly forward; on the forward stroke, the head moved slightly backward. This "egocentric" movement may be the more natural response to maintain a centered, balanced stance throughout the stroke. "The exact reasons for the opposite coordination patterns are not entirely clear," explains Lee. "However, we suspect that the duffers tend to just sway their body with the motions of the putter. In contrast, the good golfers probably are trying to maintain a stable, central body position by counteracting the destabilization caused by the putter backswing with a forward motion of the head. The direction of head motion is then reversed when the putter moves forward to strike the ball." Does that mean that pro golfers like Tiger are not keeping their heads still? No, just that you may not have to keep your head perfectly still to putt effectively.
So, what if you do have the bad habit of moving your head? Just teach yourself to change your putting motion and you will be cutting strokes off of your score, right? Well, not so fast. Simon Jenkins of Leeds Metropolitan University tested 15 members of the PGA European Tour to see if they could break old physical habits during putting. His team found that players who usually use shoulder movement in their putting action were not able to change their ways even when instructed to use a different motion. Old habits die hard.
Let's say you do keep your head still (nice job!), but you still 3-putt most greens? What's the next step on the road to birdie putts? Of the three main components of a putt, (angle of the face of the putter head on contact, putting stroke path and the impact point on the putter), which has the greatest effect on success? Back in February, Jon Karlsen of the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences in Oslo, asked 71 elite golfers (mean handicap of 1.8) to make a total of 1301 putts (why not just 1300?) from about 12 feet to find out. His results showed that face angle was the most important (80%), followed by putter path (17%) and impact point (3%).
OK, forget the moving head thing and work on your putter blade angle at contact and you will be taking honors at every tee. Wait, Jon Karlsen came back in July with an update. This time he compared green reading, putting technique and green surface inconsistencies to see which of those variables we should discuss with our golf pro. Forty-three expert golfers putted 50 times from varying distances. Results showed that green reading (60%) was the most dominant factor for success with technique (34%) and green inconsistency (6%) trailing significantly.
So, after reading all of this, all you really need is something like the BreakMaster, which will help you read the breaks and the slope to the hole! Then, keep the putter blade square to the ball and don't move your head, at least not in an allocentric way, that is if you can break your bad habit of doing it. No problem, right? Well, next time we'll talk about your brain's attitude towards putting and all the ways your putt could go wrong before you even hit it!
Timothy D. Lee, Tadao Ishikura, Stefan Kegel, Dave Gonzalez, Steven Passmore (2008). Head–Putter Coordination Patterns in Expert and Less Skilled Golfers Journal of Motor Behavior, 40 (4), 267-272 DOI: 10.3200/JMBR.40.4.267-272
Jenkins, Simon (2008). Can Elite Tournament Professional Golfers Prevent Habitual Actions in Their Putting Actions? International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching, 3 (1), 117-127
Jon Karlsen, Gerald Smith, Johnny Nilsson (2007). The stroke has only a minor influence on direction consistency in golf putting among elite players Journal of Sports Sciences, 26 (3), 243-250 DOI: 10.1080/02640410701530902