Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Bobby Jones on Golf: Spotting the Line

I think there is a tendency to think that golf is a different game from the game played by Bobby Jones in the 1920's.  The reality is, the only thing that's changed is the equipment and the condition of the golf courses.  Because of improved technology, the game is easier; we may be hitting the ball a bit farther, and a bit straighter, and we may do a little better on improved greens.  But the game, and the challenge it presents, namely of knocking a ball into a hole that tends to be too small, with implements singularly ill-designed for that purpose, has changed not a bit.  

It's because golf is still the same game that I tend to spend so much time reading Bobby Jones' teaching.  It's as relevant today as it was when it was written.  The implements in golf may have changed, but the nature of the creature wielding them certainly hasn't.  And Bobby Jones understood golf, and golfers, as well as anyone ever has, or likely ever will.  

The Open at St Andrews should have once again reinforced the fact that golf will always be a game that is more about precision than power.  If you have to choose between being a long driver and a good putter, the choice becomes obvious when we remember who took home the Claret Jug this year on a course that was touted by some as a bomber's paradise.  

That's why I've gone back to reading Bobby Jones' advice on the subject of putting.  I have days, like today, when putting seems easy.  But generally, I feel like the most inadequate character I know with a putter in my hand.  I know much of that is attitude, but I also feel as though I still have much to learn, or remind myself, when it comes to putting.  In Bobby Jones on Golf, Bobby had this to say on the subject, under the heading Spotting the Line:

"Certainly, I lay no claim to having reduced the art of putting to anything approaching a science in which there is no variation from day to day, but I found my average performance on the putting green to be greatly improved by following a few principles, none of which has to do with form or the details of the stroke.  The first one is to resist the inclination to look up to the hole while in the act of striking the ball, an inclination that becomes stronger when one's putting becomes uncertain.  Other players have devised for themselves ways of guarding against this tendency.  It makes little difference how long the head is kept down so long as one makes certain that the ball has actually been struck before the eye leaves it.

Absolute concentration upon the ball is materially aided by substituting for the objective of the putt, instead of the hole itself, a spot on the green somewhere along the intended line.  For a putt of six to ten or twelve feet--of the length one would normally at least hope to hole--the spot selected should be about half way to the hole; for a putt of more than this length, the spot should be no more than fifteen feet from the ball.  It should then be the player's aim to strike the ball so that it will roll directly over this spot, and he should forget the hole entirely except insofar as his mental picture of the length of the putt will affect the force of his blow.  In order to become more consistent, the player should make up his mind to concentrate every effort upon striking the ball truly.  If he succeeds here, he cannot go far wrong.

Many good putters will declare that they putt well because they follow through straight toward the hole.  Whether or not the follow-through is a virtue, it certainly cannot be a prime cause, for when it takes place, the ball has started on its way.  I have never been a believer in a fixed putting style.  It has always been my idea that more attention should be given to gauging the effect of a slope, and to estimating the speed of a green--in other words, to training the eye--than to the mechanical perfection of the stroke.  It is evident that no matter how accurately the ball may be struck, it must be started on the right line and at the right speed.

As an indication that the line is the important thing, I can truthfully say that I have holed very few putts when I could not see definitely the path the ball should follow into the hole.  Sometimes this line seemed to be as clearly defined as if someone had marked it out with white paint; I cannot remember failing to at least hit the hole when I have been able to see the line this clearly.

There is one thing a golfer should always remember and always practise.  In any round there are always numbers of times when the proper line to the hole is obscure; if it were always visible, we should miss few putts.  But it is always a good practice, when the correct line cannot be determined, to borrow generously from any slope and to attempt to cause the ball to pass a tiny bit above the hole. If the ball remains above the hole, there is always a chance that it will fall into the upper side, and it is certain that it will at any rate not stop far away.  But once a putt begins to roll below the hole, every inch it travels takes it farther from that precious cup.

The art of appraising slope and speed--that is, of reading a green--can be derived only from experience.  The player who sees only the greens on his home course is at some disadvantage because he comes to know these in spite of himself.  In order to broaden his experience, he should play other courses as often as possible."

So, from this short segment from Bobby Jones we get the idea of spot putting, trying to miss on the high side when the correct line isn't obvious, and not looking up at the hole until after the ball is struck. These principles have been, and are still followed by the best putters in the game.  

Unfortunately for me, spot putting has not worked very well because I seem to seldom be able to see the exact line a putt will take to the hole.  This may be because I am not a visual person.  I seem to be more feel oriented, tending to feel the break with my feet, rather than seeing it. I have also taken to looking at the hole when I putt, which stops my head and eyes from moving in an effort to follow the putter head, or to see where the ball is going. But, for those who are more visual, and able to visualize the line, you would be well advised to follow Bobby's advice about rolling the ball over a spot on the intended line, rather than worrying about the hole.  It worked for him, and was adopted by, among other top players, Jack Nicklaus. 

I intend to continue sharing Bobby Jones' teaching, because, in my opinion, many have copied it, but no one has managed to improve upon it.  Whenever I read modern instruction, except perhaps as it relates to swing mechanics, I am constantly reminded that Bobby not only said it first, he also said it better.  He was, and still is, as that young St Andrews caddie once exclaimed, a wonder.