Overcome your putting problems

It’s been said that the legs are the first to go as golfers age. But many senior golfers are convinced that their putting goes first. Still, a study of the black art of putting reveals that one can actually improve on the greens. To drive decently enough is human, and to putt well doesn’t have to be divine.

Some of you might have watched Notah Begay on television recently. Now, Begay isn’t 40 yet, never mind 50. But the way he putts — or the ways he putts — can teach us important lessons.

For one thing, Begay putts right-to-left putts right-handed. And he switches to left-hand for left-to-right putts. To accomplish this, he uses a two-sided blade putter. It’s commonly known that the most difficult putt for a right-handed golfer is one that breaks from the left to the right. And vice-versa for a left-handed putter. Begay is giving himself the best chance of holing putts by reversing himself depending on which way a putt breaks.

I bring this up not to suggest that you adopt his method, although it’s worth a try. Many golfers have some ambidexterity, be it in the hands or eyes. I write left-handed, am left-eye dominant, and do all other things right-haed. Except putting, that is. I feel much more comfortable over the ball when I putt left-handed. And comfort is the main thing in putting.

But the most important lesson from Begay is that in putting anything goes. You can be as individual as you like. The only thing that matters is whether you get the ball in the hole as quickly as possible once you reach the green.

Putting is a fascinating study. Back in the 1960s my father took me to a tournament in Akron, Ohio. I believe it was the PGA Championship. We followed Slammin’ Sammy Snead for the front nine and he couldn’t make a putt longer than his foot. Then on the 10th hole, Snead, just about out of his mind with frustration, took a putting stance in which the ball was between his legs as he faced the hole. He was straddling the line, that is. And Snead putted much better from there on. For one thing, he could see the line so much better because he was looking down the line.

But the golf authorities looked askance at Snead’s stance, and soon ruled it illegal. No straddling the line, they said. Snead still found a way that helped ease his putting woes. He faced the hole as he took his stance, but placed the ball to the right of his body — outside his right foot, that is. He was still putting side-on, as the term is and as is customary in golf. But he was looking down the line. Smart man, Sammy Snead.

You see, the idea is to do anything that might help one’s putting — within reason, of course. (Lying down on the green and putting billiard-style is not permitted). Ray Floyd, who putted with a fairly long putter well before it became the fashion for older golfers, once told me that I would think him crazy if I knew all the things he does on a course to give himself confidence. Putting included, naturally.

Johnny Miller, the television commentator, senior pro and 1973 U.S. Open and 1976 British Open champion, knows what Floyd is talking about. Poor putting bedeviled Miller for years and years. He won tournaments where he pretended he was one of his sons while putting. “Okay, Johnny, just pretend you’re Johnny Jr. here.” It helped. Miller won the 1994 AT&T National Pro-Am at Pebble Beach Golf Links by impersonating his sons on the putting green. He really did.

Before the 2000 British Open, Miller and a parade of surviving British Open champions played a four-hole competition at the Old Course in St. Andrews, Scotland. Oh to be able to learn from these champions just how they conquered their putting problems. They had problems, because every golfer does. Inevitably. But it doesn’t have to be a forever thing.

Seek your own counsel. Study other golfers. Be open to innovation. Be true to yourself. That way lies improved putting. Now, then, to your carpet, and do what comes naturally.