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Friday, 3 July 2015

If You Could Putt

There is nothing more frustrating than not playing as well as you know you really should. Today was one of those days. I struck the ball reasonably well. In fact, according to Billy, my playing partner, I struck it "great." As for chipping and putting, I was a mug.

I was solid off the tee, hitting 12 of 14 fairways, the ones I missed ending up only a yard or two into the rough. I only hit 12 greens, but our greens are pretty small, and the ones I missed were mostly in a spot where I could have easily got it up and down; that is if I could only have chipped and putted worth a hoot. Instead, I managed to shoot a dismal 78. I'm not a tour player, and, there have been days, especially when I've been plagued by the hook, when I'd have been quite content to take my 78 and run. But today I had at least eight chances for birdie within fifteen feet and made not a one. In fact, I had three birdie chances within six feet and missed every one. I wasn't in any bunkers. I had no penalty strokes. If striking the ball well guaranteed a good score, I should have easily been somewhere around par or better.  Instead, I limped in at six over. It was not a magical day.

Today was a typical example of why they say "drive for show; putt for dough." It was not a fun day because, no matter how well you hit it, this game is about shooting the lowest score possible, and, as Carl the Grumbler is so fond of reminding me, if you can't chip and putt, you can't score. 

After drowning my sorrow with a couple of beers, I took a nap. I always feel better after a nap; because it feels like I've managed to get away with something. If you find your short game is a bit off, try taking a nap. It probably won't help, but it sure won't hurt. I then watched some of the coverage of the action at the Greenbrier, where Tiger (Did he really cheat with Dufner's ex?) managed a respectable opening round 66 (Bless his cheating heart). 

I then decided to look to Bobby Jones for some much-needed advice on the subject of the short game. I've got Dave Peltz's Bibles on the short game, and his book telling me how to putt like the pros. I've even got a book from Bob Rotella telling me how to putt out of my mind. I've got at least a dozen putters and a gizmo on my carpet that returns the balls to me, so long as I make the putt; but for me, Bobby Jones always seems to be able to capture the essence of the problem. Bobby usually has said it best, and often has said it first. When it comes to chipping and putting, just like the rest of the game, it's often as much about management, and what's going on in your head, as what's happening with your stroke. 

Consider some of what Bobby Jones said in his book Golf is my Game under the heading ON THE PLAY AROUND THE GREEN:

"When I try to tell a person something about how to swing a golf club, I am never quite certain that I am really helping him a great deal. But when I am on this present subject (the short game) I know I can give sound advice which anyone can apply, to take strokes off his score and add to his enjoyment of golf.

The main idea in the short play is to give yourself the benefit of all percentages. Never try to be unnecessarily fancy. Wherever possible, select a club which will permit the shot to be played in a straightforward manner and which will make all use possible of the most carefully prepared part of the golf course--the putting surface itself."

I have been a guy who, not being a practiser, some time ago decided to use the 58 degree wedge for all my work around the greens, figuring, incorrectly it seems, that it must be easier to make friends with one club than learn to use several of them. On the days when my feel is good, I can hit some nice little one hop and stoppers, spinning shots and cuts and lobs with reasonable success. When I'm on, I actually look like a golfer. But, on days like today, I just can't piddle a drop. I swear I could have kicked many of my chips closer. I guess it is finally time to listen to Bobby, who goes on to say:

"As must inevitably follow from the above, do not for one moment entertain the notion of playing all short approaches with one club... The rule to follow is this. Aim to pitch the ball in the air by only a safe margin on to the nearest edge of the putting surface, and strike it in a manner which will insure that it will take a full, normal roll---that is, without abnormal spin.

If your ball lies a foot or two off the putting surface on what would be called the 'apron' of the green, use a number three iron and loft it just over the bit of apron on to the putting surface. The shot becomes only a long putt. From a few feet farther back you would use a five iron, and so on, but the shot would be the same. In any case, you are playing for the best possible average of results and not trying for anything spectacular. If you can consistently leave your chips within a radius of four to six feet from the hole, you won't suffer too much in the average  golf game.

All this may sound pretty simple and obvious, but even in select company I have seen departures from it which proved costly. The most upsetting to me, especially if I happen to be sentimentally interested in the fortunes of the player, is the man who plays all chips from just off the green with a seven or eight iron (or 58 degree wedge!), pitching the ball well on to the green, often half way to the hole. Even in these days of advanced greenskeeping, putting greens do have soft and hard spots, and landing on either will throw the shot off. The risk must be accepted from farther out, but it doesn't exist for the ball that is always rolling.

At the other extreme is the player who habitually uses a putter from anywhere on the apron. Here the turf is usually well-conditioned, but the grass is a bit longer than on the putting surface. There is simply no way of knowing how those few feet of apron will affect the speed of the ball. If the ball hugs closely to the ground, the grass will have a breaking effect; but if it bounces once, it may take off. A few feet of run, more or less, may mean the difference between a holeable putt and one that is not quite so.

One other rule should definitely be made for the average golfer. Let him never take his sand wedge from his bag except when his ball is in sand , or in such heavy grass that a prayerful escape is the ultimate hope. The pros do wonders pitching with the wedge, but the extreme loft and extra weight cause it to be a treacherous club in the hands of an inexpert player. It is so easy with it to leave a ball sitting or to top it into tiger country beyond the green."

Having reviewed Bobby's wise admonition, even though I might be a bit more advanced than the average player, I am finally convinced. Carl the Grumbler, who keeps telling me I should be chipping with an eight or nine iron around the green, and Bobby Jones can't both be wrong. No longer will I automatically grab my 58 degree wedge whenever I find myself around the green. I'm going to try being a little less fancy, and hopefully a lot more consistent, by getting the ball rolling, and not fooling around with spin when it isn't absolutely necessary. Like Harvey Penick advised, from now on, if my short game shots are to be a flavour, I'm going to try to make mine vanilla, instead of rocky road.

As for putting, I sometimes feel like a hopeless case, except for the occasional flashes of brilliance that make me wonder. I almost never feel as though I've made as many putts as I should have. I always tend to suspect that the other guy is making all the putts. Frankly, my attitude probably isn't very good when it comes to putting. Years of missing too many three footers has left me somewhat jaded. But then, I think most people tend to feel that they don't make as many putts as they should. This may actually be as much a lack of understanding as it is lack of ability. The reality is we are not supposed to make every three footer. Even the pros miss them more often than you'd think, and definitely more often than they'd like. As Bobby Jones explains, in putting it once again comes down to being as much a matter of management and attitude on the greens as it is your putting stroke. Bobby writes:

"Often--too often, I think--putting has been referred to as 'a game within a game', implying that in some way the putting stroke is, or should be, different from that employed in playing other golf shots. I do not think this is true, and I know it is anything but a useful conception for the learning golfer. Somehow it conveys the notion that on the putting green, at least, one should be able to reduce the simple physical act into a precise routine of infallible accuracy... It is my own conviction that my putting troubles began when I started to struggle for a precision in my putting stroke which I would never have considered possible in any other department of the game.

The fact is that the direction of the stroke in putting is so much more important than the exact alignment of the face of the putter. Any well-made golf club will seat itself in an approximately correct position when it is rested upon the turf behind the ball. The wiggling and twisting some players employ in an effort to make the alignment precise only serve to set up so much rigidity in the player that a smooth, rhythmic stroke becomes impossible. I think the very height of folly, or of imposition upon the credulous golfer, is represented by the spirit levels and sighting devices now being offered for sale as aids in putting."

If Bobby's correct; and I've no reason to doubt him; at least I can forget about looking for a better putter; because it ain't the fiddle, it's the fiddler. I can also forget about setting up chalk lines, buying putting aids and perfecting long, drawn-out pre-putt routines. Bobby goes on to say:

"The putting stroke should be thought of as just another golf stroke, except that it ought to be the simplest. The same requirements are to be met here as in driving from the tee. The posture at address should be comfortable and relaxed, the swing should move freely back and forth beneath a stationary head, and the blow should be directed along the line upon which it is intended that the ball should begin its travel...

In putting, and in chipping, too, it is important that the backswing should be long enough.  Nothing can be worse around the greens than a short, snatching stroke.  I have had some real masters of the short game tell me, and I heartily agree, that it is most helpful to swing back a little farther than needed on the first few chips or putts of any round.  In this way they can be certain of attaining that feeling of a smooth-floating club so necessary for a delicate touch.

Actually, this touch is the key to good putting. Very few putts of any length are dead straight, so that no line is right except for one speed; and the player who tries to straighten even the shortest putts by charging the hole will miss a lot of those coming back.

I will guarantee that more putts under twenty five feet--the kind you like to hole--will go in, and three-putt greens will pop up less often, if the player will forget about the precise alignment of his putter and learn to adjust his touch so that he may always keep his ball above the hole and always reach the hole with a dying ball. A ball dying on a slope above the hole often topples in, and always stays close; nothing is more disheartening than to watch a ball barely miss the lower side of the hole and then curl down the slope some five or six feet. And remember, even on the short putts, that the hole is of full size  for the touch putter, while it presents only an inch or so to the charger who has to hit the exact centre of the cup.

I like to think of putting as very much like rolling a golf ball from my hand across a green towards a hole.  I know I should then not worry too much about the backswing of my arm. I think it would instinctively take care of itself.  So in putting, I don't like to worry too much about the alignment of my putter at address or about my backswing, except that it be long enough. The picture I want uppermost in my mind is of the line I want the ball to travel on, and of how hard I want to hit it.

There occurs to me one other reason for saying that putting is a game within a game. It makes it much easier to say or to think, 'I played very well, but I couldn't putt', or 'He's a fine golfer, but he can't putt."  I know--I have done it myself--but how can a man play golf well or be a fine golfer if he can't putt?

One thing is certain: you won't win any medals or many friendly bets if you can't get the ball into the hole.  If you are not reasonably good at it, you had better learn."

Coincidentally, Billy elected to offer me some backhanded encouragement after the round, saying, "You'd be a heckuva player if you could putt."  I guess Bobby Jones has adequately dealt with that notion. The fact is, if I ever want to consider myself a good player, I'd better learn to putt better. I just hope it isn't too late. Can you teach an old dog new tricks? Can a leopard change his spots? Only time will tell. One thing for certain; I won't be purchasing any putting aids.