Putting: A green approach

By Ron Bellamy | Golf, Oregon |

AimPoint Express provides golfers another tool to improve their game

In golf, putting is absolutely the simplest thing, right?

“It’s obviously the easiest motion in the game of golf,” said Casey Martin, the University of Oregon men’s golf coach who played on the PGA Tour. “The club travels eight inches back and eight inches forward. It’s not a complicated thing. Kids can do it.”

In golf, putting produces the most predictable result, right?

“Putting is pretty easy,” mused Grant Rogers, director of instruction at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort. “It’s either going to go in or it isn’t. There’s nothing else that can happen. It shouldn’t surprise anybody if one of those two things happens, because one of those two things is going to happen every time you putt the ball.”

Simple stroke. Predictable outcome. Roll a golf ball toward a hole 4-¼ inches in diameter, the size decreed by the Royal & Ancient in 1891, arguably because no bloke in the room had the good sense to ask “have you thought about 4-and-a-half inches, governor?”

And yet, does any aspect of golf prove more vexing than putting?

“Putting can be so hard because it’s such a small stroke,” said Justin St. Clair, the former Oregon golfer who is director of instruction at Eugene Country Club. “We’ve got 400 yards to the hole, and we’ve got 15 feet left on the green, and it could take us three strokes to get down over those 15 feet.

“One three-foot putt counts the same as a 300-yard drive. It’s more of a mental thing in a lot of cases.”

In the game of golf, no stroke can be more individualistic than the putting stroke, and Rogers likes to quote Jackie Burke: “The best way to putt is the way you putt best.”

For golfers, the search for that “best way” can be never-ending.

Which is why, last December, Justin St. Clair traveled to Florida, to become certified to teach a new way of reading greens that has helped improve the putting of PGA Tour stars Adam Scott and Justin Rose and LPGA star Stacy Lewis, among others.

Which is why Casey Martin owns between 60 and 70 putters and figures that he’s tried just about every way of putting, from conventional to cross-handed to long putters and belly putters and even side-saddle putting and now the “claw” grip.

And which is why Grant Rogers believes that the method of putting used by Masters champion Jordan Spieth, who on shorter putts looks at the hole instead of at the golf ball, will be the way of the future.

AimPoint Express

On the cover of the May edition of Golf Magazine, Adam Scott is pictured holding up two fingers in front of his face, a cross between a Vulcan salute and a guy ordering a couple of more beers.

The pose is an element of AimPoint Express, a method of reading the break on greens, and St. Clair admits that he had his doubts when he first heard about it.

“I kind of went in a little skeptical about it, because I’ve always felt that I was good at reading greens,” St. Clair said. “What I found was that sometimes our eyes can fool us, and since using AimPoint I’ve become really proficient at it and I actually make more putts now because of it.”

The AimPoint system was invented in 2004 by Mark Sweeney, an amateur golfer and software developer who sought to create software that would predict how a golf ball would break based on the slope and speed of the green. It involved math and charts and proved impractical to use on the course until the past year or so, when Sweeney found a way to simplify it; hence, AimPoint Express.

The basics are this: The golfer straddles the line of the putt halfway between the ball and the hole and feels the slope with his feet, assigning a value of the break from one through five. The golfer then stands behind the ball, and based on the break number holds that many fingers in front of his face, focusing on the hole on the high side of the cup. The outer edge of the fingers, farthest from the hole, provides the line of the putt.

“It’s very accurate and it’s actually extremely fast,” St. Clair said. “I read my putts about 200 times faster than I used to. There’s no need to go to the other side of the hole. There’s no need to look at it from the side. … It probably takes me 15 to 20 seconds to get a read. Before I would stalk it, go to the other side of the hole, do a lot of different things to get that read.”

St. Clair, who plans to offer clinics on the system, said it has become a valuable teaching tool.

“In the past, you would tell players ‘well, it’s a lot of intuition and experience,’” he said. “And you try to teach them about the high-point of the break, but it was all based on experience. There was no real method for showing them how to read a putt.”

That’s a key point, because in St. Clair’s experience, amateur golfers typically underestimate how much a ball will break, by a lot; it’s the biggest single mistake he sees golfers make. (Golf Magazine cites a study suggesting that amateur golfers under-read the break on putts by 65 percent.)

“I don’t think it’s a fad,” he said. “I think in the next decade many, many players will start to use it. It’s just another tool out there.”

The golf coach

Some members of the Oregon men’s team are experimenting with AimPoint Express. Oregon women’s golfer Caroline Inglis, the Pac-12 champion who works with St. Clair, also uses it.

“I tried it,” said Martin, who will begin his attempt to reach the U.S. Open again in a qualifier Monday at Eugene Country Club. “It’s very interesting. I believe it’s correct. … The issue for me is that you’ve got to really buy in, and you’ve got to nail down the speed of the green and the slope, which is not easy to do, and you’ve got to know exactly how you’re calibrated. If you go down that path, you’ve got to be 100 percent committed.

“But there are some benefits to that. If you’re really focused on the read, you’re not too conscious of the stroke, which can be mentally a good thing. The issue for me is that it really took me out of my comfort zone. It’s a whole different way to go about it.”

Certainly, Martin has gone about putting in some different ways since he was competing back at South Eugene High School and then at Stanford University.

“Every which way,” he said. “I’ve tried everything. I started out as a kid just putting regular. I was obviously a good enough putter to make it to the level I did, but it wasn’t the strength of my game.”

When Martin putted in the conventional style, with his right hand below his left on the club, he found that his shoulders tended to open, causing him to pull putts. So in college he went to left-hand-low putting, also known as cross-handed.

“Probably my best stretch of golf ever is when I putted cross-handed,” he said. “I won in college, I won my pro event in ‘98 (on the Nike Tour) doing that, and played the U.S. Open (also in 1998) putting cross-handed.”

In retrospect, Martin thinks he should have stayed with that approach; he never had the dreaded “yips” on shorter putts, but felt his stroke break down from 20 feet and beyond. “I didn’t embarrass myself on the greens,” he said. “I just didn’t make enough putts from 15 to 30 feet. That kind of got to me.”

Now Martin wields a standard, 35-inch Odyssey Two-ball putter and uses a “claw” grip in which the fingers of his right hand, and his right wrist, remain rigid. It’s a style used successfully on the PGA Tour by Chris DiMarco, and Phil Mickelson has adopted it recently. “It tends to take out some hands and your shoulders kind of take over,” Martin said.

How do the Ducks putt? “I’ve got a zillion different strokes on my team,” Martin said; in practice, the Ducks do a lot of team putting drills to simulate the pressure of competition.

“Their stroke doesn’t have to be perfect, and it can be unique, but it has to be in the ballpark so it can hold up,” Martin said, noting that for the average golfer, “I would absolutely recommend the core fundamentals of an alignment that’s in the ballpark and a path that’s really neutral. The ball’s going to start where that face is pointed. When you deliver the face to the ball, if it’s pointed to the right, it’s starting to the right. If your alignment is off, you’re going to have to make all sorts of tiny movements in your hands to square it up and it’s going to be hard to be consistent and probably lead to some form the yips.”

Bandon’s putting guru

Grant Rogers isn’t sure exactly how long he’s used his Scotty Cameron offset putter, modeled after the old Ping Anser, but long enough that there is a slight discoloration, a worn spot, on the stainless steel face.

“That would be a bad sign,” Rogers said, grinning, “if you saw that on your opponent’s putter.”

The director of instruction at Bandon Dunes practices putting, a lot. It is at the core of his philosophy about putting, the foundation of the Yoda-like advice that he dispenses to his golf students.

“The thing that fascinates me is that it’s the easiest way to get better,” Rogers said “It’s the simplest part of the game to improve. It doesn’t require power or anything. Getting better at putting is really in range for people, but they have to think it’s important enough to do it.”

Often, Rogers will ask his students how much of their available practice time they spend putting; remember that many of these pupils are serious golfers, invested enough in the sport to make the trek to Bandon Dunes. He’s no longer shocked that the percentages are so low, in single digits; he recommends spending at least 25 percent of practice time putting, and often gives long-term assignments — such as, make 10,000 putts.

“The journey’s worth it,” he said. “You’ll be glad you got there. But you’re not going to enjoy it all the time.”

Rogers isn’t sold on AimPoint Express, though he would never discourage any golfer from using a method that works for them.

He does, however, believe that there’s merit to the Jordan Spieth approach of looking at the hole rather than the ball and, in fact, made that suggestion a few years ago to Bandon Dunes’ director of agronomy, Ken Nice, who played college basketball at Willamette University, where his coach for two years was John Roche, legendary coach at Churchill High School in Eugene.

“I knew he was really good at free throws,” Rogers aid. “I said ‘why don’t you just look at the hole when you putt? You don’t look at your feet when you shoot free throws.’ That’s when I saw him putt the best, when he was looking at the hole. I told him then that was the way of the future. …

“I think if you come back and talk to me about putting in 10 years, everybody’s going to be looking at the hole, even on their long putts.”

Some putting principles from Rogers who, by the way, putts left-hand-low:

Study the putt from behind for at least six seconds to determine the line, and take a practice swing, not more than three, while looking at the line and hole, rather than “disconnecting” from the target by taking a practice putt looking down.

On longer putts, take a longer swing, rather than punching-up a shorter swing.

Don’t let the putter-head recoil after the putt.

Visualize a path. “I’m not a big one on picking an exact spot for the ball to go over,” he said. “There isn’t one spot. There are multiple spots, depending on the speed. There are different paths that will take the ball to the hole, especially on a breaking putt.”

Work on chipping and pitching. “Good putters,” Rogers said, “putt from good places.”

Don’t be cavalier about short putts. “Respect a ball that’s not in the hole,” he said.

Finally, from Rogers, there’s this last word on the vagaries of putting: “If you can create a belief system, and somehow it works, then that’s a good thing.”

Comments are closed.