My bias is to spend time watching the players’ swings on the range at the Waste Management Phoenix Open because that’s where I can learn the most. You may recall my writing many times before that when I was Monday qualifying on the Champions Tour, I could putt like a maniac. World class without stretching the truth too much, primarily because I was good at it and wasn’t afraid of it.
So watching the players on the putting green is like watching paint drying for me primarily because the full swing has all of these not so subtle body movements in it while the putting stroke has movement so subtle only the player can feel them. For example, just how much of each hand is the player using?
But, the practice putting green is on the way to and from the range, so on the way back to the media center today, I tooled through just to see the strokes. And while I saw a lot of them, what I most noticed were practice drills and devices.
The most primitive was Angel Cabrera’s. Primitive and effective. He simply laid two iron shafts on the green, parallel to each other and aimed at the hole, and spaced wide enough for his putter to swing between them. Put the ball between the shafts and stroke the ball to the hole without touching the shafts. He was putting maybe 12 to 15-footers, one after the other, running them between the rails. Even then, he missed once in a while.
Richard Lee — I think; his caddie didn’t have a bib on and I couldn’t see his bag — had the most elaborate set-up. It began with about an 8-foot, blue plumb line he snapped on the green to the center of the hole. He laid down an alignment stick on his foot line at the head of the line. Then about a foot to a foot and a half from the ball, he stuck two tees in the ground on either side of the line as a sort of gateway to the hole. Even slightly offline and the tees boink the ball. Even then, he missed once in a while.
The most simplistically brilliant aide belonged to James Hahn. It was nothing more that a (3-foot) wooden yardstick aimed at the center of the hole about six feet away. He perched a ball on the end, rolled it down the stick, off the end and into the hole. No way it goes in if it falls off the stick. You would think that the ball being elevated from the green by the thickness of the yardstick would present a problem or that its rolling off the end would somehow knock it off line, but they didn’t. He didn’t miss many, but he did miss a couple.
And the most exotic belonged to Camilo Villegas. It was a thin steel or aluminum trapezoid plate about seven inches long. The back end was about five inches wide and the front end was about two and a half inches wide. The back end had parallel starting lines to place the ball on the center line and the front end had two small ball bearings placed in shallow notches just large enough for a ball to go through. Aim the plate at the hole and don’t knock the ball bearings out of the holes. He didn’t make the task any easier by setting up on an 8-foot, left-to-right, downhill putt. Fortunately the little ball bearings don’t go far on grass.
As for me, as I’ve said before, I only work on two putting lengths, straight 6-footers and straight 40-footers. I always start my putting practice with the 40-footers because it frees you up to just let it go — you can’t be tentative on 40-footers — and it quickly gives you a feel for the speed of the greens, one of the two key elements in putting.
I practice the 6-foot putts for the other key element, the line. Standing over a 6-foot putt looking at the ball, you can see the hole in your peripheral vision. Aim the line on the putter at the hole and make a free (like the 40-footers), accelerating stroke to the hole. Even at six feet, any cut spin, you miss. Any blocks or pulls (from not releasing or forcing the release of the putter), you miss. It is a very delicate process to get it grooved.
And the overarching philosophy of the 6-footer is that you should be able to get any short game shot inside of six feet. And if it ends up being an 8- or 10-footer, that’s just an unintimidating extension of the 6-footer you’ve been devoted to; it doesn’t require anything more than a smidge larger stroke than what you’ve been practicing.