Causes and Cures: Chronically Leaving Putts Short

Golfers who come up well short on their putts are sometimes subjected to the old (sexist) jokes, like “Nice putt, Alice,” or “You got the putter hung up in your skirt.”

Forget that there's no empirical evidence proving that women are more timid than men on the greens. Failing to reach the hole with a makeable putt leaves one feeling disgusted and defeated, if not humiliated.

The answer to why putts stop short is pretty obvious: You didn't hit the ball hard enough. The real question is, why not? Sometimes, it's simply a tentative stroke, which can happen to anyone on any given attempt. But if your issue is chronic, you may have a technical problem that needs fixing.

Let's examine three reasons so many putts stop shy of the mark:

  • Cause: Too much tension – Gripping the club too tightly restricts a free-swinging motion. You don't complete the backstroke, and the through-stroke is a jerky, off-line stab.
  • Cure: Lighten your grip pressure – On a scale of 1-10, with 10 being a death grip, the pressure exerted by your hands should be no more than 5. (On fast greens, it should be even lighter to enhance feel and touch.) You'll swing the putter back and through more naturally, releasing the blade through impact and imparting a smoother, longer roll.
  • Cause: Peeking too soon – Just as “looking up” produces poor shots with woods and irons, you'll putt badly if your head moves prior to impact. Usually, you'll push the ball weakly to the right as the left shoulder lifts and the putter lags, remaining open when the ball is struck.
  • Cure: Count to 2 before looking up – On putts of 5 feet or less, listen for the ball to drop before raising your eyes from the ball's original position. Count to 2 before looking on longer attempts.
  • Cause: Fear of going past the cup – What's so scary about hitting the ball too far? When you think about it, it's preferable to coming up short. For one, the ball has a chance to go in. Plus, you can determine how your next putt will break by watching the ball roll past the hole.
  • Cure: Aim for a spot beyond the cup – Pick a spot on your line about a foot past the cup, and simply putt to the spot rather than the hole itself. If it's a breaking putt, make sure the spot is on the continuation line of the break.

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Causes and Cures - Chronically Leaving Putts Short

Causes and Cures - Chronically Leaving Putts Short

Speed control is the most important element of good putting. While most golfers obsess over the line of their putts, it is really the speed control that you should be worried about. If you are able to manage your speed properly throughout a round, you will certainly make your fair share of putts. Obviously it is still important to read the left to right or right to left break of your putts, but even the best line in the world isn't going to do you any good if the speed is wrong. A player who is serious about shooting a low score is one who will work hard on the practice green to dial in the speed before heading to the first tee.

One problem that plagues many amateur golfers is consistently leaving their putts short. Whether a lag putt or just a short little five footer, leaving your ball short of the hole gives it no chance to go it – and if you leave it short enough, you may even have to fight just to make the next one. While you would always prefer to have perfect speed, hitting the ball a little long is better than short, as a putt with too much speed could always grab the hole and fall in. A putt that comes up short is simply doomed from the start.

If you are a golfer who is constantly in search of ways to lower your scores, the practice putting green is where you should spend most of your time. It's great to hit buckets of balls on the driving range to refine your swing technique, but quality shots only matter if you can pay them off with good putts. Golf can quickly become a frustrating game if you are setting yourself up with birdie or par chances only to see them come up short over and over.

Speed control is something that you can't just work on once or twice and then assume you have it under control for good. Since the speed of the greens that you play on will be constantly changing, you have to be constantly adapting to the grass beneath your feet. Just walking onto the course and assuming you know how fast the greens are rolling is a costly mistake. It takes time and preparation to nail down the correct speed of the greens, and you will have to keep doing that preparation prior to every round you play, for as long as you play the game. Simply put, mastering the speed of the greens is a never ending challenge.

All of the instruction below is based on a right handed golfer. If you play golf left handed, please reverse the directions as necessary.

Three Keys for Great Speed Control

Three Keys for Great Speed Control

Before you get into learning how to avoid leaving putts short, it would be helpful to understand what makes for good speed control in the first place. If you are able to incorporate elements of good speed control into your putting game, you might find that the problem of leaving the ball short goes away rather quickly. There is plenty of room for individuality within the putting stroke, but the three keys below apply to every golfer.

  • Solid contact. You probably only think about hitting the sweet spot when you make a full swing, but it is just as important when hitting your putts. Striking your putts on the center of the club face will give them a nice roll, and a predictable distance. If you were to miss out on the toe or in toward the heel of the putter, the ball will almost always come up short of the target. Even if the putt does manage to carry enough speed to reach the hole, it will likely be off line due to the miss-hit at impact.
  • Pre-round preparation. Perhaps the biggest key of all to getting the green speeds right during your round is simply spending plenty of time on the practice green before the round begins. Whether you are a playing a course for the first time, or you have played there hundreds of times, you still need to hit some warm-up putts in order to dial in your speed control. The green speeds of a particular course can easily change from day to day – in fact, the speed of the greens will even change throughout the same day. You don't want to be guessing the speed of the greens for the first few holes. Instead, you should already be dialed in and ready to hit good putts right from the start. In addition to helping you learn the speed of the greens, putting before your round is a great way to get your stroke prepared for the day.
  • Good rhythm. Maintaining a smooth rhythm is key on the putting green just as it is in your full swing. If you try to force the putter back and through, with no sense of tempo or rhythm, you will struggle to feel the speed of your putts correctly. On the other hand, if you let the putter flow naturally through the ball, you may be surprised at how accurately you can control the speed. To improve the rhythm of your stroke, try using a lighter grip pressure along with a slightly longer backstroke. You don't want to let your backstroke drag on too long, but a little extra time spent taking the putter back will help you have a better overall tempo as you move through the ball.

None of the three points above are particularly hard to achieve, but they can be hugely beneficial in the effort to roll your ball the right distance. Pre-round preparation simply takes a little bit of dedication and discipline on your part, as you will need to arrive at the course early enough to spend a few minutes putting before the round begins. The other two points, making solid contact and using good rhythm, are just a product of practice. If you commit to spending even a small amount of time every week working on the technical aspects of your putting stroke, you should be able to build a great tempo that allows you to regularly roll the ball right off the center of the club.

Basic Putting Fundamentals

Basic Putting Fundamentals

The quality of your putting stroke and your ability to control speed are closely linked. A poor putting stroke will typically lead to poor contact, and poor distance control won't be far behind. However, a great putting stroke can make up for a number of sins, and you should have no trouble rolling the ball right next to the hole if your mechanics are in order. For that reason, if you have been leaving your putts short regularly, it would be a good idea to work on the list of putting fundamentals below.

  • Light grip pressure. This point was mentioned briefly above, but it bears repeating here. Light grip pressure is one of the main fundamentals that you should work on while practicing your putting stroke. Squeezing the grip of the putter too tightly will only serve to take the tempo out of your stroke. Since you generally only need to swing the putter a few inches in each direction, there is simply no need to hold on tight. While going through your practice sessions, work on holding the putter as lightly as possible while still maintaining control of the club at impact. After a period of practice time has passed, you should be able to settle on a nice grip pressure that gives you a combination of feel and control.
  • Eyes down on the ball. This is a fundamental that you should be familiar with in your full swing. Keeping your eyes on the ball applies just as much to the putting stroke as it does to the full swing, so watch the back of the ball carefully until your putter has sent it rolling toward the hole. Looking up before you have made contact will often lead to impacting the ball low on the putter face, which will lead to the ball coming up short. It is tempting to look up early to see where the ball is going, but you will resist that urge if you want to make more putts.
  • Athletic stance. As you stand over the ball to putt, you should have your knees flexed and your back straight, similar to the stance you would use before a full swing. The only difference between your regular stance and your putting stance should be that your feet can be slightly closer together while putting. It should feel like your arms are hanging down freely from your shoulders so they can rock easily back and forth.
  • Forward ball position. You want to contact your putts when the putter is moving up away from the ground, so position the ball toward the front of your stance to accomplish that goal. The perfect ball position will vary from player to player, but most golfers will be best served by placing the ball halfway between their left foot and the middle of their stance. Use that as a starting point during your next practice session, and make slightly adjustments forward or back until you settle on the perfect spot for your stroke.
  • Slow takeaway. There shouldn't be anything rushed about your putting stroke. The whole motion should be smooth and easy, starting with the takeaway. Make an effort to use a slow takeaway in your putting stroke. Rather than jerking the club away from the ball and rushing right from the start, move the putter head slowly for at least the first inch or two. Even if you use a faster overall tempo in your stroke, the very beginning of the motion should still be nice and slow.

That might seem like a long list, but you probably already do at least a couple of those things well in your current stroke. Work through the one by one and decide if each point is something you already do well, or something you need to work on. Then, head to your local practice green and spend some time refining your skills on the points that needed work. Your putting stroke, unlike your full swing, can actually be improved in just one or two practice sessions – so you don't have to settle in for a long process in order to get better. Take the initiative to work on the weak points in your stroke as soon as possible and you could be putting better in your very next round.

A Speed Drill

A Speed Drill

Beyond practicing the technique of your stroke, another way you can fix the problem of leaving putts short is through a simple speed drill. By working on the ability to get the ball past the hole on the putting green, you should be much more comfortable with giving it enough speed on the course. It is easy to get into a pattern of tentative putting where you roll the ball up short of the hole time after time, but that is a habit that you will want to break as soon as possible.

The following putting drill is easy to complete. Work this drill into your regular practice putting routine and leaving your putts short should be a problem of the past. To get started with this drill, follow the step by step instructions below.

  • When you arrive at the practice putting green, place a group of five balls down on the green, about 10 feet from a hole. The putt that you choose should be mostly flat, or a little bit uphill (but not downhill). It also should have very little break from side to side. In other words, you want to pick out an easy 10 foot putt.
  • Before hitting your putts, walk up to the hole and place your putter down on the green behind the hole. The shaft of your putter should be an extension of the line that you are putting on. Place a tee in the ground one putter length behind the hole.
  • That tee is going to serve as your 'boundary' for this drill. The goal on each putt is simple – roll the ball toward the hole with the intention of either making the putt, or running it past the cup. A putt will be considered a success if it rolls past the hole and stops short of the tee (or goes in the hole). The putt is a failure if it doesn't get to the hole, or if it rolls beyond the boundary tee.
  • Any putt that is a failure (short or too long) will result in the drill starting over. Any putt that is made will count as two points, and any putt that runs just beyond the hole (but short of the tee) will count as one point. The goal is to accumulate as many points as you can before failing on a putt. At first, make it your goal to get to five points. As you get more and more comfortable with the drill – and better at controlling your speed – you can shoot for higher point totals.

Of course, you are welcome to add variety to the drill above by putting from a long distance, or putting across a slope. This drill is a great way to prepare for the course because it replicates what you should be trying to do during a round. Obviously you would love to make every putt, but the ones that miss should roll just a foot or two beyond the target. If you can develop your skills within this drill, it is inevitable that more putts will begin to fall in on the course.

Putting Strategy on the Course

Putting Strategy on the Course

It is one thing to improve your putting performance on the practice green – it is another thing altogether to be able to replicate that performance on the course. When you are actually playing a round, you will have nerves to deal with, and likely more difficult hole locations than you encountered in practice. To succeed in making improvements to your on-course putting, you need to have a clear game plan for how you want to attack each and every putt. Putting strategy might not be something you have thought about before, but it can play a key role in helping you reach your scoring goals.

The first piece of advice that you should commit to memory regarding putting strategy is this – you shouldn't try to make every putt. While you would love to make every putt, that simply isn't going to happen, and trying to make them all is a great way to three putt several times during the round. Just like you have to pick and choose your opportunities to be aggressive with your swing, you also need to be smart about when you are aggressive with the putter. Always putting aggressively would leave you with a ton of three putts, while always putting cautiously would leave your ball short of the hole time after time. Finding the right balance is one of your main objectives.

So how do you know when to be aggressive and when to play it safe with the putter? It starts with how far you are away from the hole. When faced with a putt of 25' feet or more, it is almost always best to be conservative and play for the two putt. After all, you are rarely going to make a putt of that length, so your main goal when you walk on to the green should be to walk away after just two putts. If the first putt happens to fall in, great, but you want to avoid the dreaded three putt if at all possible.

Another element that determines your aggressiveness is the slope of the green. It will always be easier – and safer – to putt aggressively uphill. When faced with an uphill putt from short or medium range, feel free to get aggressive and do your best to make it. Of course, the opposite is true when putting downhill. Putts running down a slope can get away from you quickly, especially on fast greens. Exercise caution when you are dealing with a downhill putt and do your best to stop the ball at exactly hole high so you can tap in easily.

The last consideration to make in your putting strategy is the big picture of your round and your score. For example, if you are playing a match and you are down two holes late in the back nine, there is no point in being conservative – you should be trying to make every putt you see. However, if you have a two hole lead with only a few to play, striving for safe two putts is a worthy goal. Smart strategy depends not only on the putt in front of you, but also the circumstances of the round, so take everything into account before choosing how to approach a given putt.

In reality, it is not always a sin to leave the ball short of the hole when putting. While you would rather roll the ball past the cup, it is okay to come up short from time to time when you are opting for a conservative two putt. The sin that you never want to commit is leaving a putt short when you are trying to be aggressive. If faced with a comfortable uphill putt that isn't going to get away from you at the end, you should be able to execute your stroke and roll the ball a foot or two past the cup (if it doesn't go in).

Successful distance control on the greens comes down to a number of factors. You need to execute from a technical standpoint, which includes striking the ball with the center of the putter face and keeping your eyes down on the ball. Also, you need to be mentally solid, making good reads and not allowing the nerves to affect your stroke. When you are able to combine both physical and mental execution of your game plan, you should see the ball start to roll just slightly past the hole more often than not.