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.