Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Arc or Straight

The Putter Path Myth

The putter-face at impact determines approximately 82% of the direction of the ball moving away from the club. The remaining 18% of the direction the ball leaves the putter is influenced by the direction of the shaft plane as the putter swings through the ball. So the path the putter takes is of much lesser importance than the face angle at impact. However for the player, the perception of the direction of the putt is almost entirely the direction of the path of the stroke. The conflict can come either visually or by feel, but the results are usually the same as diagramed by the illustration at the top of the page. When a stroke starts "off line" it is the effort to correct, by twisting the putter-face or re-routing the putter during the forward swing that causes the miss. Trying to steer the putter in the forward stroke is easily the most frequent reason for a missed putt. If my stroke doesn’t match my perception of the direction I am trying to roll the ball as dictated by our vision, it is our nature to attempt to correct the error. This explains the success of having player not watch the putter as it swings away. They are less likely to react to the path created by alignment and posture and therefore less likely to attempt to correct the stroke. It also explains how for many of our students they are more successful by performing the stroke with their eyes closed. Without the visual influence or interference the stroke performs as it should.

There is also a great deal of misinformation out there due to the efforts to “market” aids and systems that are based on perfect path direction. Most teaching systems are based on achieving a putter path that parallels the intended line of the putt at impact. In general, there are two accepted descriptions of putter-paths, both of which assume a path that at impact has the putter moving in the exact direction of the intended line of the putt. These descriptions are known as the straight back and straight through method, which assumes that the head of the putter moves on a straight path during the stroke. The other method is called the arc. This is a description of the appearance of the putter when it is allowed to move on a natural inclined plane. Both of these descriptions are two dimensional descriptions of a three dimensional motion and the net effect is more confusion than solution. When measured accurately the putter actually does both. The shaft of the putter and the motion of the hands is a straight motion. We define this aspect as the stroke plane direction. The head of the putter, when examined separately moves on an elliptical path when traced in relationship to the ground and in two dimensions. This is because of the fixed length of the player’s arms and the attachment of a putter at a fixed length. As the shaft moves on a straight path along the inclined plane, as the putter head travels along as it comes up off the ground it moves along the plane slightly to the inside of the path of the shaft. The size and shape of the arc is determined by the distance the player is from the ball, the lie angle and length of the putter. The farther away the flatter the shaft plane angle and the more pronounced the arc. Because this path shape is a consequence of the stroke plane direction and the measurement and fit of the putter itself we feel the description of path shape to be of no importance.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Ball Roll

Ths is a video of an average ball strike during a putt. Note the slight backwards rotation of the ball leaving the putter and that the ball imediately rotates forward on contact with the ground.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Putters made Famous

We work extensively at the United States Golf Academy with Mizuno USA along with other companies. As a Mizuno staff professional one of the fun parts of the job for me is the relationship with Bob Bettinardi and his people at Bettinardi Golf. If you aren’t familiar with Bob, he builds putters for the Mizuno Golf, as well as custom work for players on the tour. Occasionally, we have access to the putters from the tour that were not put into play, and we custom fit these heads to our customers at the Academy. These putters are milled from a single block of metal, and are truly works of art.

For me, golf club geek that I am, these putters have an identity of their own. Over the years certain putters have become legendary in the golf world and I can’t help but wonder that if circumstances were different would one of these creations had a chance to become legendary as well. Some examples of these famous putters are:

Arnold Palmer’s MacGregor IMG 5. For most of the glory years this was the putter. He was constantly tweaking, welding new metal and then grinding it off, but in some shape or form it was in the bag for most of his tournament wins. At one point the grinding and work he did on it was the inspiration for …

Ben Crenshaw’s Wilson 8802. This model of putter was a copy of one of Arnold’s grinding sessions and was the one used by Ben Crenshaw for his entire career. Ben’s almost mythical skill has made the 8802 and the Designed by Arnold Palmer version, prized collectors items. In addition to Crenshaw, players like Lee Trevino, Tom Watson, Larry Mize and many others have won major tournaments using this style of putter.

Jack Nicklaus’ Wizard 600. Another product of a welding and grinding session, Jack’s Wizard 600 is uniquely his. The production model was built by the Hansberger Brothers of Chicago and unlike the others, no one really every used the Wizard in competition to any level of success. Jack’s putter was easily the most successful golf club in history until…

Tiger Woods’ Scotty Cameron Newport. An offshoot of a Karsten Solheim (Ping Golf) design, Tiger put this putter in the bag in the late 90’s and all of his wins from that time have been with this one putter. Tiger’s success with this putter has spawned an entire industry of collectable items related to putters and has influenced countless players to believe their putter has to be like Tiger’s. This putter is not only the winningest putter of all time, it is also the most influential.

Robots and Humans

By a show of hands, how many of you out there think you have a bad golf swing? Most of you, right? The funny thing is that if the truth were told the majority of the golf swings we see are pretty good, especially when there is no ball to strike. We often video practice swings to show players their potential and they are shocked to see that swing compared to the one with a ball. The problems with ball striking come from preparation, posture and ball position relative to that posture and not the esthetic quality of your swing.

To help you understand, try to envision the following. I have a robot that makes a technically perfect golf swing every time. All I have to do is switch on the machine. I have a customer that would like to see the machine in action. I would love to show him except I need about 30-45 minutes to set up the machine and get the ball in the appropriate position. It has to be positioned at the exact bottom of the arc of the swing, the club has to be positioned with the exact orientation to the machine and the machine must be pointed exactly in the right direction. On second thought you had better give me about 90 minutes to set up… for one shot! If want to see shots with different clubs I will need an hour each time I change. A round of golf with the robot would take about 2 days. If I have the ball out of position even the slightest amount the quality of the shot is just as poor as you would expect.

The difference in humans and robots is that humans can react to a bad ball position. In fact, good hand eye co-ordination will often mask poor preparation and cause a player to look to the wrong areas for improvement in their swing. Trying to alter path and direction by using your hands only is a favorite. You see this a great deal with players that have excessive curvature of the ball in flight. They react to a bad ball position by creating a adjusted path by swinging the hands independently of your alignment. The favorite is to aim left with the body and then try to swing the club more to the inside with the hands. At best a swing like this depends on extremely accurate timing. The keys to accurate ball striking are to have clubs that fit, have my body aligned properly to the path I would like the ball to travel, and a use swing that is proactive and not reactive. One that is in balance and working in the same direction as the body is pointed. Just like the robot.

Fall Analysis

One of the great mysteries to me concerning golf in the mid-west is why golf rounds played slow so dramatically after Labor Day. I understand the football argument, but even so fall is the best time of the year to play. The weather and golf course conditions are usually very good. The courses are less crowded, so pace of play is less of an issue. Most important, from my point of view, is that the later you play into the season the better the chance you have of playing better in the spring.

Fall is the best time to analyze your game. You have had the summer to develop some feel for your swing, good or bad. Now is the best time to go to your teaching professional and talk about the changes you can make to be a better player. Most mid-summer lessons are what I call conditional sessions. The student wants you to fix their game, BUT, don’t do too much. They just want one or two swing keys that can help you hit the ball in an acceptable manner. Most of the time they come a week before a special event like a member guest or charity outing. No time to really look at your game and truly evaluate your method.

Fall is the perfect time to take serious look at developing some new strategies for your game. Consider the following:

Grip – It is really tough to make a grip change. However, once you overcome the new feel it can make all the difference in the world.

Drivers – Now is the best time to have a professional look at your driver strategy. Get some help on proper set up and ball position demanded by new driver technology. Once those are understood then look to find the best driver for the new set up.

Putting – Now is the time to become a better putter. It is not a matter of luck, great putters are made not born. The first step is to make sure your putter fits you posture and vision. Depending on the individual some putters are easier to aim than others. Spend some time working to find a stroke you can repeat. Focus on these three factors in this order. Control the face. The majority of influence on the direction the ball leaves the putter is determined by face angle at impact. Control the speed. Rhythm and tempo are key factors in controlling the stroke for both distance and direction. Finally, when you can control the speed the putter swings then learn to associate the length of stroke to the length of the putt. Too many try to hit long putts hard and short putts softly with the same length backswing rather than using a consistent tempo and a longer stroke for a longer putt.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

PGA Championsship

Tomorrow morning the 90th PGA Championship will begin play at Oakland Hills Country Club in Bloomfield Township, Michigan. This event is a little more special to me than all the others for a few reasons. First, as a PGA member it is our championship and the one, if by some miracle my game would hold up, would be my best chance at competing in a major championship. Second, I have had the honor of knowing a couple of past champions. At my first golf job I worked for 1954 PGA Champion, Chick Harbert. Chick told many stories about winning the event when it was a match play tournament. A friend and mentor of mine, Dow Finsterwald won the Championship in 1958, the first year the event was played at stroke play. Finally, it is special to me, because of a person who didn’t win it. I was an employee of Arnold Palmer from 1981-1996. Mr. Palmer was in his 50’s then and yet every year when the PGA rolled around the preparation for the event became quite intense. He had won just about every other golf tournament in the world but he could never seem to win a PGA Championship. He had a number of chances, the most famous in 1964 at the Columbus Country Club where he became the first player to break 70 in all four rounds of a major, only to finish 2nd to Bobby Nichols. Mr. Palmer finally broke his PGA jinx in by winning the first Senior event he ever entered, the 1980 Senior PGA Championship.

I used the word jinx because for almost any golfer there is a jinx or more appropriate, a mental block or barrier that keeps us from performing at a higher level. For Mr. Palmer I think it was the PGA Championship. For the rest of us it may be an event or a score. My personal barrier for a couple of years was a score of 70. One summer I shot 40 rounds of 70 without ever shooting a single round in the 60’s. It may just be a mental block with a certain club, like a driver or putter. Regardless, once you have convinced yourself you cannot do something it can be pretty hard to overcome. In golf the key to overcoming these barriers is to fight back and not give up. I solved my scoring barrier by playing from the shortest tees on our course until I got used to shooting a score in the 60’s. For our students that fight a certain golf club, we focus on that club. If you are intimidated by your driver, using your 3 wood instead is not the solution. Learning to use the driver is the solution. Some solid advice from your local PGA professional and a little practice will usually solve the problem.

Great vs. Want to Be Great

Golf is a crazy game! A 53 year old business man and entrepreneur, after playing a couple of golf tournaments and working in an occasional practice session, leads the biggest golf tournament in the world at the end of the 3rd round? Sure Greg Norman was a former # 1 player in the world and is an extremely talented player, but to play as little as he has over the past 5 years and all of a sudden compete with the best players in the world is a remarkable accomplishment. Yet even though his physical talents may have slipped from a lack of use, he still found a way to stay in the tournament and play with golfers at the peak of their skills and in the end beat all but two of them.

Greg’s great performance reminds me of a number of conversations over the years about what separates the great from the “want to be great”. I have always felt that the differences are an explanation as to why those of us who “want to be great” never quite get there. We use these examples at the Academy every day:

The great players use what they have while the “not so great” are always trying to fix what they have. Arnold Palmer always used his warm up session to decide how the ball was going to curve on that particular day and then used that shot shape for the rest of the day. The “not so great” typically spends the entire round trying to fix or change the slice or hook they found on the practice tee.
The great player understands that it is distance control not distance potential that makes the difference.
The great player understands that score is more important than technique. Where I hit it and how many times is more important than how.
The great player worries about tempo and control. The “not so great” about speed and power.
The great player realizes the shorter the shot the greater the importance. The “not so great” spends so much time worried about length that they neglect the shots that most influence the score.
The great player never lets a missed shot influence the next. The “not so great’ is always trying to fix the previous miss with the next shot. “If the last ball went left then I aim more right on the next one.”

Regardless of skill level none of these examples require anything but a change in attitude to accomplish. The moral of the story is that the best way to shoot lower scores is to focus on what it takes to shoot lower scores. Get help where you need it and look to minimize your mistakes rather than conquer them.

The Right Clubs

OK. We have been playing golf for about two months this season. Our games are not any better than last year and in many ways worse. Despite all of our reading and Golf Channel watching we can’t lower our scores to meet the preseason expectations. We have spent the last few weeks discussing most aspects of our games from a swing perspective. Maybe it is time to take a hard look at our golf equipment.

If you live in northern climates now is absolutely the best time to purchase golf equipment. The opportunity to demo equipment outside is much preferable to buying clubs over the winter when we can’t see the ball fly. Unless the facility is equipped with accurate technology to measure ball flight, trying to buy clubs in the winter is difficult.

As you look at your golf bag think about each individual club and not the bag as a set. One hundred years ago your clubs were built for you one at a time. You purchased a driver, a long fairway club, middle fairway club, short fairway club, specialty clubs for rough or sand, and specific clubs for around the green. This is the best way to build a set and easily done in the modern age. Some other recommendations:

Make sure the new clubs fit your body type and swing. Go to an expert for help. There are hundreds of “clubfitters” out there. One way to find a good one is to ask the manufacturers. They want your purchase to be successful and they would be glad to recommend their best fitters.

Fit for distance. Don’t assume that a “set” of clubs will give you the equipment you need for your distance requirements. First find a driver that gives you the best results. Then find a fairway club that gives you the best combination of distance and trajectory. This is not necessarily a 3 wood. Now find the best high lofted wedge for you. This will be a club with between 56 and 64 degrees. What is the distance of each club? Let’s say the best fairway club you can find is 200 yards. The wedge you chose goes 68. You have chosen a driver, fairway club, wedge and you need a putter. So we have ten available clubs to cover the gap of 132 yards. A reasonable gap between clubs is about 12 yards. Now find a club for each yardage. What is your club from 188? Or the club you use from 92?

There two real advantages your building your set of clubs this way. First, it makes you a better player with a better understanding of your equipment. Second, it is a lot of fun to build your personal set.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Putting on Unfamiliar Greens

By the time you read this we will have crowned a new United States Open Champion. I write these columns a week prior to publication so I don’t know the winner, but I can tell you with certainty he had a great week putting. He will have conquered green speeds and conditions that he may only find once or twice in a season. The Masters and Memorial tournaments are the only two this season that compare to the Open.
Over the course of a summer almost all of us will have the opportunity to play a golf course we haven’t played before. The hardest part of this round or rounds will be how you handle the different greens. The following are just a few hopefully helpful hints to handle new circumstances.
To predict the direction a putt will roll on a green you have never played before is as difficult a task as there is in golf. First, don’t be too hard on yourself. Very few players are able to judge the break in a putt the first time they play a hole. The tour players don’t read greens as much as they memorize them. Practice rounds are spent learning how a ball breaks front to back and side to side. With this information in hand when we see them on TV they are not reading the green as much as verifying information.
For those of us who don’t have that luxury, we have to do what we can with the information available. Take a look at the surrounding topography. If it is generally flat then play less break than you think you see. On hilly or uneven terrain it is a good idea to play more break .
Look at the color of the grass. Lighter color is usually a sign of higher ground, brighter green a sign of where the water drains (downhill). This is especially true during the heat of the summer.
Walk around on the green as much as proper etiquette will allow. You can fell the change in undulation with your feet. This is especially true if you close your eyes, but needless to say, this is not the most practical advice. However, looking at a putt from all sides is not as much about what you see as what you feel.
Finally, don’t be afraid to be a little aggressive. With an aggressive stroke, I can play less break, making the reads easier. The straighter line also increases the chance of making a couple long ones. Finally, I can see the break of the next putt as the ball goes past the hole, making the second putts easier.

Playing an Unfamiliar Golf Course

My favorite golf tournament of the year is the men’s United States Open Championship. While I was never blessed with the opportunity to play in the event, I have been fortunate to have worked with a couple of players who were preparing to play. Many of you will have your own US Open type experience this summer. It may be as a participant of a member guest, or a charity event, or a round of golf with a person who can be of some influence on your career. All of these events usually happen at a golf course you have never played. Now I am sure that many of you are laughing right now, thinking their no comparison, but I can assure you anxiety is anxiety, at any level.
The common problem for the US Open participant and the everyday player, is dealing with unfamiliar golf course conditions. The length of the rough is a common topic when discussing the Open, but I can assure you we all face Open rough conditions every spring regardless of what golf course we frequent. So the rough is probably more of an adjustment for the Tour player than the everyday player. Another is the length of the golf courses. This year’s Open could be played at around 7600 yards. For the everyday player this seems unbelievably long, and it would be if the golf course was set up like the golf courses we play everyday. The difference is that for the Open and more exclusive resorts and clubs, the grass length in the fairways is much shorter. For the Open participant they have to adjust to the speed of the closely mown fairways. The ball bounces and rolls much farther and with that they must chose the perfect line off the tee to keep the ball in play. For the everyday player the adjustment is not so much with distance, we love the ability to hit the ball farther, our problem comes from not being accustomed to hitting the ball off a tight lie. The ball sits up nice and high on the fairways at home and when presented with a perfect lie on a fast fairway we panic, unsure of our ability to get the ball airborne. I wish I had a nickel for every time I have heard how someone went to a special event, drove it great and hit the irons lousy.
So how to fix do we fix this problem? First, play the ball down or as it lies. If you always play preferred lies, how can you learn to play from a more difficult lie? Second, practice by hitting 3 woods off a bare lie, or a mat. Finally, remember that the key to hitting down on a shot from a close lie is to keep the club moving. The swing thought is down and THROUGH, not just down. Next week – putting on faster greens.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Watch your Grip

Jack Nicklaus’ Memorial tournament was this past weekend in Dublin, Ohio. One of the highlights of the event is a golf clinic put on by Mr. Nicklaus and some of the week’s participants. Last year’s winner K.J. Choi from Korea was one of the featured players at this year’s event. When asked about the weaknesses in the amateur games he observes each week in the pro-am. He was very quick to say that most amateurs do not understand the grip. As an instructor who watches golf swings everyday, I was thrilled to hear a player of his caliber focus on what is easily the most overlooked fundamental in golf. My former employer Arnold Palmer tells the story of his first lesson from his father Deke. Deke showed his 9 year old son how to hold the club, told him to never let go and swing hard. It might have been the best first lesson in history.
Almost any instruction book you read will start with, Chapter 1. The Grip. It will be a summary of how you should place your hands on the club, how each finger should fit and where. This is all great stuff except for the simple fact that everyone’s hands are shaped little different, wide, narrow, long or short. Of course, this is why we have different size gloves. So in the space of this short column, how can I help you work on your grip and find a hand position that will improve your game? The real truth is that without seeing you in person, I probably can’t, but I can give you hints to help.
1. Go to a PGA professional instructor and ask him how much he would charge for a lesson just about the grip. In 30 years I have never had a student say, “This is a basic fundamental, and I want to fully understand how the hands go on the club before I work on anything else.” If I ever have someone ask I would gladly do it for $1.00. I promise it would be the best golf dollar you ever spent.
2. One of the goals of a good grip is to have two hands work as one. To do this your hands should be as close together as they can. At least once a day I ask someone to move their bottom hand closer to the top.
3. Grip the club with your fingers. Imagine trying to throw a ball with the ball braced against your palm. It is hard to do. The same is true with a golf club. It is hard to create any speed unless you use your fingers.
4. If you haven’t changed the grips on your clubs in the past two years, it is time to do so. For the price of a lesson you basically have a new set of clubs. The harder it is to hold the club, the harder you have to work to strike the ball solidly.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Secret Part 2

Last week we wrote of an overlooked secret, swinging the club in the direction the body is aligned regardless of the accuracy of your alignment. This week I thought we could share the second part of the secret to better golf shots.
The first priority for all great golfers is to control the rotation of the clubface in the backswing. They all understand that the direction the ball will fly is dominated by the position of the clubface at impact and the only way to insure accuracy at impact is to control the rotation of the clubface in the backswing. There are three directions the clubface can rotate in the backswing. It can close or turn counterclockwise in the backswing, it can open or rotate in a clockwise direction, or it can remain square through the swing. There have been great players who swung the club to each position at the top of their swing. My old employer Arnold Palmer played from a slightly closed clubface position at the top of the swing. From that same era Ben Hogan played from an open position at the top of the swing. In the modern era Tiger Woods is a perfect example of a player who is perfectly square at the top of the swing.
So which is best? This is a subject of great debate, but it is safe to say that a square position is the best place to start the downswing. Johnny Miller, making a swing evaluation during a recent telecast, proclaimed starting the downswing from a square position was the secret to successfully swinging a golf club. The square position requires no manipulation of the clubface during the downswing and it allows you to swing at any speed and still have the face square at impact. The others require specific and sometime inconsistent compensations to get the club to square.
So at this point you are probably thinking this is all well and good, but how can I tell what type of player I am? The easiest way is to swing the club to the top of your swing while watching yourself in a mirror. Position the mirror so you swing the club toward it as you take the club away from the ball. At the top of your swing look at the position of the clubface as it relates to your lead arm (left for the right handed player and right for the left handed). If the club is square the clubface will be exactly parallel to the left arm. If the face is pointed skyward you are closed and if the face is vertical the club face is open. Practice finding a backswing that produces a square face and I promise an improvement in your ball striking skills.

A Secret from the Best

A day doesn’t go by that someone doesn’t ask me about the “secrets” of the game. Many people often assume that the difference between their games and the best players in the world is a special bit of information that will make all the difference. There is no question that the best players have a greater knowledge of the game and how to play it. It is also true that while they are still competing they are slow to share the really valuable information in fear that someone will use it against them in a future tournament. However, I recently read an article written by Tiger Woods where in passing he mentioned some information that was shared with me years ago by Hall of Famer, Arnold Palmer. In my opinion this is a true secret of the game and yet I will bet that most people who read the same article completely overlooked it.
As Tiger described hitting a shot with a fairway wood he mentioned that you should be sure to swing the club in the direction your body is pointed. Mr. Palmer always said that the difference between the good player and the bad was that the good player always swung the club in the direction the body was pointed while the poor player would swing the club at the target regardless of where they were aligned. The resulting shot for a poor player would be a ball that starts at the target and then curves away. The better player starts the ball away from the target and curves the ball toward the flag, always getting closer. It is not that the better players have perfect alignment, far from it. But by swinging the club wherever their body is pointed they satisfy the first rules of shot making. Right to left shots must start to the right and left to right shots must start to the left.
Your best swings will always come when the club is moving in sync with your body. Easily the most common reason for any missed shot we see at the Academy is when people try to re-route the club in an attempt to steer the ball to the hole. The reason, and this is counter intuitive to many, is that the clubface is the major influence on direction, while the path as it relates to the face produces spin. The spin then causes the ball to curve. The more the path direction differs from the direction the face is pointed the more the spin and the bigger the curve. So here is the secret. The clubface controls the most of the direction, while the path produces the spin. If your shots curve away from the target try simply swinging the club where your feet are pointed and let the clubface bring the ball back on line.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

No Perfect Method

I was very fortunate to be an assistant golf professional at the Bay Hill Club and Lodge during the early 80’s. Each year in March, the PGA Tour would come to Bay Hill. Out of respect to our owner, Arnold Palmer, the event would attract the best players in the world. One of the responsibilities of the pro shop staff in those days was to take care of the needs of the players and NBC’s broadcast team during the week. The great advantage of being one of the “go to” people for the week was that you were able to meet and get to know, at least on a short term basis, all the stars of the event. One of my favorites was Lee Trevino, who besides playing in the event, also worked as the color commentator for NBC. Lee was always great to the guys on staff and we loved him because he was one of us. A former club pro who had washed carts, cleaned clubs, searched for lost head covers, just like we did everyday. One night Lee was working on his clubs at the repair trailer and as usual he had drawn a crowd listening to his stories. One of my co-workers asked him what he had done over the years to make himself a great player. His answer is something I have shared with every golfer I have worked with since. He said, “I never wasted any time looking for a perfect method, I only worked to perfect my own method.”
We all have tendencies when it comes to playing golf. We all have a dominate eye and a dominate hand. We all have different physical strengths and weaknesses, and also different emotional reactions. All of this and much more combine to create a unique golfer that is you. So how do we sort it all out to perfect our own method? While I can’t help you solve it all in one column, I will tell you that the best place to start is to understand that the process of hitting a golf shot is divided into two very separate parts; the first is visual and the second mechanical. Before we ever make a swing we have to identify a target and align the mechanism used to swing the club (our body) properly to that target. So as we create a personal method or strategy, we can’t have a discussion about “how” until we decide “where”. Next week we will try to help start the process by talking a little about target selection for all golf shots and how the way you “see” influences how you play.

More Ideas for Better Putting

At the United States Golf Academy we have devoted a great deal of time and resources to research all aspects of playing the game of golf to help our students shoot lower scores. Of course, for any player the fastest way to shoot lower scores is to make more putts. In order to do that, the first aspect of putting that needs to be addressed is the visual aspect or for lack of a better term – aim.
Many years ago when asked about putting Arnold Palmer said that the key to good putting was to hit the ball where you are looking. If it is really that simple then why is it so darn difficult in application? The answer lies in the way we perceive the target and the task. Most of us can aim very well when we look directly down the intended direction of a putt. Unfortunately, the view becomes distorted when we move to the side. Try this test. Draw a straight line on a ball and looking down the intended line point the line on the ball at the target. Now walk around to the side as you would to putt. Does the line still appear to be going toward the target? If so it is safe for you to use that line as a reference to putt. The next step for you is to find a putter where the visual references on the putter match the line on the ball. This is much harder than you think because even with a perfectly aligned line on the ball they can still be off when they set the putter behind the ball. We have found that each layer of visual reference is an opportunity for distraction.
For those of you who have a different impression of the line when you are in position to strike the putt it is important to eliminate the visual interference. Lines on the ball and lines on the putter are more distraction than help. For you to be successful you must become more instinctive when you aim rather than analytical. Don’t feel bad, there are more of you out there than people who can successfully use the line. We recently commissioned an Inaugural Edition Putter for the Academy. Each of these is custom fit to the owner and has no visual references or alignment aids. It is my personal contention that the vast majority of us would putt better without all the alignment “aids” we have on today’s putters. The extra lines and gimmicks might give us the sense of better alignment, but in reality our work with PuttLab clearly shows us that most players aim the putter better without the visual distractions. They just don’t think they do, but that is a topic for another column.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Mysteries of Putting

My first winter as the head golf professional of Arnold Palmer’s Latrobe Country Club was spent counting, cleaning and categorizing the golf clubs Mr. Palmer had collected over the years. As I sorted and researched the thousands of golf clubs , I was particularly drawn to the collection of putters. We located over 1000 putters that winter of all types, shapes and sizes. Each came with a story as many of them were either given to Mr. Palmer by a manufacturer, a fellow player or a friend. The rest came in the mail. Sent by adoring fans who thought their gift was the solution whenever they felt his putting was not up to standard. Doc Giffin, Mr. Palmer’s administrative assistant and long time friend told me they would come by the dozens if Arnold missed an important putt during a tour event, especially if that event was on television. This all seems silly until you realize that Arnold tried every one of them. Laughing on the outside, but secretly hoping there was some special magic in one of them that might help him collect one more winner’s trophy.
At the United States Golf Academy, in an attempt to separate the science from the superstition, we use an analysis system for putting, called PuttLab. This system measures 28 parameters of an individual putting stroke, accurate to 1/1000 of a second in time, a millimeter in distance, and 1/10th of a degree in rotation. We have measured over 8000 strokes in the past 3 years and what we have learned might surprise you.
There is no perfect method. We have worked with hundreds of players who are very good putters and the only thing they have in common is the task itself. What each does have is a personal strategy on how they strike the ball that they repeat exactly with every stroke. Simplicity and consistency seems to be the most common trait.
Perception is not Reality. While we all “see” the same, how each of us interprets what we see is drastically different. During my lessons I often use a laser reference line, a line on the ball and the site lines on a putter to help aid in a player’s aim and alignment. For more times than I can even count, when I ask the player to judge my success at getting everything lined up, even though they watched me measure each aspect of the process, they will swear on a stack of Bibles the lines are not aimed at the target. We call the resulting confusion, visual interference and I am convinced it is the reason for most missed putts.
Next week we will talk in more detail about what we have learned about putting at the Academy and how you can begin to create our own “putting strategy”.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Fairway Clubs

There are two things you notice when you get the opportunity to watch tour level players. The first is how impressive they are off the tee and the second is how they seem to hit their approach shots just the right distance. They make a controlled swing and the ball ends up pin high.

Iron and hybrid play is not about potential, it is about predictability. What amount of effort, with the club selected, will produce the correct distance for the shot? For almost all of us this means finding the pace of swing that provides consistent contact with the ball and then learning how far you can hit each club in the bag with that tempo. This repeatable effort is always less than our maximum.

One of the most productive sessions we have at the United States Golf Academy is when we use our Trackman launch monitor to find the correct distance gaps between clubs in a set. We use this information to help our players put just the right clubs in the bag, one club at a time. When I was a young player the idea of a matched set of clubs was very important. How they performed was really up to the player. Today we take advantage of technology to “blend” each set to fit the distance and trajectory requirements of our players. We are not concerned at all with what the clubs are called. We need a club for specific distances. We have 11 clubs to fill in the yardage gap between the longest club – driver and the shortest wedge you carry. The end result for every set is a different combination of fairway woods, hybrids, irons and wedges depending on the players needs. Another goal in this fitting process is to help every player hit the long clubs higher and the short clubs lower. Controlling the trajectory is key parameter to controlling distance. This is much easier to do with all of the available options we have in today’s equipment.

Unless you have an unlimited budget and the patience to go through a trial and error process to identify each club, you are much better served by finding an experienced professional to make sure you get exactly what you need. As a word of caution beware of the fitter who attempts to fix a swing flaw with an equipment bias. Too many clubs are fit to correct and when you do that you limit your ability to improve. As your swing improves the built in bias curves the ball in the direction it was built to achieve. Good swings produce bad results. Our Academy professionals, as is the case with most PGA professionals, are trained to look at the swing and equipment together rather than separate issues.

Next week we dive into the mysteries of putting.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Driver Strategy

As the head golf professional at Latrobe Country Club, most of my Mondays were spent with my boss, Arnold Palmer, trying to help him prepare for the upcoming tournament. My main job was to observe and listen, and once in a blue moon he would ask me what I thought. We would load up a couple of bags with numerous golf clubs and head to the practice tee. He would work through each bag from wedges up to the driver. It was not unusual for him to try 5 or 6 different drivers, looking for that little bit extra. We would closely watch the trajectory of each drive, where it landed on the range, and make a judgment on whether it was worth taking to the golf course for closer inspection. These sessions were never about how to swing the club faster, only finding the best combination of driver and technique.
Today at the United States Golf Academy, we have the most accurate technology in the world to determine the actual flight of the golf ball. We actually do not need to see the ball fly, as our radar tracks the ball flight from start to landing. This detailed information, coupled with the similar experiences of all our golf professionals, allows us to confirm what we have all known for a long time. The reason that most of the players do not hit the ball as far as they would like is not because of a lack of club head speed, it is the wrong driver combined with ineffective technique. So what issues can you address today that will help you hit the ball a little farther?
Improve your smash factor. One of the advantages of technology is that we can accurately measure the speed at which the ball leaves the club. The smash factor is the comparison of club speed to the speed at which the ball leaves the club face. The theoretical limit is a smash factor of 1.5. This means at 100 mph club speed, the fastest ball speed will be 150 mph. More ball speed = more distance. In order to achieve this, you must strike the ball in center of the clubface or on the sweet spot. No matter how fast you swing the club, you can never make up for a poor hit with more club speed.
Angle of Attack. Another influence on distance is whether you hit up or hit down on the ball with the driver. Our technology shows us that an upward strike on the ball can improve your distance up to 12% without swinging the club any faster. The reason for this is the improved launch conditions (higher) and improved spin conditions (lower).
Find an Expert. One of the things that Mr. Palmer always stressed was that golf swing and the equipment used are not separate issues. If you are looking for help, look to the professionals that understand this concept. Club fitting and swing lessons should be part of the same conversation.
Next week – The fairway clubs

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Strategic Planning

The Masters Tournament begins next week and with it the unofficial start of the golf season for all northerners, so in honor of the new season the professionals at the United States Golf Academy have this advice to help you shoot your lowest scores ever.

There are three strategic ways to improve your golf scores. The first is to shorten the golf course by improving your driving distance. Second, find the swing tempo that produces the most predictable distance for each club from the fairway. Successful shots to the green come not from your ability to hit the ball far, but your ability to predict how far you will hit the ball. Finally, you must create a reliable short game strategy and stick with it. So let’s start the season by finding some extra yardage off the tee.

Driver Distance
We use a ball fight monitor called Trackman at our schools. You might have seen it used on recent television broadcasts. Trackman radar actually maps the entire flight of a golf ball, just as radar is used to track a storm or airplane. Because of the accuracy of this technology, we are able to find the right launch and ball spin conditions to maximize driver distance regardless of club speed. In fact, without controlling these conditions additional club speed is wasted.

Finding the optimal launch and spin conditions for an individual player comes in two parts: First from achieving the correct angle of attack or how the club approaches the golf ball and then finding the right driver to match that set up. The typical golf ball leaves the golf club at a vertical angle of 9 to 15 degrees. This is called the launch angle and is achieved from a combination of the loft built into the driver and the angle the club swings through the golf ball. Trackman shows us that regardless of driver loft, the longest drives occur when you hit up on the ball slightly, at an upward angle of three to five degrees. For many of us this means teeing the ball higher than usual and playing the ball more forward in your stance (more to your left for a right handed player and more to the right for the left handed). In any golf swing, the club moves back and up, down through the ball, and then back up in the follow through. By moving the ball forward and teeing it higher, we strike the ball later in the swing, when the club starts back up. It is important to note that this does not require a change in the way you swing the club. It is much more about when and where you strike the ball.

Next week we will discuss how to enhance this technique by finding the right driver for you. In the meantime, if you have any questions I encourage you to contact me at or better yet come visit us at the United States Golf Academy.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Fast Track to Lower Scores
Putting is golf’s dirty little secret, a game within the game. In a typical round of golf you will use a putter anywhere from 20 to 40 times. For some who struggle, maintaining sanity becomes an issue, but all is not lost. At the United States Golf Academy we have devoted a great amount of time and resources studying the art of putting. To verify the results of our study we use Science and Motion PuttLab, an ultrasound device that measures 28 parameters of the putting stroke and is accurate to a millimeter in distance, one thousandth of a second in time, and one tenth of a degree in rotation, or the opening and closing of the face. After analyzing almost 6000 putting strokes we have come to the following conclusions:
There is no perfect method. A long time ago I heard a Hall of Fame golfer credit the key to his success to the fact that he didn’t waste any time looking for the perfect method, he spent all of his time perfecting his method. We all are completely unique. None of us process information the same way. We perceive things differently visually. What seems fast to one is slow to another. We come in a variety of shapes and sizes. So to think that there is one style or method to emulate is probably not very productive
Traditionally, there are three different ways you can learn to putt. One of the most common is to mimic a robotic model of the putting stroke. It is from these models of “perfection” that many putting aids are built. Another way is to mimic a successful player. While we all desire for the same levels of success, because of our differences it is not likely we can copy our way to success. The third is easily the most dangerous and unfortunately the most common. Many of us take every suggestion we ever read, watched, or worse suggested by our playing companions and create a layered strategy that is often becomes more confusing than successful. The confusion comes from the fact that we rarely discard what we try. We are much more likely to just keep adding layers.
The first concept of successful putting is to realize that over 80% of the influence on the direction the ball leaves the putter is determined by the face of the putter at impact. The ball basically goes where the putter is pointed at impact. Less than 20% of direction is from the path the putter swings. No one that specializes in putting instruction disagrees with this concept, yet, the majority of instruction and teaching aids focus on the path. For example, a putter travels on a perfect path, exactly on line but the face is open only 1.5 degrees to the target at impact. You will miss the putt on the right edge of the hole a ten feet.
Developing an understanding of controlling the face is the first step in changing your success on the green. When you miss a putt, relate the direction the ball went to the putter face and not the putter path and you will start to make the proper corrections to improve your putting.