Five reasons why putting isn’t easyTheGolfPsych
There is something about putting that just feels…important.
In my experience, having worked with golfers of many levels, we tend to think of putting as an important part of the game. Quite often our reasons for doing so vary from player to player. If you think of your own game, your regular 4-ball, articles you have seen within the media, and from the time you have spent watching the professionals, and you are likely to be aware that many players (touring professional and club players alike) attribute the success and/or failure of their round upon performance on the greens.
Often considered the ‘game within the game’, there is an noticeable difference in technique (you would hope!) and tactics required in comparison to that needed for the long game. Naturally, this is the aspect of the game that draws each hole (and your overall round) to a close. This knowledge, the requirement for a different technique, combined with hearing the opinions of other can make putting somewhat of a challenge. At this stage, it is worth asking yourself if 1) you feel aware of the inherit challenges of putting? And 2) if you are aware of the impact these challenges have upon your thinking when on the green?
Within this article, I bring together a collection of thoughts from some of previous discussions with players (of many levels) to consider the natural challenge, our predisposition towards unhelpful thoughts, and assumptions we often make when on the green. For each challenge, I offer a strategy that you can follow and apply to your own game, should you find yourself in any of these five thinking traps:
- Our first focus is (usually) on the outcome
Other than the way by which we classify each hole on the golf course (e.g. a par 4, or a par 5), this is one aspect of our golf performance we define (often) before we’ve even hit the putt. Our first (almost automatic) focus therefore becomes outcome OVER process. This is evident in the vary way we label the putt.
Cast your mind back to the last time you played. Were you (at any stage) looking at a putt thinking any of the following: ‘this for a birdie’, ‘knock it close to save par’, ‘just sink this to avoid a bogey’. Now you may not consider this to be overly important (especially if you sunk each putt!), but all of these thoughts provide you with an ongoing battle.
Each time (whether aware of it or not) you focus on the outcome first, you challenge your ability to stay in the present. Thoughts associated purely on the outcome encourage you to consider the future (and the associated benefits or disadvantages) or reflect heavily on the past (e.g. your last missed putt). Put that into perspective. You are unlikely to stand on the tee box of a par 3 and think ‘this is for a hole-in-one’. Yet when on the green may not follow the same logic. We often use a different our approach. Many of us will walk up to or stand over a putt, thinking automatically of the outcome first. Often before (and at the expense of) considering the most appropriate process required for the putt.
A more helpful focus for you would be to approach each putt with a focus on your process first. To develop this approach, spend some time ahead of your next round to consider the stages you follow to get the ball in the hole (e.g. read the green, align your ball, practice stroke, hit start line etc). Turn a birdie putt into another 6ft putt, by starting with your process. In doing so, you’ll be rewarded with a good outcome more often than not.
- We struggle to manage our expectations
When playing the game, it is common for our expectations to influence both the way we think and the we choose to perform. Unlike many other aspects of the game, this is one where our personal expectations can often become unrealistic or unhelpful, and even get the better of us. Consider the following question and make a note of your response. Don’t give it too much thought and go with your gut instinct.
What percentage of putts (how many of 10?) would you expect to hole from 1) 5ft? and 2) 10ft?
Here you have an insight into the type of expectations that you may hold in specific putting situations. Before reading on, make sure that you have made a note of your response above. Next up, I want you to consider the question below. Again, without too much thought.
What percentage of putts (how many of 10?) does a PGA tour player hole from 1) 5ft? and 2) 10ft?
What were the differences in your responses to both questions? According to the PGA (https://www.pgatour.com/stats) this season, from 5ft the best putters average 94%. From 10ft, the best players average 70%. Have a look back at your personal response. If your numbers compare or exceed that of the current performance of PGA tour players, it’s time to reflect. You are either out on tour with them (or you should be!), or this quick exercise highlights that you may benefit from working on changing or managing your putting performance expectations.
A helpful strategy here is to visit the PGA website, make a note of the statistics of your preferred player, and take a copy of these out with you onto the course (for example: written up on a scorecard, course guide, or alternative piece of kit). Before making your way onto the green, check out a selection of numbers from different distances. Use these stats to help manage your own personal expectations before and after each hole. Learn to ground your expectations relative to the professionals – it will likely help you improve your numbers!
- We try to avoid certain behaviours or outcomes
“Don’t leave it short… No three-putts… Don’t canon it past.. Leave yourself a putt… Just don’t hit it off the green…Don’t leave yourself the next putt…”. You may well have experienced thoughts like these, which are all are very normal in a task that encourages, distracts and promotes a focus on the outcome first! (see reason 1 for a recap). Approaching the green planning to avoid a specific outcome or behaviour, can by its very nature lead us to execute the exact behaviour we are wanting to avoid! An example of this is the infamous 3-putt.
If you visit almost any clubhouse on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon and you are (almost) guaranteed to hear the latest tale of woe about a disastrous three (or more) stab that cost someone their round. The harsh reality here is that we all make three putts! So why do we feel a need to avoid them? Even the Pro’s do. If you don’t believe me, revisit the PGA statistics (via https://www.pgatour.com/stat) and have a look for yourself.
As I’m sure you’ll know, it is not helpful to view the 3-putt as something to be feared. It is far more helpful to consider your next 3-putt as an opportunity. An opportunity to see how long you can go until your next! Flip this avoidance behaviour on its head, use it to your advantage. Start to log your ‘2-putt’ streaks. Hole by hole, round by round, course by course, month by month (if you get there). When a streak is over, your personal competition gets back underway. You’ll soon learn to harness this situation, and turn what others can’t into a competitive advantage.
- We can get overly technical
Given the (comparably) smaller movements required for an effective putting stroke (in contrast to the full swing), players (just like you) are aware that a combination of putting mechanics, green reading, selecting (and executing) start line, and pace control are closely aligned to putting success. Given this, many golfers choose to work on some or all of these areas, in an attempt to improve their performance, and lower their scores.
Whilst almost all (specialist) putting coaches would suggest these factors are key to success on the greens, they do also pose a potential problem. When practicing, focusing on some or all of these aspects of putting can prove highly useful, and undoubtedly can be the source of many players performance improvements. However, by choosing to focus on the same (some or all of these) factors when out on the course, can encourage us to get stuck thinking technically. Often in the hope that we achieve a stroke that produces the desired putt, and our intended outcome.
Thinking technically is not necessarily bad, and can work well when you are sinking putts. However, if they do stop dropping, the same process (if not careful) can lead you to reinvest attention into manipulating your stroke, with a heightened awareness of specific technical aspects and their respective impact upon your successes. This cycle is an easy trap to fall into and can be one that many players continue within until the end of a round oblivious that this is holding them back.
In an instance where you find yourself getting bogged down in the technical detail (especially after missing putts), it would be far more helpful to focus on a small controllable factor for your next putt. Put a good roll on the next putt by choosing to focus on a specific, small part of the ball for you to make impact with (e.g. the number, a coloured dot, the logo etc.). Choose to narrow your attention by focussing only on striking the ball your selected specific spot. Want to learn more about strategies like this? Research the ‘quiet eye’ technique to help you with this.
- We often forget that every putt we face is for the first time
How many times have you (or a playing partner) called out what a putt will ‘do’ before being stood behind the ball and reading the green? I’ve even heard players discussing how a putt will break whilst walking down the fairway! Like many golfers, familiarity is something that goes hand in hand with playing regularly at a home course. In many cases, a working knowledge of the course is really very useful.
However, even a strength can become weakness when overplayed. Our knowledge of the course conditions, how the green is laid out, and how the ball will react (e.g. “putts from here always break off the left”) can lead to us to assume a level of knowledge, rush, not check for insight, and overlook additional information (e.g. how did my player partners putt break?).
The reality you face when standing on the green, is that EVERY putt you face is for the first time. The conditions, your experience level, the temperature, the situation you are in, your spot on the green, are all different. It is helpful to treat every putt as though it’s the first time you’ve seen it. Make this part of your process. In doing so, you’ll likely slow down, and apply an approach (swing, line, pace etc) better suited than if you trust your gut, and just hit the putt because you ‘know’ what it’ll do.
To raise this awareness, I recommend the following two stage process. First up, as you stand behind your putt, trace you eye line back down the hole. Ask yourself what your ball had to cross over to get to this part of the green. The second stage here is to ask yourself what the ball must cross to get into the hole. These two simple questions, if applied at the right time, can help raise your awareness and enable you to consider each putt for what it is; a new putt to attempt.
Embrace the challenge
All in all, these five factors highlight how sometimes we can find putting difficult. So, if you are putting well at the moment, enjoy it and give yourself credit for doing so!
Don’t worry if your not, it’s not all doom and gloom! An ability to recognise if you are falling into any of these five traps, before, during, or even after your round, can have significant impact upon your game – with the right strategy. This awareness can impact your ability to think clearly or perform with an absence of thought (if this is your preference).
Consider each of the points made within this article ahead of your next round, and revisit them on a regular basis as and when your performance on the greens is something you want to improve. Think clearly is a skill and is something that requires practice.
If you find yourself already thinking in a helpful way, then great. Keep it up!