The Art of Putting

The Art of Putting

It took me a long time to develop a putting routine. Many years, in fact. Turns out, there was a lot to know! Here’s what I’ve found out, and what works for me. This article, in fact, was a precursor to my book, Comprehensive Keys to the Green.

Originally published 2010

Preparing to Putt

The major factors in preparation are reading the slope of green, knowing how much the slope will affect the putt, understanding the effect of grain, and gauging distance.

Reading the Slope Greens

The trick to reading greens is to find the fall line — especially near the cup. If you’re familiar with skiing, you’ll know that the fall line is the direction things travel, when going downhill. It’s what happens to an object that is free to slide or roll, under the influence of gravity.

There are several ways to find the fall line:

  • Look at the edges of the green.
    As you look around, you’ll see areas that are higher, and some that are lower. Most are designed so that water runs off, rather than sitting on the green. So look for the area that water will run to.
  • Look at the hole.
    When you’re standing downhill from a hole, the back of the hole will be higher than the front. (It will be higher in other positions, as well, due to your perspective. But it won’t be as high as when you’re standing directly downhill.) That’s one way to find the fall line. Also, from directly below the hole, you’ll see a symetrical crescent shape made by the back of the cup. If you move to one side, the crescent gets a bit lop-sided. The symettry tells you when you are standing on the fall line.
  • Move around and feel the ground under your feet.
    If you pay attention, you’ll notice that you can feel the ground sloping under your feet.
  • Watch what happens to other putts.
    Pay particular attention to what happens near the hole, and to the very last motion, just before the ball stops. At that point, the ball is traveling its slowest, and pretty much the only force on it is the break. (Of course, your playing partners rarely cooperate. Either the ball stops well short of the hole, or it scuttles well past, powering through the break. But every once in a while, a ball comes to rest somewhere near the hole. That is a perfect time to read the break.

In my games, I look around and find the slope. Then I get below the hole, as close to the fall line as I can see. Then I watch other putts to confirm my read.

Some folks also like “plumb bobbing”. To do that, you hold the grip of the putter lightly between thumb and forefinger so it is free to swing. When you do that, it hangs vertically. (Gravity is a wonderful thing.) The idea then is to close one eye and line up the ball with the putter shaft. If the hole lines up the same way, it’s a straight putt. If the hole is over to the left, then the putt will break left. If the hole is to the right, the putt will break to the right. The distance is supposed to determine the amount of break. (It seems to be most helpful when you are have a sidehill putt, and aren’t directly above or below the hole.)

Gauging the Effect of Slope

One of the best tips I ever heard explains why: Allow for more break when the putt is fast, less when the putt is slow. It makes sense. Fast greens break more, because there is less surface resistance working against the break. And in fast conditions, you have to putt more slowly — so there is more time for the break to take effect early in the putt. A downhill putt breaks more than an uphill putt, for that reason. (For an uphill putt, you power through the early part of the break with the speed it takes to get to the hole.)

Break into thirds, ala Dave Stockton in Putt to Win:

  • First third: Ignore the break
  • Middle third: Expect the break to come into play a bit
  • Last third: Expect the break to dominate the equation

Combining that thought with the first tip leads us to the conclusion that on a downhill putt on a fast green, we can’t quite ignore the break. (I’ve seen such putts begin breaking the moment they leave the clubface.)

So, to provide a little vocabulary:

  • A “fast putt” is a downhill putt, or a putt on a smooth, close-cropped green.
  • A “slow putt” is an uphill putt, or a putt on a bumpy, lumpy, or “furry” green.
  • A “bumpy” green is one that has been “plugged” for aeration, so there are lots of little holes filled with a mixture of sand and grass seed.
  • A “lumpy” green — is one that hasn’t been cared for well, or one that has been so soft that every passing foot leaves a lasting mark, and every ball landing on the green leaves a dimple.
  • “furry” green is one where if the grass is long, and therefore very slow. (On some courses, the greens can be like a shag carpet!)

Gauging the Effect of Grain

Then there is the matter of grain. I have yet to figure out to recognize the grasses that have a grain. (I could be putting on them without knowing about it!)

I have yet to see grain. Either I’m not putting on greens that have it, or I’m oblivious to it. I hope it’s not the latter, but it’s a definite possibility. I figured there should be a Golfer’s Guide to Grasses somewhere that tells you what you need to know. I didn’t find it, so I started one. The idea is to give pictures of different grasses and tell how they affect roll on the fairways, play from the rough, and roll on the green,)

Gary McCord tells a funny story. He was out West, and played a putt that had a 5″ break. He stroked it, and watched it move 5″ the other way — uphill. He asked his caddy what the heck happened. His caddy replied, “Grain”. He said he quite playing right at that moment!

Gauging Distance

There are two good ways to determine your distance:

  1. Pace it off.
    If you can pace off exact yards, that’s great. Multiply by 3, and you have feet. Even if you’re not exact, pacing gives you a measurement that is accurate enough for golf work.
  2. Look at the cup.
    It’s amazing, but you can get a lot of information just by looking at the cup. something I figured out while shooting hoops as a teenager: A circle looks like an oval from a distance. The farther away you are, the flatter the oval.

So just by looking at the cup, you can get a feel for distance, as well as a feel for the break near the hole (the most important break, because the ball will be traveling slowest at that point).

The combination of pacing and consciously looking is particularly helpful. After pacing off a putt, look at the cup and mentally register it’s appearance. Over time, you’ll get better at seeing the hole and knowing your distance without even having to pace to off.

The shape of the hole is also affected by the slope. From the same distance, the oval is flatter when you’re uphill, more circular when you’re uphill. So the shape of the hole you see can also help you find the fall line!

Putting Routine

It’s important to have a routine. But it’s also important for the routine to make sense. That’s why it took me so long to come up with this one — every step in it plays a part in a making a successful putt.

I think it was Dream On–the story of one golfer’s journey to par — that made an important observation: Scratch handicappers have an absolutely consistent routine. Their routine on the tee will differ from their routine on the green, of course. But in any given situation, they set up and execute every shot in exactly the same way. That kind of consistent prepration helps to create consistent results.

At my level, I’m not 100% consistent. The shorter the putt, the more likely I am to skip a step or two — sometimes, to my chagrin, but usually without harm. I’ll also tend to hurry things up if the group is falling behind, or if the hole has already been a massacre, up to this point. (That often costs me a stroke or two. But it’s either that, or pick it up. In my mind, that’s the courteous thing to do.)

But on any putt longer than a few feet — or any putt I really need to make — this is the routine I use:

  1. Find the fall line.
    Stand below the hole. Watch as many putts break as you can. Get a general sense of the break. (I agree with Dave Stockton that’s generally only necessary to line up your putt from two spots — from below the hole, and behind it. The only time you have to move around to other positions is when you’re really not sure which way the ball will break, in the end, because multiple slopes come into play. In that case, it can help to move around a little more, until you get a sense of things.)
  2. Pace off the putt.
    Knowing how far the putt is helps in several ways: It helps to calibrate your strokes, and give you a feel for distance. That knowledge helps your body calibrate your swing. (You don’t have to do it consciously. Just note the distance, and watch the putt roll until it stops. Your body/mind computer will do the rest.)
    I’ll generally skip this step on a very short putt (one pace or less). The general rule is: If I can see the hole out of the corner of my eye when I address the ball, it’s not long enough to pace off the distance. (In that case, my mental computer will do everything it needs to do. It’s most imporatant to have a distance in mind when I can’t see the hole as I’m putting.)
  3. Catalog the conditions.
    How far is the putt? Is it a fast green, or a slow one? Very fast or very slow? How much slope is there? None? A little? A lot? What about the grain? As you move to your body, consciously catalog the conditions: Speed of greens, amount of slope, and grain. Again, just make a mental note of them, and pick your line accordingly. Your mental computer will continuously improve your adjustments, over time.
  4. Position your ball.
    Place the aiming stripe in the general direction of the line you plan to putt.
  5. Get a read from behind the ball.
    Step back and squat to get a good angle. Get a nice, low read on the hole, paying most attention to the last third. See if you lined up your ball directly on the line you see now. If the alignment line is a little left or right, take that into account when you address the ball. (Don’t bother changing the position of the ball. Just line up a little one way or the other.).
  6. Get ready to address the ball.
    The trick now is to get a stance that is square to your intended line. To do that, walk up to the ball and place the putter behind it, so a line drawn along the face of your putter goes down the line of your intended putt. (You can also look for a spot on the green to putt over, the same way you look for a target to swing over on the tee. But personally, I find it hard to do that on a good, consistent green — and if the green has a lot of spots, it’s hard to keep my eye on the one I have in mind.)
    I’ve seen people do that, while contorting themselves to keep their right hand on the club in their normal grip. That looks really awkward, to me. I use the plam of my hand to steady the club as I move around it. My fingers are draped loosely around the grip, but they don’t need to be. The palm of my hand is doing the work. That keeps my hand relaxed as I prepare to putt, making it easier to take the nice, soft grip that is recommended.
  7. Address the ball and forward press.
    Keeping your putter in position, move around to the side and place your feet. (The ball will between somewhere between your left heel and the middle of your stance, depending on your preference.) When your feet are in place, flick the putter to square. (That “flick” is a trigger that zeroes in my concentration.)In the forward press, you move your hands slightly ahead of the putter face. That takes the loft out of the putter, so you the ball rolls the whole way, rather than bouncing. (Dave Stockton likes to use it as his trigger, when he’s actually putting the ball.
  8. See the line to the hole and rock on your feet.
    With your eyes on the hole, visualize the line of the putt, and rock from side to side, lifting and adjust your feet ever so slightly. Standing to the ball, you’re closer to the hole, and you have a different angle. You’ll see break you hadn’t noticed before, and you’ll feel break under feet you weren’t aware of before. (Your toes won’t be on the same level as your toes, and your kinesthetic sensation — or body awareness — will be aware of that.)As you rock your body, don’t worry about consciously adjusting your feet. Just focus on the hole, visualizing the putt. Your body will do the rest automatically. Your feet will be placing themselves in the best possible position, and your mental computer will be calculating the force you need to put on the ball.
  9. Putt the ball.
    Put your attention back on the ball. Pull the putter back, and swing through.
  10. Maintain focus.
    Continue watching the spot you were looking at when you started the putt. Watch the ball disappear from that spot. Wait to hear the putt go into the cup for short putts, or until the ball has left your field of vision for longer ones. (At that point, it will have traveled something like a third of the way to the hole, where the break makes no difference — and it will be long past the point where any head movement on your part could affect the outcome.)

Note: No practice swing!
That’s another thing I agree on with Dave Stockton. If I’m going to throw you a ball, I don’t take a practice swing first. I know where you are, and I can feel the weight of the ball in my hand. It’s not a conscious thought process. It’s a skill acquired over the years. I just toss it to you. Same thing with putting. Distance control is about getting a sense of the speed of the greens and the amount of speed imparted by a given swing. Besides, If I take a practice swing, it’s likely to be my best effort! Why waste it?




  • Putt to Win, by Dave Stockton
    A terrific book, with many good tips.
  • Dream On
    A terrific, inspiring chronicle of one golfer’s journey, starting from 100, to a par round in a year.

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