Chapter One: The Heart of the Game
Putting -- a game within a game -- might justly be said to be the most important part of golf.
-- BOBBY JONES
As the last twosome approached the 72nd green of the 1998 Nissan Open, not many people in Los Angeles gave my friend and client Billy Mayfair much chance to win. Tiger Woods, playing a group ahead of Billy, had just birdied the final hole to take a one-stroke lead. Tiger was charging. He had birdied three of the last four holes.
The Nissan Open that year was played at Valencia Country Club, and the 18th hole was a long par-5. Billy had not birdied it all week and he did not reach it in two strokes on this occasion. He hit his three-wood into a bunker to the right of the green. But Billy then hit a nice explosion shot to about five feet. He made that putt to force a play-off.
Even then, it was all but assumed that Tiger would win the play-off, which began on the same par-5. Tiger hits the ball much longer than Billy, whose length off the tee is about average for the PGA Tour. Even those who understood that good putting is much more important than length off the tee found reason to favor Tiger: Billy Mayfair has a very unorthodox putt-ing stroke, the kind of stroke that television commentators love to criticize, love to say won't hold up under pressure.
That putting stroke was what initially brought Billy and me together.
Billy grew up in Phoenix. From the time he started playing golf, he enjoyed putting. He had little choice. His parents weren't wealthy and when they dropped him off at a municipal golf course called Papago Park, they couldn't give him money for greens fees or range balls. The only thing a kid could do for free at Papago Park was putt and chip around the big, crowned practice green.
So Billy did, five days a week after school. He developed into a very good putter. Even though he never hit the ball enormous distances, he won a lot of junior tournaments. He won the U.S. Public Links. He won the U.S. Amateur.
He did all of this with the idiosyncratic putting stroke he'd developed at Papago Park. Billy did not take the putter straight back and bring it straight through the ball. He drew the club back outside the target line -- the line he intended for the ball to travel as it left the putter blade. As he started his forward stroke, it looked as if he would pull every putt to his left. But at the last instant, Billy straightened his blade until it was perpendicular to the target line. And he made a lot of putts that way, even though the purists who saw him insisted he was cutting the ball, coming across it from right to left.
Billy, of course, didn't grow up knowing many purists at Papago Park. All he knew was that he had a putting stroke that got the ball in the hole. He assumed it was a stroke that went straight up and down the line of the putt. Why wouldn't he?
When Billy got out on the Tour in 1989, he did quite well. He made enough money to keep his playing card in 1989 and moved up to twelfth on the money list in 1990. But then he started to slip. He developed problems with his short game, especially his putting.
One reason, Billy now thinks, is the way Tour courses are equipped. Every one of them has a big practice range with grass tees. On every practice range there is an unlimited supply of fresh golf balls -- real ones, not range balls. For a kid from Papago Park who could never afford to hit all the balls he wanted, this was all but irresistible. Billy started to spend more of his practice time working on his full swing.
At the same time, he started to listen to the critics of his putting stroke. There were so many of them he decided they had to be right, and he set about trying to give himself a classic putting stroke, straight back and straight through. This was what he thought he needed to break into the ranks of tournament winners.
A player who starts spending too much time on his full swing and not enough on his wedges and chips will soon find himself facing longer putts for par. Even the best players hit, on average, only thirteen or so greens per round. Five times a round, they have to get up and down, and if their short game isn't sharp they're going to be looking at a lot of six- and seven-foot putts they feel they have to make.
If they do this at the same time they're thinking about changing their putting stroke, thinking about taking the blade straight back and forth, they will soon find themselves in trouble. If you're obsessed with some model of the perfect stroke, the first time you miss a putt you think you should have made, you're going to start having doubts about your stroke. Pretty soon, you'll be riven with doubt, as self-conscious as a teenager wearing a new outfit he thinks the others kids deem ugly. And you'll be just as awkward.
In fact, when Billy first came to see me in 1991, he told me he had developed a case of the yips. His scores were going up. He was in danger of losing his card.
What he had, I thought, was not the yips. It was a case of misplaced priorities and a way of thinking that wasn't working on the putting green. I suggested that Billy stop trying to fix his putting stroke. It had never been broken. In trying to fix it, he'd lost his focus on the true business at hand on the green, which is rolling the ball into the hole. I told him I didn't care whether he cut the ball when he putted. I didn't care whether he stroked his putts standing on his head. I just wanted him to think about his target and let the putt go. I wanted him to rediscover the practice priorities he'd had as a kid and spend more time working on his wedges and his chipping.
Billy did. He went on to win his first Tour event in 1993 and to build a solid career for himself. He won the Tour Championship in 1995 at Southern Hills on some of the fastest greens in the country.
All of that history was on my mind as I watched that Nissan Open play-off begin. I think it was on Billy's, too.
"I knew Tiger would have an advantage on a par-five," he told me later. "But then he drove into the rough and I knew he wasn't going to be able to reach it in two. That meant the hole was probably going to be decided with wedge shots and putts. I thought to myself, 'Okay, Tiger. The game's on my court now.'"
Billy Mayfair reaffirmed, in that moment, his knowledge of one of the abiding truths about putting. The challenge of making a putt to win, to set a personal record, is what golf is all about. That's why professional golfers practice putting as much as they do -- because they want to savor the joy of meeting that challenge. The best and smartest of them realize something else as well. Putting is fun.
Billy drove into the fairway and hit his second shot about eighty-five yards from the green. Tiger couldn't reach the green from the rough. He left his second thirty yards away.
Billy's wedge was lovely to watch. It hit about eight feet behind the hole and spun back, coming to rest about six feet away. Tiger hit his pitch past the hole and left himself a fifteen-foot birdie putt.
Tiger's putt was a good one, but it slid past the hole. He sank to his knees, chagrined.
Billy used the time he had while Tiger went through his putt-ing routine. He walked around his putt, checked out everything he could see. But he had known from the time he stepped onto the green what this putt was going to do. It was not quite on the same line as the putt he'd made on the 72nd hole, but it was close. It would be uphill. It would be straight.
"When you're putting really well," he told me later, "you see a line. It's like a baseball player who's hitting really good and says the ball looks like it's barely moving. Your vision is different. I saw my line, just right of dead straight. Uphill. I had a pretty good idea in the back of my mind how hard to hit it."
Billy had the wisdom, as he paced about and continued to inspect the green, not to let anything change this solid first impression. Instead, his observation only strengthened his initial read.
Then it was his turn. There were a lot of things he could have thought about. He could have thought about the fact that he had last won a tournament three seasons before. He could have thought about how impressive Tiger had been ten months previously in winning the Masters by twelve strokes. He could have thought about what would happen on the next hole if he missed his putt. He could have thought about the statistics that show that Tour players make only about half of their six-footers. He could have thought about his nerves.
Fortunately, he didn't. Billy was experienced. He knew that the nerves that accompany a PGA Tour play-off were not something to fear. They were something to welcome. He knew that all the hours of practice had been spent precisely to help him get to a spot where his nerves would jangle.
"All I really thought about," he told me later, "was making sure that I did my routine and saw my target well. I let the putt go."
His target was just a bit to the right of the center of the hole. When he's putting well, Billy tells me, he seems to see everything in slow motion. The ball leaves the putter blade and rolls like a big, heavy beach ball. It is as if he can see every revolution it makes, watch it bump gently over each blade of grass.
This time, everything went slowly. The ball rolled ponderously but inexorably. It was dead straight. He knew from the instant he struck it that his touch had been good. It was a nice, firm hit. He watched the ball cover the target point he'd chosen and fall into the cup. An instant later, pandemonium erupted and Billy felt a deep sense of satisfaction.
"You don't get too many chances to beat Tiger," he told me. "And when you do have a chance, you want to take it."
I love the way Billy handled the situation. He wanted to beat Tiger Woods. But he was able to discipline his thinking enough to shove that thought out of his field of focus, along with all other distracting ideas. He thought only of seeing the target he wanted and letting the putt roll. That was why he made the putt.
* * *
I recount this story not solely because I enjoy looking back on a triumphant moment for a nice guy who works hard at his game and deserves everything he gets -- though I do.
I recount it because it shows so much about the subject of this book -- loving putting, enjoying putting, making putts, making putts that matter, making putts to win. In the pages that follow, I'm going to use Billy's story, and the stories of many other golfers, on and off the professional tours, to tell you how to become a good putter, even a great putter.
I offer this assurance to you: If you can absorb the principles in this book and put them into practice the way Billy Mayfair did, you are going to become a much better putter than most of the people around you, unless, by chance, the people around you are the other members of the Ryder Cup team. You're never going to putt worse than decently. And on your good days, you will putt very well indeed.
Most golf instruction books pay scant attention to putting. They start with the fundamentals of the full swing. They add putting as an afterthought. Some of the classics of instructional literature don't even address putting.
I never thought about golf that way, in part because I came to golf after years spent in other sports. As a kid and a college student, I played basketball and lacrosse. As the director of sports psychology at the University of Virginia, I coached athletes in the gamut of intercollegiate sports. Twenty years ago, when golfers started coming to me and asking for help with their game, I was able to look at golf with relatively fresh eyes.
I knew that in any sport, there were fundamental skills that good coaches emphasized in their teaching and insisted their players execute. In basketball, for instance, I knew that every great team had a good attitude, rebounded well, played defense well, and shot free throws well. Those skills separated them from the merely good teams and the less-than-good ones. A merely good team wins on nights when its shooters are hot. Great teams win on nights when they don't shoot well, because they always play defense, rebound, and shoot free throws. And they always take the floor with a good attitude.
When I started studying golfers, it became immediately apparent to me that good putting was the functional equivalent of good defense, good rebounding, and good shooting from the foul line. I noticed that even the great players didn't bring their best swings to the course more than half the time. But the great ones almost always found ways to turn in a low score anyway. They did it with their short game and their putting. When I started working with golfers, I insisted that they spend a lot of time developing imagination and touch with their scoring clubs, their wedges and putters. At the time, this was not a fashionable view among golf instructors. Most instructors had spent their lives trying to figure out the full swing. They were in love with the mechanics of the driver and the seven-iron. That's what they wanted to teach, and that's what they encouraged their pupils to practice.
That emphasis has shifted in the past two decades, though not necessarily because of my influence. It's the simple logic of the game. No matter how skilled you are with the long clubs, you're going to make roughly 40 percent of your shots with your putter. Moreover, on the PGA and LPGA tours, it's very difficult to separate yourself from the pack by improving your ball striking. Everybody out there can hit the ball well when he or she is on. The putting game is the place to look if you want to get a competitive advantage, to shave the stroke or so per round that makes the difference between making cuts and missing cuts, between winning tournaments and not winning them.
The rule applies no matter what type of golf you play. If you're an average male player who keeps a handicap, you generally shoot in the high 80s or low 90s. Once in a while you make a routine par, hitting your driver into the fairway, your iron onto the green, and getting down in two putts. Far more often, you're around the green in regulation figures, but you're not on it. To make par, you need to wedge the ball onto the green and make a putt. Most often, you don't do that. You probably three-putt more often than you get up and down. But if you putted well, your scores would drop.
In fact, good players know that putting accounts for even more of their success or failure than the strokes on the scorecard would indicate. Seve Ballesteros once explained that on days when he felt that his putting was on, when he could count on getting the ball into the hole when he had to, his whole game changed. Off the tee and on his approach shots, good putting gave him a cocky, go-for-broke attitude that was essential to the production of his best shots. He could afford to be cocky because he knew his putter would rescue him when he made a mistake. Conversely, when Seve felt his putting was off, his whole game suffered. He got tight and careful with his long clubs. He started trying to steer the ball. His good shots turned mediocre and his bad shots turned disastrous.
Good putting helps your golf game the way a strong foundation works for a house. If you putt well, it's easier to hit your wedges and chips. If you can hit your wedges and chips, you'll hit your irons more freely. And if you're confident about your irons, it will help your tee shots.
I like to see players not only accept the importance of putting but revel in it. The ideal golfing temperament would instinctively love putting. A golfer with this ideal temperament would feel a quiet surge of joy every time he stepped onto a putting green. He would think, Oh, good! Now we get to putt! This is where I come to life, this is where I can express my imagination and artistry, this is where I can kick some butt!
Very few people manage to maintain that sort of attitude throughout their golfing careers. A lot of kids seem to have it. But there are socialization pressures at work in golf that want them to become cautious, careful, and eventually fearful about their putting. Over the many years of a golfer's life, it's easy to succumb.
All too many players feel a sense of dread as they walk toward a green, much as they might if they were walking into a dentist's office. They think that nothing good can happen to them there. If they've reached the green in regulation figures, they worry about three-putting and wasting the good shots that got them there. If they have a good birdie chance, they worry about blowing it. If they've struggled just to reach the green, big numbers float through their brains.
If you wonder whether this describes you, let me ask a clarifying question. How often do you look at a couple of three-foot putts and find yourself saying to your opponent, "Good-good?"
This kind of thinking can afflict even the greatest of players. Ben Hogan was one example. When he was winning tournaments, Hogan wrote and spoke of putting with equanimity, as an integral part of the game that could be handled with the right measures of practice, concentration, and relaxation. But as he got older, and his ball striking became virtually flawless, Hogan's attitude toward putting changed. He began to see it as an injustice that putting counted for so much in tournament golf. He began to loathe putting. Once, late in his career, Hogan played a pretournament practice round with the young Billy Casper, who was one of the best putters of all time. During the round, Hogan played his usual immaculate shots from tee to green. He made nearly no putts that mattered. Casper, meanwhile, was all over the golf course with his long shots. But he putted brilliantly. When the round was over, Casper had something like a 66 and Hogan something like 71. Hogan owed Casper some money. As he paid off his lost bet, Hogan sourly told Casper, "If you couldn't putt, you'd be selling hot dogs behind the tenth green."
Hogan, perhaps, thought he was putting Casper in his place, thought he was making the point that he had a much better golf swing than Casper. What he was really saying was, "I can't play this game anymore." Any golfer whose improved ball striking becomes an excuse for hating to putt is in danger of wasting all the time he's devoted to his full swing.
I see this syndrome threatening many of the successful professionals I work with. Typically, they made it to the PGA or LPGA Tour by first learning how to get the ball in the hole. Many of them, like Billy Mayfair, spent much of their childhood hanging around a putting green. Dottie Pepper tells me that when she was a girl, she'd get on her bike on summer mornings just after dawn. She'd go to a golf course near her home called McGregor Links and go out to the 16th green. She knew that the first players wouldn't tee off till the sun had been up for an hour or so. They wouldn't reach the 16th for several hours after that. That gave her lots of time, and she used it to chip, putt, play sand shots, and putt some more. When the first golfers reached the 16th tee, she raked the traps and took off, only to return hours later for more putting in the twilight.
Quite often, as Billy Mayfair did, this kind of player finds that his arrival on the Tour is a great opportunity to work on his full swing, perhaps the best such opportunity he's ever had. He no longer has to devote time to school. There are no restrictions on how many range balls he can hit. He has access to the best swing teachers in the world. Quite commonly, these players become better, more consistent ball strikers at thirty than they were at twenty-two.
But this only puts more pressure on their putting. They can't help noticing that just as much as it did when they were juniors, putting determines success in professional tournaments. Most of them boil down to putting contests. They realize that putting is almost the only culprit keeping them from the success they've dreamed of since they were kids. This can poison their attitude toward putting, turning them from a kid who naturally putted well into a middle-aged man, like Ben Hogan became, who makes sour remarks about someone else's putting success.
My job, with the players I work with personally, as well as with the readers of this book, is to make sure that doesn't happen. It's to help you develop a great putting mind if you've never had one and to help you preserve it if you grew up being a fine putter. It's to help you embark on a lifelong love affair with putting. With such a mind, you can become an excellent putter.
Without it, you might as well stay on the practice range, because your real game is hitting balls. It isn't playing golf. Golf is a game of scoring. If you want to score, you must putt. If you want to score well, you must putt well. It's as simple as that.
Let me assure you, this isn't impossible. All athletic skills have mental and physical components. Some events -- the uneven parallel bars, for instance -- require highly developed physical skills. Putting isn't a complicated physical skill. Compared to the uneven parallel bars, it's a snap. If you can walk and roll a ball with your hands, or throw it underhand to a partner, you can handle the physical challenge of putting. Putting is primarily a mental challenge, and the mental side of putting requires some effort, some thought, and some discipline. But if you're reading this book, you have all the tools you need. You can do what so many of the greats of the game have done. You can build your game from the green back toward the tee and have the sweet satisfaction of seeing your scores drop as a result. Or you can continue to fear and dread putting.
The choice is yours.
Copyright © 2001 by Robert J. Rotella