When you watch old clips of pro golfers putting, you'll notice a lot of wrist action in their strokes.
In the time of Hogan, Snead and Palmer, greens were much slower and bumpier than the smooth, slick surfaces of today. In fact, most public courses now feature green speeds and textures that are better than the best surfaces of old.
The putting stroke has evolved with these improvements, with the handsy action of yesteryear giving way to a pendulum-like motion controlled by the arms and shoulders. On 21st-century putting greens, a “slappy” stroke makes it difficult to control the speed with which the ball rolls, hindering consistency.
The standard arms-and-shoulders stroke is relatively straightforward. Just follow these simple guidelines:
- Set up with the forearms, wrists and hands forming a V, directly in line with or slightly ahead of the ball (e.g. closer to the target).
- Maintain this V as you take the putter back, letting the arms and shoulders move freely while keeping the lower body still. The wrists do not break or hinge.
- Return the putter to the ball while keeping the V intact. At impact, the arms, wrists and hands should mirror the address position.
- Follow through with the V still in place.
To vary the speed and length of your putts, simply make a shorter or longer stroke, without trying to hit the ball softer or harder by slowing or speeding up your motion.
Use Arms and Shoulders for Consistent Putting
The words 'consistent' and 'putting' are not often found in the same sentence when it comes to the performance of an amateur golfer. Most players struggle to consistently make putts, which is a big part of the reason why the average golfer has trouble lowering his or her scores over time. If you could find a way to make just a few more putts during most of your rounds, you would be amazed at how quickly your scores could fall. Putting is the great equalizer in golf – make putts and you can cover up a number of other errors made around the course.
One of the reasons for the poor putting performance of the average golfer is the fact that the average player tends to use his or her hands too actively in the putting stroke. While it might seem like a good idea to use your hands to swing the putter through the ball, this is actually the opposite of how you should be moving the club. Instead, you should be putting the control of the stroke in your arms and shoulders, which will lead to a much more consistent putting action. When you watch professional golfers play on TV, this is the type of motion they use to roll the ball toward the hole, and you would be well-served to follow their lead.
Technique is more important when putting than it is during any other part of the game, as you have to be incredibly precise on the greens in order to have success. You can actually get away with having a few 'quirks' in your golf swing as long as you know how to work the ball back toward the target time after time. Many players swing the club in unconventional ways, but they use a predictable ball flight pattern to get the ball relatively close to the target. That isn't going to work on the putting green. You can't draw or fade your putts in order to get them to the hole, so you need to be precise in your ability to hit the target line as often as possible. Solid fundamentals will make you more consistent, and that consistency is going to lead to lower scores in the end.
Consistency on the putting green will not only help your game because you will make more putts, but it will also be beneficial because you will enjoy the confidence that comes along with knowing you are a good putter. When you believe in your putter, the rest of the game gets a bit easier. While chipping, for example, you won't be as stressed about chipping it close to the hole because you will believe in your ability to make your putt regardless of where the chip shot ends up. Also, you won't feel as much pressure while hitting approach shots from back in the fairway. Even if you don't stick the ball right next to the cup, you could still knock the putt in to record a birdie. Having good putting on your side is a powerful thing, and it can easily transform your entire game moving forward.
The instruction throughout the rest of this article has been written from the perspective of a right handed golfer. If you happen to play (or, at least, putt) left handed, you will need to reverse the directions appropriately.
Why No Hands?
One of the difficult things for new golfers to understand is exactly why they shouldn't use their hands actively while putting. It seems so natural – you just hinge your wrists a bit, use your hands to 'flick' the putter head through the ball, and the ball is sent on its way toward the cup. And, to be fair, it is possible to make some putts using this method. In fact, in days gone by, this was the preferred method of putting for most players. However, in the modern game, this style of putting is pretty much extinct, and for good reason. Review the following list for a collection of reasons why you should keep your hands out of the putting stroke.
- Controlling the putter face. If you use your hands to move the putter back and through the ball, you will be opening and closing the face of the putter dramatically along the way. This is a problem. You need to have the putter face perfectly square to your chosen target line at impact, and that is going to be hard to do when the putter is opening and closing during the stroke. When the hands are taken out of the stroke, the face will trace a far more predictable path, and you will have an easier time getting the ball started on line. There are two key ingredients to any putt – line and speed – and controlling the putter face by keeping your hands quiet will help you to nail the first half of that equation.
- Predictable speed. As mentioned in the previous point, speed is one half of the putting equation. If you don't get the speed of your putts correct, it really won't matter if you hit the right line, because the putt won't be going in anyway. A putting stroke that is controlled by the hands is always going to struggle to consistently roll the ball the correct speed. The small muscles in your hands and wrists are more prone to quick 'twitches' than the muscles in your arms and shoulders, meaning they aren't as good at controlling the speed of the stroke. By moving your stroke into your arms and shoulders, you will quickly gain an improved ability to manage the speed of your putts successfully.
- Dealing with nerves. Players who putt with their hands tend to struggle when they get nervous. Again, this comes back to the ability to control the speed of the stroke. If you are using small muscles to swing the putter, you are far more likely to flinch right before impact as you try to guide the ball toward the hole. While your technique will likely hold up just fine on the putting green during practice, it may quickly fall apart when you get on the course and a little bit of pressure settles in to the back of your mind. Playing good golf is all about controlling your nerves and handling pressure, and you simply aren't going to be able to do those things very well when you have a 'handsy' putting stroke.
- Fast green speeds. So, if it used to be popular to putt with your hands, what changed? Mostly, it was the development of faster green speeds that required players to adjust the way they putted. On slow greens, you can get away with using your hands to 'pop' the ball toward the hole, as you don't have to worry much about the putt racing past the cup if you hit it a bit too hard. That isn't the case on the fast greens that are featured on most modern golf courses. Fast greens require tremendous touch, and that kind of touch can usually only be achieved by using an 'arms and shoulders' type of stroke. If you do play on a course with slow greens, you could probably use a hands-only stroke successfully, but fewer and fewer of those courses exist today.
As you can see, there are plenty of reasons to avoid using your hands actively in the putting stroke. Is it possible to putt well in the modern game by using your hands? Sure, anything is possible in this crazy game. However, you want to give yourself the best possible chance to succeed on the greens, and that is going to happen when you take your hands out of the stroke. Work on using a one-piece motion with cooperation from your arms and shoulders and you will almost immediately become a better putter.
A Simple Drill
If you are having trouble getting the right feel for putting in this manner, there is a simple drill you can do to help your body get the idea. To do this drill, you will need to head to your local golf course (or driving range, if the range has a putting green) with your putter, a few golf balls, a friend, and a tennis ball. Yes, a tennis ball.
To get started using this helpful drill, follow the steps below.
- Place your golf balls down on the putting green just a few feet from a hole that you can use for practice. You don't want to give yourself a very challenging putt at this point, as the emphasis is going to be more on your stroke technique than anything else. Try to find a relatively flat section of the green so you can give yourself a chance to make a bunch of putts in a row once you get a good feel for the technique that you are working on with in this drill.
- Next, you are going to set up over the first ball in your usual address position. Take a moment to get your aim just right, and get into a comfortable stance that will allow you to swing the putter freely back and forth while keeping your eyes down on the ball.
- It is as this point that your friend, and the tennis ball, come into the picture. With your stance taken, ask your friend to place the tennis ball between your wrists so that it becomes wedged in place. Your arms are naturally close together while holding on to the putter, so it should be pretty easy to place the tennis ball into a position where it will stay put.
- With the tennis ball stuck between your wrists, go ahead and make your putting stroke. The goal is simple – to make the putt without having the tennis ball fall from its position. To make that happen, you are going to have to make a stroke that is controlled with your shoulders and arms rather than your hands and wrists. If you use your hands too much, the tennis ball is likely to fall out.
- You should be able to hit several putts in a row without having to have the tennis ball replaced. If your friend would like to work on his or her putting technique as well, you can take turns placing the tennis ball for each other as you hit a series of practice putts.
Obviously, you aren't going to be placing a tennis ball between your arms while putting during an actual round of golf. However, practicing with this setup will help you learn how it feels to make a stroke that is dictate by the arms and shoulders rather than the hands. When you do head out for your next round, imagine that the tennis ball is in place while you are rolling your putts. Even something as simple as keeping that thought in the back of your mind can help you make a smooth, consistent stroke.
Other Key Elements
While it is true that you should be able to roll the ball nicely while using an 'arms and shoulders' stroke, there are other fundamentals in play while putting which should be addressed. Even though a good putting stroke is a rather simple action, the entire body still needs to work together in order to roll the ball on the right line with the right speed. Review the following list to brush up on all of the key fundamentals that you should be working on in your stroke.
- Stable lower body. Most players overlook this point, but it is incredibly important to keep your lower body stable during the putting stroke. If your legs are moving around at all as you swing the putter, that movement is going to be transferred up into the stroke. Specifically, make sure your lower body is not swaying at all from side to side. To work on this point, focus on keeping your knees perfectly still throughout your entire stroke. As long as your knees don't move, you can feel good about the performance of your lower body as a whole.
- Eyes on the ball. Many people think about keeping their head down during the golf swing, but that tip isn't quite specific enough. Instead, you should be thinking more specifically about keeping your eyes on the ball. Rather than allowing your eyes to wander – such as letting them watch the putter as it swings – force yourself to keep your eyes trained on the back of the ball until it has been sent on its way. If you need some help on this point, consider drawing something on your ball that you can use to focus your attention.
- Relaxed grip pressure. One of the most-common mistakes seen on the putting green is holding on to the putter too tightly. If you are squeezing the grip as you stand over the ball, you will have very little chance of making a good stroke. Before starting any putting stroke, take a moment to 'shake out' your hands and make sure they are as relaxed as possible as they hold on to the grip. You are only swinging the club at a slow speed when hitting your putts, so you don't need to be holding on very tightly. As long as you can control the movement of the club, you are in good shape – in other words, hold on only as tight as you need to in order to keep the club in your hands, and no tighter.
- Don't freeze over the ball. If you stand over the ball for a long period of time prior to starting your stroke, you are going to have a hard time maintaining feel on the greens. Good putting is all about feel, but your feel will quickly disappear when you stand still for several seconds. A good putting routine doesn't include a lot of downtime for this exact reason – settle in to your stance, take one last look at the hole, and let it go. Your performance over the long run will be vastly improved if you can avoid standing still for too long.
Yes, you want to make sure that you are using your arms and shoulders to control the putting stroke. However, you don't want that to be the only thing you think about while practicing your technique. There are plenty of other fundamentals that need to be considered on the putting green, including those listed above. Only when you are able to bring together all of these important pieces of the puzzle will you really be able to live up to your potential on the greens.
The Mental Game
Putting is famous for being as difficult from a mental standpoint as it is from a physical standpoint. There are plenty of fundamentals to master from a physical perspective, but there are also plenty of things to learn about the mental side of the equation. You have to think intelligently on the putting green if you are going to perform consistently.
The first key within the mental game on the putting green is to have a clear idea of the break of the putt. You need to read the putt accurately in order to pick out a target line for your stroke – and you should never get over a putt without first having a target line selected. Reading greens accurately is a skill that you can develop over time, but you are going to get better at it if you actually pay attention to your reads. Don't take this part of putting for granted – work hard on your reads, and learn from your mistakes. Of course, you need to remember that there are two parts to every read, the line and the speed. Most players attempt to read the line, but many fail to think about the speed of the putt at the same time. Read both the line and the speed and then pick out a target that you feel will give you a chance to knock it in.
In addition to the reading of your putts, you will also have to handle the pressure that comes along with putting. Without a doubt, this is where the biggest roadblock to consistent putting is going to be found. Many people are never quite able to get past the pressure that they feel when putting, and their results speak for themselves. It is hard to put the nerves to the side while hitting your putts, because putting is so final. For example, if you hit a bad drive, you may be able to hit a great recovery shot in order to save your par. That doesn't happen with putting. If you miss your par putt, that's it – you won't be making a par on the hole. When that kind of pressure gets into the back of your head, it has the potential to break down the fundamentals of your stroke quite quickly.
In order to succeed in the face of putting pressure, the best thing you can do is rely on your preparation. If you are well prepared before you go onto the course, you can think back to the successes you have had during practice anytime doubt creeps into your mind. By making as many putts as possible during practice, you can be well-prepared to knock a bunch of putts right into the middle of the cup during your round.
Putting is never going to be easy. It might seem like it would be pretty easy to roll a ball into a cup that is a few feet away, but any experienced golfer knows better. Making putts will always be both the most difficult and most important part of the game. By working on improving your technique to include more arms and shoulders and less hands, you can up your consistency on the greens. Of course, nothing in golf comes without work, so make sure putting practice is high on your golf priority list moving forward. Here's to plenty of one-putt greens in your next round!