Tip #33: Perfect Your Putting Position

Today, I putt with the same basic method I used when I began playing golf at age 15. It seems logical, it's simple, it feels good and it works for me. It always has.

There was a time in my career, however, when I didn't use this method. It began back at the 1978 British Open at St. Andrews. I was playing a practice round with my countryman, five-time British Open champion Peter Thomson, when Peter offered me some advice.

Perfect Your Putting Position
If your stance and stroke feel natural, and if you usually get through 18 holes with fewer than 30 putts, stick with your method.

He said I'd never become a truly great putter with the open stance and swinging-door stroke I used, and he suggested I develop a square stance and a straight-back-straight-through stroke in order to ensure keeping the ball on line.

It made sense to me, and it seemed easy enough to do. Besides, who was I, a young kid fresh on the tour, to argue with a five-time Open champion? Even though I had putted well with my method, I gave Thomson's advice a try.

For seven long years I gave it a try. The weakness, I finally realized, was that I simply wasn't comfortable with the square-to-square technique. In the process of working on it, I tried a half dozen putters and never got to the point where I was absolutely confident over the ball.

Ironically, it was at St. Andrews again that I abandoned the method and went back to my old style. I'm not sure what prompted me, but one morning during the 1985 Dunhill Cup I simply stuck my old Wilson 8802 putter back in the bag, went to the practice green, and started putting like a kid again.

The following year was by far my best as a professional, due in large part to the fact that, statistically, I was the leading putter on the U.S. PGA Tour.

So learn from my mistake. If your putting stance and stroke feel natural and work well, and if you usually get through 18 holes with 30 putts or fewer, stick with your method.

I don't care whether you putt cross-handed, left- handed, stiff-wristed, flippy-wristed, pigeon-toed, knock-kneed, or standing on your head. If your method feels and works fine, keep it.

If, on the other hand, you're uncomfortable with your present putting method, abandon it. I'd never offer this advice so blithely with regard to a full golf swing, but putting is different.

It's fundamentally a Machiavellian pursuit -- the ends justify the means. So if you don't like the way you're now putting, experiment. Go to the practice green and try different methods until you come upon a style that feels comfortable, and propels the ball boldly into the hole.

My own stroke feels good to me because I've used it for so many years. I stand very tall, with my feet only an inch or so apart and my arms stretched straight down from my shoulders with almost no bend. This gives me a feeling of unity with the putter shaft.

I also stand open just a hair. Although I'm sure I did this originally simply because it felt comfortable, I can now say that the open position gives me a slightly better look at the hole than I had with the square stance. I use a reverse overlap grip -- the index finger of my left hand overlapping the pinky of my right -- to minimize wrist action, and I play the ball in the same position I do for full shots, a hair in back of my left heel. This leaves my hands directly over the ball.

My stroke is wristless, generated by my shoulders and arms. As I said earlier, the head of the putter opens slightly on the backswing and closes down after impact, in response to the rotating of my shoulders. I make no attempt to keep the face square throughout the stroke. However, this method does bring the face into a square position through the impact area.

The most distinctive aspect of my putting method is undoubtedly the fact that I address the ball off the toe of my clubface. I begin my backswing from the toe-address position, then reroute the putter during the stroke so that at impact I hit the ball smack off the sweetspot. Again, there are no explanations for this little wrinkle except that I've done it that way since I was 15, and it works.

As with full swings, it's important to have a consistent pre-shot routine, sort of a countdown of things to do before striking the ball. This keeps your mind off negative thoughts and establishes a rhythm for the entire stroke.

On the green, that countdown should also encompass the matter of lining up the putt. My routine begins when I align my golf ball, being sure to turn it so that I strike the label. There's no magic to orienting the ball in this manner -- it's simply a way of developing a consistent pattern.

Next, I begin surveying the putt. First I look at it from behind the ball toward the hole. Then I double-check, from behind the hole toward the ball. On my way back to the ball, if it's a right-to-left breaking putt, I'll take a look at it from the left side, vice versa for a left-to-right breaker. By this time, I'll have a good image of the way the ball will run.

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