What should you be thinking at the instant you draw back the putter? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
Just like the full swing, the putting stroke works best when the golfer's mind is free from mechanical thoughts. That's why pros like Brandt Snedeker and pro-turned-putting-guru Dave Stockton advocate hitting the ball mere seconds after setting up.
On the other hand, many golfers simply aren't wired to effectively use such a brief routine, or to achieve the Zen-like state of thought-free consciousness. For them, it's best to focus on a single mental key.
Your one thought should be very specific, something that will reinforce a positive move or method during the stroke. It should also be uncomplicated and easily accomplished. It's also important to practice with this key thought in mind. You'll ingrain it into your routine to where the thought itself occurs automatically – without even having to think about it.
Now that's Zen.
Here are five putting stroke thoughts that prove effective for golfers of all ability levels:
- “Relax”: Many golfers get nervous over their putts, especially those “knee knockers” inside three feet. Tension in the hands, arms and shoulders is a sure-fire stroke killer and must be eliminated. After taking a final look at the cup, re-focus on the ball and think, “Relax.” This will signal your body to release tension, freeing your stroke.
- “Back of the ball”: Striking the ball solidly is just as important when putting as it is on full shots. This phrase, conjured just before pulling back the putter, will focus your eyes on the precise spot you want to contact.
- “Accelerate”: Decelerating the blade through impact is a common and costly problem. If you tend to putt timidly, causing putts to wander off line and come up short, make “Accelerate” your final pre-stroke thought.
- “Head still”: You wouldn't think a little head movement could wreck the putting stroke, but you'd be wrong. Peek just an instant too soon and you'll derail the putter, producing weak putts that wobble hither and yon. Mentally repeat “Head still,” then keep your eyes focused until the ball is long gone.
- “Rock the shoulders”: Making a smooth, efficient, pendulum-style stroke requires keeping the hands and wrists quiet. All you want to do is “rock the shoulders” back and forth, and this thought makes a great key for those who tend to get handsy.
If you've tried banishing all thought from your mind while putting but had no luck, try one of these reminders – but only one – and watch your stroke improve.
Putting Thought #1 - They Are All Straight Putts
Putting is a challenge that is as mental as it is physical. Sure, you need to make a great stroke if you want to make your share of putts, but you also have to have your mind in the right place at well. That is a statement that holds true throughout the course, but it is particularly important on the greens. Putting has a way of getting in your head like nothing else in golf - in fact, you could argue that putting is one of the greatest mental challenges in all of golf.
Before you head out for your next round, you should have a clear set of thoughts that you are going to use to guide your putting performance. It is crucial that this is not something you try to come up with 'on the fly' - you need to know what you are going to be thinking about in advance before you are standing over the ball. If you are going to succeed on the course, preparation is crucial - and that applies to your mental game just as it does to your physical game. Many golfers don't bother to consider the mental side of the putting equation, meaning you have a great chance to get a leg up on the competition if you take the time to think about this element of the short game.
In the content below, we are going to look at the top five putting thoughts that have been used to great success throughout the history of this game. Golfers have long been thinking of various ways that they can use their minds to benefit their physical performance, and the ideas below highlight some of the best methods ever used. Most of these thoughts are relatively simple in nature, which is a large part of what makes them so effective. You don't want to be crowding your brain with complex thoughts prior to striking a putt, so keeping it simple is by far the best way to go.
Of course, you don't need to use all five of the putting thoughts below in your own game. In fact, you probably want to avoid having that many thoughts to pick from on a given putt. A better strategy would be to pick out the one or two thoughts that you feel like will serve your game best, and then ride those out in the rounds to come. As you gain experience in the process of using putting thoughts, you can tweak which ones you use (and when you use them) to seek out the best possible results.
Putting Thought #1 - They Are All Straight Putts
This is one of the most effective thoughts that you can use when you stand over the ball to hit a putt, and yet many golfers have never even heard it, let alone tried it out for themselves. Of course, you are probably thinking that this tip is a little bit strange right off the bat, as all putts certainly are not straight putts. Nearly every green has some degree of slope, and a truly straight putt is actually rather hard to come by. However, the point of this tip is not to play each of your putts straight, but rather to think of them as straight when you stand over the ball.
One of the classic mistakes that amateur golfers make when they prepare to putt is trying to 'steer' the ball toward the hole rather than trusting the break of the green to do its job. For example, imagine that you are facing a 10 foot putt that you know is going to break a few inches to the right as it rolls along the green. Obviously, you are going to aim a bit left at address to compensate for that break. However, as you make the stroke, you might be tempted to intentionally push the ball back out toward the hole, not trusting that the putt is going to break as you expect. It is for this reason that the average amateur player misses the majority of their putts on the low side of the hole. In fact, many pros call the low side of the hole the 'amateur side' because this is such a common mistake.
To avoid making this costly error, convince yourself as you stand over the ball that your only job is to hit the putt as straight as can be. After all, you have already picked out your line and aimed accordingly, so that part of the job is done. Put the break out of your mind when you stand over the ball, and simply do the best you can to hit your chosen target line with the right speed. If you are able to hit your target line a large percentage of the time, there is a good chance that you will see plenty of putts fall right in the middle of the cup.
This is a tip that is particularly useful when you face short, breaking putts. These are some of the toughest putts in the game, and they are especially tricky because you can see the hole in your peripheral vision. It is hard to trust the ball to break when it only has a short distance to roll before it reaches the target, but trust is exactly what is needed. Commit yourself to making a stroke that rolls the ball straight down your target line, and believe that gravity is going to do the rest.
Putting Thought #2 - One Foot Long
Speed control is the greatest challenge that you face on the greens. You probably spend plenty of time obsessing over the line you are going to use, but it is really the speed of your putts that needs to be dialed in if you are going to have success. Unfortunately, most golfers don't have a plan for speed, as they are too busy deciding which way the ball is going to curve on the way to the hole. With this putting thought, you are going to focus in on a very specific distance for each putt, and you are then going to do your best to roll the ball that exact distance time after time.
Where is your distance target going to be? Precisely one foot beyond the cup. When you stand over your putts, make it your goal to roll the ball with speed that will allow it to carry one foot past the cup as often as possible. Of course, it would be great if the ball would fall in before it has a chance to roll one foot past, but those putts that do miss should come to a stop around 12'' beyond the hole. This kind of speed control goal has a number of positives, and it will give you the opportunity to make more putts in your very next round.
The reason that using a goal of one foot beyond the hole is such an effective strategy is the fact that this aim point gives you margin for error. If you hit the ball a little softer than intended, it still may have enough steam to reach the hole - and if the ball is on line, it could fall in. Also, if you hit the ball a little harder than planned, you should still be within two or three feet of the cup for your comeback putt, meaning you will be able to two putt the majority of the greens.
To practice this concept on the putting green, place a tee in the ground one foot beyond the hole and roll a few putts from 10 or 15 feet away. You are trying to accomplish one of two things with these putts - either make the putt, or have the ball roll out to a distance that is even with your tee. Of course, you aren't going to execute this plan successfully 100% of the time, as putting is a challenging skill and nobody makes a great roll every time. However, you should get better and better at this with practice, and you will hopefully soon reach a point where you can regularly roll the ball with perfect 'one foot long' speed.
Putting Thought #3 - Frozen Knees
You probably don't think about your lower body very often while putting, and that is understandable. After all, you don't really use your lower body in the putting stroke, as the shoulders and arms are given the job of swinging the putter back and through with a smooth, even rhythm. However, if you are struggling to strike your putts solidly time after time, focusing on your lower body might be exactly what you need to get back on track.
As you stand over the ball, focus your mind on the position of your two knees. They should be set in a position that gives you nice balance and plenty of support for the stroke that is to come. When the stroke starts, your goal is simple - to keep your knees as stationary as possible from start to finish. It might be helpful to focus in on the kneecaps as you swing the putter. As long as your kneecaps don't move an inch in any direction, you should be in great shape to make a consistent, repeatable stroke which will lead to excellent results.
If you test this putting thought out on the practice green, you might be surprised to find how much your knees are moving in your current stroke. It is common for amateur players to move their knees around from side to side while swinging the putt, even without knowing it. It doesn't take movement of more than just an inch or two to throw your stroke out of alignment. Specifically, if you allow your right knee to drift away from the hole during the backstroke, you will likely pull the ball to the left more often than not. Hit a series of short putts on the practice green while keying on the positioning of your knees and you should notice a quick improvement in the consistency of your performance.
Normally, in the rest of your golf game, you never want to think about parts of your body being frozen in place. The golf swing is something that should be fluid and free, and thinking about holding a static position tends to be a mistake. However, that rule doesn't apply when putting. The lower body has nothing at all to do with producing a putting stroke, so it can stay totally still. Even if you are a little doubtful as to how much help this tip can offer your stroke, give it a try in at least one or two practice sessions. The results may be so powerful that you decide to use this manner of thinking on the course.
Putting Thought #4 - It Doesn't Have to Go In
Okay - so this point seems a little bit crazy. In order to make more putts, you are going to decide that you don't actually need to make your putts? While it might sound ridiculous, thinking about things other than making your putts can lead to more success than you might imagine. There is a lot of freedom that comes along with this putting thought, as it is easy to stress yourself out when you think about nothing but forcing the ball into the bottom of the hole.
When you stand over the ball, it is relaxing to understand that you might miss - and that is okay. In fact, you are guaranteed to miss at least a few putts during the course of each round. Most golfers will go through their entire golfing lives without having 18 putts for a whole round, so forget about the idea of being perfect. You aren't going to be anywhere close to perfect with the putter, and that's okay. As long as a few of them fall in along the way - and you manage to avoid three-putting as frequently as possible - you will do just fine on the greens.
The heart of this line of thinking comes back to the fact that you don't control everything about each putt that you hit. Sure, you can do your best to pick the right line and speed, and you can even make a perfect stroke, but the ball still has to hold the line all the way from start to finish. There will very likely be some imperfections on the greens along the way – even on great greens – meaning your ball could deflect away despite your best efforts. There is absolutely nothing you or anyone else can do about the element of luck that exists in putting, so accepting it is the best way to go. You will feel a great sense of freedom when you realize that only part of the outcome is up to you.
Of course, you don't want to be standing over the ball thinking about missing, or expecting to miss, so you need to walk a fine line on this point. The best way to approach it is to think about making the best stroke you can make and then hoping for the best from there. In other words, you are going to think about the two things that you can control – which are making a great read, and then executing a great stroke. If you are able to keep your mind trained on those controllable elements putt after putt, the results that you experience are bound to improve.
In addition to making more putts, which is the whole point in the first place, you will likely find that you enjoy the game more when you relax and accept the results for what they are. It can be extremely frustrating to continue to fight for good results only to have things happen along the way that are out of your control – unless you already understand that some unlucky bounces are certain to come your way. With your mind in the right place and your focus clearly on the task at hand, putting will start to look like a challenge that can be met.
Putting Thought #5 – Light Grip Pressure is King
We might be saving the best for last when it comes to this list. In fact, it may be a good idea to work first on this putting thought before moving on to the others. As you stand over the ball preparing to hit a put, think about your grip pressure first and foremost. If you are able to maintain a light grip pressure on the handle of the putter throughout your stroke, all of the mechanics you need to hit good putts will likely fall into place.
It is hard to believe just how many things about your putting stroke can be improved by using a light grip pressure. First, your tempo will be improved, which is key to controlling your distance successfully. Also, you will avoid manipulating the face of the putter when your hands are lightly placed on the grip, so you should hit the target line more frequently. Finally, a light grip will help you perform better under pressure, as your hands won't have as much of a chance to 'yip' the stroke in one way or another. So, by focusing on just this one thought as you are getting ready to putt, you can improve your performance in at least three different ways.
However, it doesn't even stop there. Since using a light grip pressure is good for your full swing as well, you will be helping the rest of your game by working on this fundamental. The putting stroke and the full swing are quite different, but this is one area of your technique that translates perfectly. By mastering the ability to hold the club lightly through impact and beyond while putting, you will make it more likely that you do the same when swinging the club to hit long shots.
If you do decide that this is a tip you would like to use, there is a chance that you will be able to move on to thinking about other tips while still using this one once it has ingrained into your technique. Using light grip pressure can certainly become a habit, and it should after a period of practice and using this technique on the course during actual rounds of golf. In other words, this is a thought that might not have to remain a thought for long. After a period of adjustment to your new light grip, the light grip will become natural and there will no longer be a need to keep it in the front of your mind as you play.
Each of the five putting thoughts listed in the content above has the potential to help you make more putts. Which one will give you the fastest results? That depends on the current strengths and weaknesses of your performance on the greens. Naturally, different players have different parts of the putting challenge that they struggle to handle, so think about your current putting game and then pick the tips that are most relevant to you. It makes sense to eventually work through all five to see which ones give you the best results, but get started with the ones that you feel are going to lead to lower scores. The mental game is as important on the greens as it is anywhere else around the course, so pick out some helpful putting thoughts and things should get moving in the right direction. Good luck and here's to more made putts!