Three Great Putting Drills

A good drill has the characteristics of a game — there’s a challenge, you keep score, and you can tell when you’re improving. And there is a definite stopping point, so it isn’t endless. These drills have those characteristics. These drills help you score, and they’re fun!

Originally published 2010

Good Putting Can Save You Strokes

When you’re playing for barbies (also known as bogeys), you accept that you’re way short of perfection. If you had 8 or 10 hours a day to practice then, okay, maybe you should expect something close to par. But if you have a life, you know that not all shots are going to go where you aim them. Some of them won’t even be close! So you play for barbies (i.e. bogies).

The implications is that you’re going to expect an average of one semi-disastrous shot per hole. That shot is going to cost you a stroke on that hole, so you wind up with a barbie instead of a par. You might have few pars in a round. Maybe even the occasional birdie. But there will generally be a few double bogeys, or worse, to offset the great holes. C’est la vie! That’s what happens in the “course” of life (of course).

Since you started out your golfing life by spraying balls in every direction under the sun, you’ve gotten pretty darn good at recovering from wild shots in the underbrush, in the woods, and off in the fringe. Once you’re back in the fairway (or near the green), you’re good enough with your wedges to give yourself a chance. All it takes now is some decent putting, and you get to collect your barbies.

These drills are exactly what you need to make it happen. They’ll give you a fighting chance to save bogey, make it easier to score the occasional par, and even help you get a birdie now and then.

Of course, the most important thing to take away is that you are playing some kind game when you practice. That helps to keep you focused, and keep you working away at things long after you would have quit, without some goal you are trying to achieve. By all means, make up games of your own, or use these. They help!

Note:
It’s best to do these drills on a variety of greens, with different speeds. That way you develop the touch you need for different courses. It’s also helpful to do them on holes with a bit of slope — enough so it’s challenging, but not so much that it’s impossible. Just remember: When the green is sloping, then “behind” the hole means “downhill from the point were a ball enters the cup”, not “directly behind the cup from where you’re standing”.

Establish Your Limits

At the outset, set limits for each drill. In particular:

  • Set a time limit.
    Depending on the amount of time you have to practice, set a limit of something like, say, 20 minutes for any one drill. Make it 10 minutes if you are easily bored or frustrated. Make it 30 minutes if you’re a glutton for punishment. The important thing is that there is a limit to how much improvement you can make in any one day. Work on it a while, then sleep on it. That’s when your body reviews information gained during the day, and the real learning goes on. So work on a drill enough to prep your “sleep learning” session. If you’re not getting it today, quit when the time is up. You’ll get it tomorrow.
  • Set a goal .
    On the other hand, if you’re doing quite well on a drill, it’s good to have a goal established before you start. When you achieve that goal, you’re done. That’s a reward for doing well, and it gives you more time to work on other aspects of your game that maybe aren’t quite as strong. Maybe your goal is 5 perfect putts. Maybe it’s 30. Your goal should be challenging, but not impossible. Ideally, you’ll be able to achieve your goal within the allotted time at least once in three attempts. (That’s the standard for playing computer chess. You should be playing at a level that lets you win one in 3 games. Seems like a reasonable standard for putting drills, as well.)

Large Circle Drill

“Greens in regulation” is a great statistic, if you’re playing on the tour. If you’re not, then a much better statistic is “Near the green in regulation”. You may not on the green, exactly, but you’re no more than a chip away. This drill is for those situations.

The key here is that distance control is the most important part of putting. If you get the distance right, the next putt is virtually guaranteed. Get it wrong, and you can easily wind up playing 3, 4, or even 5 putts on a green. From 9-12 feet out, the idea is guarantee a two-putt at worst, with a good percentage of one-putts.

Equipment

  • 5 balls
  • 3 tees

Note:
Using 5 balls at at time works well for me. I find that I can easily hold them in one hand, and can even pick them up with one hand, if I need to. That makes it easy to move around from place to place. For more balls, I’ve found that a traveling water bag for dogs works well. It folds up when not in use, and when I place it by the target, every ball I “retire” goes into the bag, so it’s ready to carry to the next station.

Set Up

  1. Pace off 10 feet (3 paces and a foot) from the hole (target), and put a tee into the ground.
    That’s your start position. When you get back to this point, you’re done.
  2. Pace off 6 feet (2 paces), circling the hole, and put another tee there.
    I generally pace off  two feet on what I imagine to be a proper arc, put a tee in the ground, and then pace off the distance to the hole. Then I adjust the tee, depending on where my last foot fell. I don’t have to be that exact, but I like doing it that way.
  3. Arrange the 5 balls on an arc between the two tees.
    They’ll be 6 to 8 inches apart.

Execution

  • A “make” is in the hole, one putter head in front, or 16″ behind. Anything else is a miss.
    The goal is to make sure you never do worse than a two-putt. That means leaving the ball right next to the hole. (The ideal putt travels no more than 16″ long — that gives it enough speed to minimize the effect of break, but leaving a “can’t miss” come-backer, if you miss the hole. But you also want to “die” the ball into the hole. Since green speeds vary, and since no one is perfect, a putt that is an inch or two short is good, too.

With a slightly different line, it could easily have gone in. So that putt is within an acceptable margin error. The point is, you’re not aiming for perfection. Your goal is a “good” putt. You have more leeway if you miss it long, though, so that will encourage you to make a stronger stroke. But don’t beat yourself up if you’re a tad short. For those of us out here in the real world, that’s a great putt!

  • Use your putter head to measure short putts.
    For a ball in front of the cup, the length of the putter head is the measuring rod (not the width). If any part of the ball is under the putter head when it’s the edge of the hole, that putt is a “make”.
  • Use your putter shaft to measure long putts.
    Find any two points on the shaft that are about 16″ apart, and use that for putts behind the hole. (I have a mark on the shaft that is about 16″ from the bottom of the grip. So that works. You could also put a bit of tape on the shaft.)
  • Use your putter shaft to measure putts to the side, as well.
    For putts that are off the side, the 16″ measurement is fine, as well. Your read was clearly off, but you had the right pace, and that’s the most important thing. The more you putt, the better you’ll get a reading greens. (Dave Stockton’s book, Putt to Win, has a good section on reading greens. Quite helpful. For even more coverage, read my book, Comprehensive Keys to the Green.)
  • For a “short make”, push it behind the hole to get it out the way.
    That way, it doesn’t impede the next ball.
  • For a “short miss”, leave it.
    That way, it becomes an obstacle you have to shoot arond — an additional penalty for leaving it short!
  • For a “sink” (in the hole) retire the ball from that position.
    If you made the second ball from a group of 5, you no longer putt from position #2. That’s your reward for making the putt. Move the balll into the next sector. You won’t putt it again until you get there. If you need to replay this group, you’ll put from positions #1, #3, #4, and #5.
  • When you make all 5, move on.
    Put another tee 6 feet away (two paces). Position the balls between the two tees, as before, and continue. (From this point on, move the tee in the back to the new front position. That way, you leave the original tee where you started, so you know when you’ve gone full circle.)

    Note:
    The place where a tee is in the ground is a place you don’t putt from! You putt from 6-8″ away from it on either side. (The last ball in the previous group, the first ball in the next group.) Personally, that works for me. I’m still going around the circle, and making a lot of putts. If you’re a perfectionist, you may want to compensate for that gap in the circle. (But in that case, you need stronger drills!)

  • If you miss a group three times, move on anyway.
    Look at this way: You get three chances to make 5 in a row. You shouldn’t need more than that. If you do, there’s no sense beating yourself up. The goal is to improve, not punish yourself. Every time you do this drill and get a night’s sleep, you will improve. You can’t help it. That’s the way human beings work. So chalk it up to experience, and move on.
  • When you get back to the starting tee, you’re done.
    Congratulations! You have now gone full circle from 9 feet way, making 5 in a row from each sector around the hole.

Variations

  • To make it easier, start at 8 or 9 feet.
    The first time you do the drill, it can feel pretty darn hard. Go easy on yourself. Give yourself a good chance to make it all the way around.
  • As you get better, move the distance out to 12 feet. Then 15 feet.
    Fifteen feet is the maximum for this drill, and only then if you like taking things to extremes. Twelve feet is a much more reasonable maximum. The idea is to guarantee yourself a two-putt, from this distance. And if you’re two putting from 10′, that’s a 20′ diameter circle you’re aiming for when you’re going for the green.
  • Make one ball from each position, even if you don’t make all 5 at once.
    If the drill is so hard that you’re always taking 3 attempts at every group of 5, and never making it, then make it easier! Every time you “make”, retire the ball in that position.. (Not to worry! You’ll get there. In the meantime, the idea is have fun, not spend all day on it.)

Benefits

  • Builds distance control.
    As mentioned, that is the most important part of putting. So this is a terrific drill.
  • Expands your target area.
    When you know that a two-putt is guaranteed, and a one-putt is in the cards — the target area you’re aiming for on a chip gets much larger. Next to the hole is great, of course. But anywhere in a 20-foot circle will work, as well. (If you really need to get up and down, aim for 3 feet from the hole. But if you haven’t used up your “wild ball” on the current hole, then 10 feet from the hole is just fine.)

Long Distance Lag Drill

I like to end every putting session with this drill. It’s not quite as demanding as the circle drills, so it takes less time, and long-distance putting is something that can never get enough work (not for me, anyway).

The goal here isn’t to guarantee yourself a two-putt, but rather to make sure you give yourself a good chance at one. It’s for times when you had a pitch or short wedge to the green. You’re far enough away that a 3-putt is entirely possible — and acceptable — but you want to give yourself an opportunity to get down in two, if there is any way you can do that..

Equipment

  • 5 balls
  • 1 tee

Set Up

  1. Place a backstop one putter-shaft behind the hole.
    If you’re on a practice green, take the flag out of the hole and use it as a backstop. That lets others know that you’re using the hole. If the flag isn’t removable, use a club. (A standard putter is just about 3 feet long, so it makes a good measuring stick.)
  2. Pace off 30 feet (10 paces), put the tee in the ground, and put 5 balls there.

Execution

  • Any ball that is within club length of the hole is a “make”.
    If it hits the back stop, it’s a miss. (If it comes gently to rest, I generally count it as good.)
  • When you make all of the balls in a group, you’re done.
    That’s the goal — put all of the balls in the group within 3 feet of the hole.
  • If you sink a ball, “retire” it.
    That’s your reward for holing it. There is now one less ball in the group. (When you make all of the balls in the remaining group, you’re done!)

Variations

  • Ladder drill.
    When you make all of the balls in a group, retire one. Repeat the drill with a smaller group. When you’re down to one ball, and you make that, you’re done.
  • Start with more balls.
    Use 8 or 10 balls. (If you make 10 in a row, you’re my hero.)

Benefits

  • Distance control.
    Good distance control on long putts gives you the best chance of doing no worse than a two-putt.
  • Large target area.
    On your pitches and short wedges, you are now shooting for a circle that is 60 feet in diameter — because you know that anywhere in that range, you have a good chance of getting down in two. (On a level green, of course. On a fast slanted green, you better be aiming below the hole! Expect a three-putt if you land anywhere else — because if the first one doesn’t make, you’re probably looking at a long second putt from under the hole.)

Small Circle Drill

The goal of the 30′ drill was to put you in position to make a two-putt from a long distance. The goal of this drill is increase your chances of capitalizing on a good lag.

Equipment

  • 5 balls
  • 3 tees

Set Up

  • Pretty much the same as the large circle drill, except that you are 2 or 3 feet away, instead of 9-12.
    The idea is to practice putts you can expect to make close to 100% of the time. Anything from 18″ in is a tap in, so the drill starts at 2 feet. When you’re making 95% of those, go to 3 feet, and try to get to 80%. (No more than one miss per group of five.)

Execution

  • Two-foot putt around
    Two feet from the hole, the circumference of the circle is 12 feet. A 6′ arc is therefore half of the circumference. So you’ll put two tees in the ground directly across from each other, and play 5 balls from each side of the hole. If you miss one for any group of 5, you repeat that group. The goal is go all the way around without missing more than once. Otherwise, repeat the drill.If you miss one, you repeat that set of 5, so you succeed when you have made 14 out of 15. That’s 93%. Pretty darn good.
  • Three-foot putt around
    Three feet from the hole, the circumference of the circle is 27 feet. A 6′ arc is a little over one fourth of the circumference. So set out 4 tees, and play 5 balls from each quarter. If you miss one for any group of 5, you repeat that group. The goal is to go all the way around, missing no more than one time in each group of 5.If you miss a second time in a group of 5, or if you miss one in the second attempt for that group — move your start position marker, and start the drill again in the next quadrant — that way, you’ll be finishing with a group that has proved challenging. That will increase the pressure on the last group, and help you steel your nerves for competition.Do that once or twice, and you’ll quickly figure out that it takes less time to go through your putting routine on each putt, as compared to continually going around the circle. And that’s a worthwhile result for the drill!If you miss one ball in each group, and putt each group twice, you’ll have missed one in 10 all the way around the circle. That’s a 90% success rate. Be proud! Even if it takes you three tries with each group, you’ll have missed 2 out 15, for an 83% success rate with each group. (If you play at my level, you can live with that!)

Variations

  • Try longer distances.
    If you’re a really good putter, try 4, 5 and 6 feet (and increase the number of sectors accordingly, so you’re no longer playing from 4 quadrants). That’s asking a lot, though. Pros consider all 6′ putts to be make-able. I sure don’t.

Benefits

  • Confidence
    You get a solid sense that you can hole any putt from 3 feet in — or longer if you get to where you’re doing the drill at greater distances — and that you can do so under pressure.

Practice Patterns

When I go to practice, I’ll practice everything if I have time — driving range, short game, and putting. But to keep things down to a reasonable amount of time, I’ll alternate these patterns:

  • Driving range, plus putting.
    The tee-to-green workout.
  • Short game, plus putting.
    The short game workout. Generally any two of these: Chips, pitches, bump and run.

I’ll alternate the drills I use in the putting sessions, too:

  • Large Circle Drill + Long Distance Lag Drill
    Preparing for times when I had a spectacular approach shot or, more likely, a so-so chip.
  • Small Circle Drill + Long Distance Lag Drill
    Preparing for times when I got onto the green in regulation, or had a spectacular chip.

Using those patterns, practices tend to last an hour or so, and the most important phases of the game get regular coverage.

Note:
I give minimal attention to sand shots. I’m not in bunkers often enough to improve my score that much, and I generally get out pretty well. (If you don’t, by all means make part of your practice sessions, if at all possible.) For a fairway bunker, it’s a matter of taking two extra clubs and swinging with upper body only. For a greenside bunker, it’s a matter of playing it like a chip (ball back), hitting an inch behind the ball, and opening up the club for more height and less distance, or leaving it square for a standard out that runs pretty well.

Since I don’t practice bunker shots very often, I may not be anywhere near the hole when I get out. But at least I’m out. If I were a scratch golfer, it would be important to work on sand shots, to save par. As a bogey golfer, the shot I play out of the sand counts as my “extra” shot for the hole. (The one that results in bogey, rather than par.) Of course, I try not to have any more than one extra shot per hole, on average. Sometimes, it even works out that way.

Resources

Articles

Books

  • Comprehensive Keys to the Green, by Eric Armstrong
    Everything you need to know about reading greens, anticipating breaks, and evaluating putts.
  • Putt to Win, by Dave Stockton
    A terrific book, with many good tips.

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