Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Perfect Stroke needs the Perfect Putter

A portion of everyday, at the United States Golf Academy, is spent trying to help people improve their putting. Most come to us in search for a perfect stroke, one that would never miss. If they can’t have perfect they will settle for a “better way”. Such as, “there must be a better way than the method I currently use.” The mechanics of a perfect putting stroke are fairly easy to achieve. Hold your hands in front of you as if you were praying, with your elbows pointed at your hips. Bend from the hips until your fingers are pointed at the tips of your toes. At this point you can adjust the bend of your elbows to make yourself more comfortable. Some of us bend better than others. Now swing your hands back and through on a straight path. In essence, that is all you need to make a perfect stroke. I have never met a player who could not perform this task and do it every time. We all have a perfect stoke. However, there are key elements missing, the relationship of this stroke to the target, the location of the ball relative to where you are standing and how you connect the hands to the ball, or the putter we use.

Every putting stroke we make is a random event and our success or failure is not necessarily determined by whether we are using a perfect stroke. Even with the perfect stroke, a holed putt is still achieved based on how we deal with the other parameters involved. How we position ourselves for the task and whether we can perform based on our preparation and not as a reaction to the ball while the putter is in motion. In other words, can you use your perfect stroke or do you have to compensate as the putter is in motion or even worse, do you think you need to compensate? To use our perfect stroke, we need to make the correct visual decisions. We have to choose the right target. We have to position our bodies in such a way so our perspective of the target does not change when we move to a side on position. We must have the correct position of the golf club relative to the body and the ball, so the club swings in the direction and speed intended. In a perfect scenario, once the visual decisions are made the stroke becomes a mechanical function, our perfect stroke. Over the past years we have discovered this connection between hands and ball, and the design of the putter, has the most influence on how the stroke is eventually made. In a 4 year study using PuttLab technology to measure in excess of 15,000 strokes one indisputable conclusion is that people change their putting stroke based on the putter in their hands. So once the posture and position is determined we have discovered that not only are the correct dimensions critical, but also there are putter designs that better suit the position you create. When the correct putter is found the compensations we once thought we needed are eliminated and we can use the perfect stroke we all know we have.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Artist or Engineer?

At the United States Golf Academy we have a staged area, set up for putting analysis. Every student working with the Academy, involved in a putting discussion, works from here. It is a huge benefit to us as instructors to see each player under the exact same circumstance. Trends and similarities start to become apparent. For example, how people approach the task of putting can easily be placed into two distinct groups.

We have come to the conclusion that golfer’s fall into two groups from an analytical standpoint of how they approach the task of putting. I call them the Artists or the Engineers.

The Artists are the big picture people. They approach the task of putting in its entirety, rather than the sum of a step by step process. Details often annoy them and they seem to prefer simple over complicated. These players often have a great feel for distance but struggle with direction. Often their strokes are long and free flowing, and combined with their occasional struggles with direction, they have a tendency to struggle with short putts.

The Engineers prefer order and are detail oriented. They see the world in straight lines, right angles and prefer accurate reference points. Their liking of detail is often reflected in their putters, big lines and clear reference points, and their thoughts about the stroke path shape. This is the straight back and straight through group, with controlled backswing and follow through lengths. These players are usually very good on short putts but struggle with longer putts as their natural tendency is to focus on line over speed.

One way we use to help determine the category a player fits is to simply ask them to hit some putts with their eyes closed. For the artist this is no problem, for the engineer this task creates an anxious feeling and a loss of control.

Understanding how these personality traits apply to you is an important first step in building your strategy and technique for putting. It is extremely important to not try to do something that doesn’t fit your personality. It is amazing to watch golfers as they try to do something outside their comfort zone. The frustration and anxiety is measureable. Much more important is to learn how to deal with the inherent weaknesses, not from change, but from knowledge. The grass is never greener on the other side. Take the Artist who struggles with shorter putts, or the Engineer who struggles with distance control, asking them to use techniques that don’t suit their personality is a recipe for disaster. They might be able to do it but they are fighting you every inch of the way. Eventually the inner self wins out and they get worse instead of better.

So which one are you?

Monday, November 15, 2010

When I was employed by Science and Motion, the builders of PuttLab, we spent some time consulting with a well known putter manufacturer. They were using PuttLab to determine the influence their putters might have on players and their putting strokes. They had purchased a putting robot to use the measured results as a baseline for the test groups. One afternoon I got a phone call from the company complaining that our equipment was off. They had hooked PuttLab to the putting robot and got the following results.

At the top we are looking at the position of the putter relative to the red target line. You can see it was perfectly square. The Path View shows the putter swinging on a path about 4 degrees to the right of the target line. The end result is the putter sqaure to the target but 4.4 degrees closed to the putter path. The representative of the company said that the system must be off as the path direction was not perfectly straight and all the putts had gone into the hole. This was very distressing to a company who spent a great deal of money promoting a sqaure to the path putting stroke. I explained to the technician that the robot made all 5 putts was no surprise. Since the face at impact is 4 times more influential on direction than path, with a perfect face on a 10 foot putt it would take a path of 6 degrees right or more for the putt to miss to the right. He had set the robot up to the target line without any calibration and then he attached the putter so it was perfectly square to the target line. The results were 5 made putts but not from a “perfect” stroke. With this explanation he was able to meet the needs of the company, but with a little less belief in the system. Moral of the story focus on face position and let the path take care of itself.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Corked Bat.

The summer of 1994 was the season of the “corked bat” controversy in Major League baseball. Albert Belle of the Cleveland Indians had been caught using a bat that had been hollowed out and the cavity of the bat, filled with cork. It was thought that this adjustment caused the ball to jump off the bat with greater speed than a conventional bat and was in violation of Major League Baseball rules. This controversy was a topic of conversation around the country for a period of time; certainly it was at Latrobe Country Club.

During a round of golf with Mr. Palmer and the usual suspects, AP asked no one in particular what would happen if he corked one of his wooden drivers. While guys laughed and joked, I thought it over and said, “I seriously think you need to try it.” Mr. Palmer no longer smiling replied, “Yeah, I think so too.” Nothing else was said about it and to be honest by the end of the round I was thinking more about my own play and not much about modifying a driver.

The next morning I made my usual stop at the workshop. As I walked in the office I could hear a drill running back in the shop. “What are you working on Boss?” “I am corking this driver,” was the reply. He had taken the sole plate off one of his Peerless drivers and drilled a hole at least an inch and a half in diameter and about an inch deep. He then epoxied cork in the new cavity. You might find it strange he had cork readily available, but I am witness that this was the best stocked golf shop in history. If Mr. Palmer didn’t have it, it wasn’t needed.
He left town that day for a tournament and the following Monday during our weekly practice session it became time to hit the drivers. Grabbing the “modified” driver he hit the first shot. Over the years I had worked for him I had seen him hit thousands for drivers from the same spot, in the same direction and the only comment I had after the first swing was “Whoa.” The ball flew farther out onto the range than any drive I had ever seen him hit. The look on his face was priceless. My best description would be the look of a five year old at Christmas.

Over the years I have come to understand exactly why the driver worked as well as it did. The industry has caught up by offering longer drivers with lighter heads. We are really seeing a lot of that for next season. What the industry, as well as the consumer will find, is that there is a good fit and too much of a good thing is worse in many ways than not enough. The next version of the corked driver broke because the head was weakened by drilling a hole twice as large as the original. He also found he had a difficult time on windy days using a club head lighter than the first. The original version was perfect and became his tournament driver, or gamer, until it was replaced by a titanium head a few years later. That titanium head weighed and was balanced exactly the same as the corked driver, by the way.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Something to Think About

One of the big golf events of the summer here in Northern Indiana and Southwest Michigan was the opening of the Nicklaus Designed, The Golf Club at Harbor Shores in Benton Harbor, Michigan. For the Grand Opening, Jack Nicklaus, Mr. Palmer, Johnny Miller and Tom Watson conducted a clinic and played a team skin game. Like many other golf fans I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to see these four together and maybe get a chance to see and shake hands with Mr. Palmer and lucky for me my bosses found a way for us to go.

I stood in the crowd, on the path to the practice range, thinking the only chance I would have to get his attention was as he made his way to the practice tee for the clinic. As he pulled by in his cart I yelled, “Long ways from home aren’t you?” He laughed when he heard my voice and that is when I realized I had made a tactical error. He stopped the cart and came over to shake hands and just that fast I was surrounded. Not by a few people, but by hundreds, typical of AP he never missed a beat as we traded updates from when we had last seen each other. He even signed some autographs as we stood. He got the better end of it as he was adored by all and I got stabbed with Sharpie Pens.

The next great part of the day was the wake up call I got from these greats during the clinic. The first came from Tom Watson, as he told the story of learning the game from his Dad. Tom said that the first lesson from his Dad showed him how to grip the club and then how too make the ball curve by showing him how to hit hooks and fades. Not one way to stand and one place to position the ball and then search for straight. Experiment; there is no success or fail, only information gained. I know well the story of Mr. Palmer’s first lesson from his father that was in essence the very same thing. What I didn’t realize was that the first lessons for Johnny Miller and jack Nicklaus were the same as well. Later on Mr. Palmer took the mike and offered the following advice. In this world of methods and systems he told the audience that the best way to play the game was to find your own way to play the game. So what was the wake up call? I had grown up in the business knowing these two things to be absolutely true, but I had gotten away from these concepts in an attempt to be like other instructors. Unfortunately in my business the right way isn’t always the most profitable way. But never the less, my job is not to show you the best way, it is to help you find yours.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Putting Advice

It is an established fact that when putting the face angle at impact contributes 82% of the putts direction. Putter path is 18%. Incoinsistent path direction is one of the most common issues for all putting strokes. The reason is due to the necessity to rebuild posture and alignment for every stroke. The best putters are consistent in their alignment but not necessarily exact. Great putters always show a directional bias. We think it is due to how they see the task best. In a recent article Jack Nicklaus admits to left eye dominance. He found that an open stance with his eyes over the line of the putt is where he saw it best. Regardless, this consistent posture / alignment created a consistent path that was not necessarily straight or down the line. There is no doubt that a flat reminder on a grip can assist in keeping the putter square to the path. But what if the path is not on the intended line? Odds are you won't change the path direction, it won't look right so you steer the putter to try and make the putt. Imagine we build a robot that looks just like you. The key factor in a robot making a putt is how the putter is attached to the robot. No grips on putters for robots. So what we found is that for some players with very consistent postures and setups it is easier to attach the putter using a round grip. Using a round grip is easier than getting a flat surface at the perfect angle.