Thursday, 14 January 2016

Bobby Jones on Putting

I happened to open the book, Down the Fairway, authored by Bobby Jones and O.B. Keeler, who followed and documented much of Bobby's phenomenal career.  As I have discovered, every time I just randomly open one of Bobby's books, I tend to find some fascinating information.

On this occasion, I opened the book right on the first page of the chapter on putting, entitled Putting: A Game Within a Game.  It was fascinating to learn that, contrary to what we might think, Bobby Jones actually often struggled with the game in general, and putting in particular.  He did not consider himself to be a great putter.  Nevertheless, he certainly learned to putt well enough to be, by far, the best player of his generation.  And, as always, his advice on putting was directed to everyone; pros and duffers, and everyone in between.  Bobby began the chapter by writing:

  "I will essay a few modest chapters in conclusion on my struggles with golf, and the playing of golf, with the emphatic understanding that there is nothing didactic about them.  I am not attempting to give any sort of instruction, or tell anybody how to play golf.  Indeed, I am not sure I can make an acceptable job of telling how I play golf, myself.  There are times when I feel I know less about what I am doing than anybody else in the world.  But I have struggled with the game, and maybe I have learned a little as to how I play it.  I have thought about golfing methods a lot; more than was good for me, I fancy.  Stewart Maiden, the foundation of my game and my first and only role model, says so, and I am willing to take Stewart's pronouncements concerning golf at face value.  Perhaps some reflections on the method of playing certain shots will not be uninteresting; as I said, I've thought about these things a lot.  But please understand I'm not commending these methods to anyone.  I'm just trying honestly to describe the way I play certain shots.  If anybody elects to try out these methods, it will be at his own peril."

How delightful an introduction by the best player in the world at the time.  No promises about making the reader a better player; no claims to having found the secret to taking five or ten shots off your game; just a warning that trying to play shots as he did--trying to copy his method--is done at the reader's peril.  Bobby understood as well as anyone that thinking about method can sometimes make matters worse for us, instead of better.  Reading this makes me think it would be nice if all teachers showed the same kind of humility when offering up their preferred method for us to try.  Nevertheless, Bobby then began to speak of putting:

  "Putting is a curious sort of game within a game, naturally comes to mind.  There is no need to labor it's importance in golf.  Nearly half the shots played by any expert performer are on the putting surface.  Sometimes more than half.  I recall with a mournful distinctness my last round in the 1926 British open championship when I used, or misused, 39 shots on the putting surface, and employed only 35 other shots.
  At the start, putting was not a 'game within a game,' to me.  It was nothing more than going up to the ball and knocking it into the cup, or making a free attempt to do so."

Bobby then speaks of trying several putters before settling on a "Travis" model with which he shot 66 at East Lake as a fourteen year old while playing a round at East Lake with his mother.  With that putter he later that same year won the Georgia state championship and headed for his first national amateur championship at Merion.

The lightning fast greens at Merion "baffled" young Bobby, who remembered putting the ball off the green and into a creek in a practice round.  Walter J. Travis, who was recognized as the best putter of the day, apparently took an interest in this fourteen year old prodigy, and offered Bobby a putting lesson after he was beaten in the third round by Robert Gardner.  

Bobby was half an hour late for the lesson, having missed the train from Philadelphia, and Mr. Travis, who obviously wasn't inclined to show any latitude to a fourteen year old kid, declined to give him the promised lesson.  He did relent some eight years later, giving Bobby a lesson at Augusta that proved to be very helpful to him.  Bobby wrote:

  "I needed help.  From a fairly good kid putter, I became a wretched adolescent putter, having discovered how many things could happen to the ball in the course of three or four feet.  That was always my hardest distance.  It is today.  There was a time when I honestly would rather confront a ten-foot putt that had to be holed than one of three feet.  I felt I could at least hit the longer one.
  I was a bad putter, or at best an indifferent one, up to Skokie, where the national open championship of 1922 was played and my putting held up a rather shabby game so that I finished in a tie for second place, a stroke behind Gene Sarazen.  I was changing my putting style continually in those days, sometimes two or three times in the same round, so I can't tell you what was the matter; indeed, I think it was not any one style or several styles at fault.  I think I was thinking too much about how I looked--I was always trying to copy some good putter-- and how I took the club back, and with which hand I struck with, and a number of things other than the one thing to concentrate on--putting the ball in the hole."

As I read this, I think: he could be describing me!  Bobby went on to discuss a variety of putting styles and theories, most of which he experimented with at one time or another--once again sounding eerily similar to me.  What then did Bobby finally learn that was, in his game at least, the key to good putting?  He wrote:

  "So I worked around and imitated other fine putters, with indifferent results, and finally, after years of suffering and tournament wrecks--I took 40 putts in one round of the national open of 1921 at Columbia--I finally arrived at the conclusion which obtains as these lines are written: that the best system for me is to stroke the ball with as smooth a swing as I can manage, and try always to gauge an approach putt, or any putt except the short holing-out efforts, to reach the hole with a dying ball.
  Stewart Maiden had more than once urged this plan.  'When the ball dies at the hole,' said Stewart, 'there are four doors; the ball can go in at the front, or the back, or at either side, wherever it touches the rim.  But a ball that comes up to the hole with speed on it must hit the front door fairly in the middle; there are no side doors, and no Sunday entrance, for the putt that arrives with speed.'
  This is especially true of keen greens.  On a slow green you can take more liberties with hard hitting.  But on fast greens, on which most championships are played--well there's always the spectre of the three-putt green.  I had three of them, that last round at St. Anne's, in the British open championship of 1926.  You don't forget those things, I can tell you.
  Now here's the way I look at it.  Too frequently, it seems to me, the famous old maxim of 'Never up, never in,' is made the excuse for banging the ball hard at the hole; and the player, seeing it run past three or four or half a dozen feet, consoles himself with the idea that at least he gave it a chance.  And yet it isn't so much of a chance.  Of course we never know but that the ball which is on line and stops short would have holed out.  But we do know the ball that ran past did not hole out.  That's another way of looking at it.  And a putt that is struck too hard has only one way into the cup--through the middle of the front door, and then the backstop must be functioning.
  Also, there is the matter of the second putt, not one precisely to be despised.  There is nothing--I speak from experience--in a round of either match or medal competition that bears down with quite the pressure of continually having to hole out putts of three and four feet; the kind left by overly enthusiastic approaches.  For my part, I have holed more long putts when trying to reach the ball with a dying ball than by 'gobbling' or hitting hard.  And if the dying ball touches the rim, it usually drops.  And if it doesn't touch the rim--well you can usually cover the hole and the ball with a hat, which makes your next putt simple and keeps down the strain....
  I wouldn't say that range is more important than line all the time, of course.  In a holing-out putt of two, three, four or six feet, the line is almost everything and you don't have to worry much about the pace, if you get the ball as far as the hole and still don't bang it.  But, in the approach putts, I do think range is the thing.  Perhaps if I had attended more to the line and not so much to the range, I'd get down in one putt more frequently.  Also, I probably would take three more often.  So it breaks no worse than even, I suppose."

So, there you have it.  Bobby Jones had to learn that speed was the key to better putting, except on the short putts.  He never really came to enjoy the three and four footers; but by controlling his speed, he left himself a lot fewer of them for his next putt.

And, after considering everything, what did Bobby Jones conclude about putting?  He wrote:
  "But as I see it, the thing that hurt my putting most when it was bad--and it was very bad, at times--was thinking too much about how I was making the stroke, and not enough about getting the ball into the hole.  I have always been a fair approach putter, and I am not so bad at holing-out now, though not in the class with a number I could name.  But I have concluded that, having acquired a fairly smooth and accurate stroke, the thing for me to do is to forget it as far as possible and concentrate on getting the ball into the cup.  Which seems to have been the original object, in golf."