Five Reasons Why

Putting is Difficult

Putting
13/02/2019

Many golfers tend to think of putting as an important part of their game, and in many cases, their reasons for doing so varies widely from player to player. Think of your own game, what you’ve seen in the media, and what you see the pro’s do. Many players (professional and club players alike) attribute the success and/or failure of their round upon their performance on the green. The famous quote “drive for show…put for dough” from Bobby Locke offers a reason for why we (all) tend to focus on this as an important part of the game.

Often considered a ‘game within the game’, there is an obvious difference in technique (you would hope!) and tactics required in comparison to that required for the long game. By its very nature, this is the aspect of the game that draws each hole (and your overall round) to a close. The combination of these factors makes putting somewhat of a challenge, and before reading on, I want you to ask yourself if right now, you aware of what psychological challenges of putting are?

This article brings together experiences from some of my frequent discussions and professional experience to consider the nature of the natural challenge of putting, our predisposition towards unhelpful thoughts and assumptions we often make when on the green. Following consideration of five different reasons why putting can challenge the way we think, I offer a helpful counter focus, that you can use and apply to your own game, should you find yourself in any of these five thinking traps:

1. Our first focus is (usually) on the outcome
Other than the way by which we classify each hole on the golf course (e.g. a par 4, or a par 5), this is one aspect of our golf performance we often define (more often than not) before we’ve even hit a putt. Our first focus is often outcome over process.

Cast your mind back to your last round. Where you ever in a position walking up to, or standing over a putt, thinking any of the following: ‘this for a birdie’, ‘knock it close to save par’, ‘just sink this to avoid a bogey’. You may not consider this to be overly important (especially if you sunk each putt!), but all of these thoughts are providing you with an ongoing challenge. Each time (whether you are aware of it or not) focus on outcome first, challenges your ability to stay in the present. Thoughts such as these encourage you to consider the future or reflect heavily on the past (e.g. the last missed birdie putt).

Putting that in perspective, you wouldn’t stand on the tee box of a par 3 and think ‘this is for a hole-in-one’. Yet when on the green we change on our approach. Many of us will walk up to or stand over a putt, thinking automatically of the outcome first. Often before or at the expense of considering the most appropriate process required for the putt. A more helpful first point of focus before approaching each putt is to opt to focus on the process first. Encourage and remind yourself to follow a good process. In doing so, more often than not you’ll be rewarded with a good outcome.

2. We struggle to manage our expectations
When we play golf, our expectations can often influence the way in which we choose to perform. Unlike many other aspects of the game, putting is often an aspect where our personal expectations can become unrealistic or unhelpful, and even get the better of us. With this in mind, before reading any further, consider the following question and make a note of your response. Don’t give it too much thought and go with your gut instinct.

What percentage of putts (#/10) would you expect to hole from 1) 5ft? and 2) 10ft? Before reading on. Make sure that you have made a note of your response above. Next up, I want
you to consider the question below. Again, without too much thought, consider this question. What percentage of putts (#/10) does a PGA tour player hole from 1) 5ft? and 2) 10ft?

What were the differences in your responses to both of the questions? According to https://www.pgatour.com/stats this season, from 5ft PGA tour players average between 57-94 %.
From 10ft, players average between 12-70%. Have a look back at your personal response. If your numbers exceed that of the current performance of PGA tour players, you are either out on tour with them (or should be!), or highlighting that you would benefit from working on managing your putting performance expectations. A simple strategy here is to visit the website, make a note of the statistics of your preferred player, and take these out with you onto the course (for example written up on a scorecard, course guide, or alternative piece of kit).

3. We aim to avoid certain behaviours or outcomes
“Don’t leave it short… No three-putts… Don’t canon it past.. Leave yourself a putt… Just don’t hit it off the green…Don’t leave yourself the next putt…”. You may well have experienced thoughts similar to any of these, which is very common in this game. All of these thoughts are very normal in a task that encourages, and even distracts us, to focus on the outcome! (see reason 1 for a recap).

Approaching the green planning to avoid a specific outcome or behaviour, can by its very nature lead us to execute the exact behaviour we are wanting to avoid!

An example of that is the infamous 3-putt. If you visit almost any clubhouse on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon and you are guaranteed to hear a tale of woe about someone’s disastrous three (or more) stab that cost them their round. The harsh reality here is that we all make three putts! So why do we feel a need to avoid them? Even the Pro’s do make them. If you don’t believe me, revisit the statistics via https://www.pgatour.com/stat and have a look for yourself.

It is not helpful to view the 3-putt as something to be feared. It is far more helpful to consider your next 3-putts an opportunity. An opportunity to see how long you can go until your next! Flip this avoid behaviour on its head, use it to your advantage. Start to log your ‘2-putt’ streaks. Hole by hole, round by round, course by course, month by month (if you get there1). When a streak is over, your personal competition gets back underway. You’ll soon learn to harness this situation and turn what others can’t into a competitive advantage.

4. We can get overly technical
Given the (comparably) smaller movements required for an effective putting stroke (in contrast to the full swing), many players (just like you) are aware that a combination of putting mechanics, green reading, selecting (and executing) start line, and pace control are highly linked to putting success. Given this, many golfers choose to work on some or all of these areas, in an attempt to improve their performance and lower their scores.

Whilst almost all (specialist) putting coaches would suggest these factors are key to success on the greens, they do also pose a potential problem. When practising, focusing on some or all of these aspects of putting is highly useful, and undoubtedly the source of many players performance improvements. However, within choosing to focus on the same (some or all of these) factors when out on the course, can encourage us to get stuck thinking technically. Often in the hope that we achieve a stroke that produces the desired putt, and our intended outcome.

This can work well if you sink your putt. But if you miss, the same process (if not careful) can lead you to reinvest attention into manipulating technical aspects of the stroke until you find success. A process you may continue within until the end of your round.

In an instance where you find yourself getting bogged down in the technical detail, at that moment it would be far more helpful to focus on a small controllable factor for your next putt. Putt a good roll on it by choosing to focus on a specific, small, part of the ball to ensure you impact (e.g. the number, a coloured dot, the logo etc.). Control your attention by choosing to focus only on striking the ball.

5. We (often) forget that every putt we face is for the first time
How many times have you (or a playing partner), called out what a putt will ‘do’ before being stood behind the ball and reading the green? Like many golfers, familiarity is something that goes hand in hand with playing regular at a home course. In many cases, a working knowledge of the course is really, really useful. However, sometimes even strength can become a weakness. When it comes to putting, our knowledge of the course conditions, how the green is laid out, and how the ball with react (e.g. “putts from here always break off the left”) can lead to us to assume knowledge, rush, and not check for insight.

The reality you face when standing on the green is that EVERY putt you make is for the first time. The conditions, your experience level, the temperature, the situation you are in (etc.) are all different. Treat every putt as though it’s the first time you’ve seen it. In doing so, you’ll likely slow down, and apply an approach (swing, line, pace etc) better suited than if you trust your gut, and just hit the putt like you always have.

Think Clearly by embracing the challenge 

All in all, putting by its very nature is difficult. But it’s not all doom and gloom! An ability to recognise if you are falling into any of these five traps, before, during, or even after your round, can have large impacts in your game. This awareness can impact your ability to think clearly or perform with an absence of thought (if this is your preference). Consider each of the points made within this article ahead of your next round, and revisit them on a regular basis as and when your performance on the greens is something you want to improve. Think clearly is a skill and is something that requires practice. If you find yourself already thinking in a helpful way, then great. Keep it up!