Lining Up a Putt: the Human Eye and a Surveyor’s Best Tools (Lesson 2, Part 4)

Jack helps Vijay line up his putts

About this site: Golf Is Simple

I think that most would agree that the greatest match in the history of golf occurred in 1977.  The mature Jack Nicklaus was near the top of his game.  The young Tom Watson was ascendant.  The British Open was held at Turnberry.  The weather was warm and sunny.  The first two rounds left Nicklaus and Watson tied for the lead.  They would never look back.  Paired together for the last two days, they only put more distance between themselves and the field.  Nicklaus would shoot 65-66=131; Watson 65-65=130.  Watson was one shot ahead coming into 18.  Nicklaus hit his drive into the right deep rough.  Watson was in the middle of the fairway.  Nicklaus hit an amazing, strong shot to 40 feet.  A mere mortal could not have reached the green.  Nicklaus’s only chance was to birdie, Watson in the fairway and a par assured it seemed.

Watson hit his approach to 4 feet.  Then what I believe is the greatest putt in the history of golf took place. A birdie was a must, an unlikely must, and unlikely to force a playoff.  Nicklaus stood over his putt, crouched in his familiar stance, for an eternity.  He stared at the hole.  Then he hit the putt.  He made the putt.  Never have I seen, nor imagined, a more improbable shot in golf.  Novels are made of such events.  A novelist would, indeed, fear writing such an improbable story for fear that it would never be read.

Then Watson sank his 4-footer.  To win.  By one shot.

Foundational Idea (Wednesday Post)

One thing golfers often don’t trust is themselves.

I see it time and time and time again.  They do not realize that they are their own best tool, better than any club, or any ball, that they hope to buy.  In the area of lining up a putt, a surveyor’s best tools cannot replace the human eye.   Use it, with its ability to coordinate the bodies action.

A small personal story along these lines from this year.  Early in the year I left my clubs to be re-gripped.  It would take about 2-3 days.  I didn’t think I would play

Let me expand upon this, because it is a very important idea, and I will come back to it in the next post about the practicalities of lining up a putt on the course, and different methods people advocate.

The power of the human eye-hand coordination.

200,000 years ago, when humans had to hit moving animals like birds with rocks and crude spears – no Addidas graphite then – the ability of the human eye, and the brain’s ability to coordinate the actions of the hands and body with it – were not lost on the average human being.

Ever wonder why we farm cows and pigs?  Not lions and tigers?  Because they move a heck of a lot slower and are a lot easier and a lot less dangerous to catch.  None of this “Guns, Germs, and Steel” explanation.  We’re not stupid, as a collective race – we want things simple.  But when they weren’t or aren’t simple, our ancestors had to survive.  No trips to McDonald’s for them.   You can’t run the 100 meters in under 11 seconds – lion lunch.  You don’t see that lurking spot of spotted fur in the distance – cheetah chirozo.  You just can’t swim that far?  Shark supper.  And so on.  A larger brain is next to useless without its ability to guide the body to do more complex things – including talk and write and throw very accurate darts.

The human eye, and coordinated body parts, is extraordinarily powerful.  (In later posts, we’ll discuss other similar features of human anatomy that people often under-estimate, but now for the eye.)

This can’t be under-estimated when lining up a putt.

Let’s drive home the point.

It’s not just the human eye that is greatly under-appreciated in golf.  The body’s inner ears, as we will explain in much, much, much later posts (“I’ve got a secret!”).  You will hear, if you listen, archaelogists attempt to explain progress by humans by things that distinguish them from apes.  Opposable thumbs; year around fertility; and so on and so forth.  Indeed, there is an even more powerful tool that humans have, but apes lack, which aids in their ability to learn quickly.

Homo Erectus, a predecessor of modern man

Neurological researchers will tell you that we have empathetic cells in our brains — that allow us to quickly mimic others if we are paying attention or the action is simple enough – mirror neurons. [1], [2]  (More on this much, much later, someday.)  Fascinating.  Truly.  But back to lining up a putt, before we move on to other subjects.

As in all things, I am a proponent of no absolutes – a little of this, a little of that.

No doubt, however, the ability of the human eye to see accurately and to see in color is very powerful.  Of course, the surveyor’s tools are pretty good on very flat greens with few breaks.  But when the break becomes bigger, the speed faster, or one gets the dreaded double- or triple- breaking putt, one has to use judgment to get it close, and judgment and luck to sink a putt.  Take Tiger Wood’s putt on the 18th today (Friday round, 4 Ball) in the Ryder Cup.  It was a wonderful putt and missed by ever so little.  To come that close, or to make it, one has to use all the tools at one’s disposal, and that means the best tool – the human eye and eye-body coordination.

This putt at the Ryder Cup Appears to be Good

How do we use it in lining up a putt?  What about lining up by picking a spot 2-3 inches away from the putt and roll it over that spot?  Does that work?

Tiger barely missed it to lose the match, 1 Down

Until the next post, I will say just that what I will call a mechanistic approach is not optimal, not best.  It has an advantage, and a big disadvantage.  The advantage is that a mechanistic approach (bringing out  your surveyor’s tools) brings about a lot of consistency.  And there is much to be said for this.  When, however, you fall into the trap of thinking that the surveyor’s tools are the most accurate way you can do it, you start getting less accurate.

Is this so hard to believe?  I don’t think so.  It has to be a lot harder, 200,000 years ago, to hit a bird or a fast moving animal with a rock or a speer – if dinner for the week is riding on it.  One putt, on one green, in one round of golf, during one’s life, is a piece of cake by comparison.

Don’t underestimate your own natural ability.  [3].

Saturday’s post will provide the practical side of this important idea.

Isaac Newton

By I. Newton


[1]   “V.S. Ramachandran – Time 100”. April 21, 2011. Retrieved April 21, 2011. The citation by Tom Insel, Director of NIH, reads: “Once described as the Marco Polo of neuroscience, V.S. Ramachandran has mapped some of the most mysterious regions of the mind. He has studied visual perception and a range of conditions, from synesthesia to autism. V.S. Ramachandran is changing how our brains think about our minds.”

[2]  Ramachandran is known for advocating the importance of mirror neurons. Ramachandran has stated that the discovery of mirror neurons is the most important unreported story of the last decade.[44] (Mirror neurons were first reported in a paper published in 1992 by a team of researchers led by Giacomo Rizzolatti at theUniversity of Parma.[45]) Ramachandran has speculated that research into the role of mirror neurons will help explain a variety of human mental capacities ranging from empathy, imitation learning, and the evolution of language.

[3]  I believe in intuition and inspiration. … At times I feel certain I am right while not knowing the reason. When the eclipse of 1919 confirmed my intuition, I was not in the least surprised. In fact I would have been astonished had it turned out otherwise. Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution. It is, strictly speaking, a real factor in scientific research.

  • Cosmic Religion : With Other Opinions and Aphorisms (1931) by Albert Einstein, p. 97; also in Transformation : Arts, Communication, Environment (1950) by Harry Holtzman, p. 138. This may be an edited version of some nearly identical quotes from the 1929 Viereck interview below.
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2 Responses to Lining Up a Putt: the Human Eye and a Surveyor’s Best Tools (Lesson 2, Part 4)

  1. John says:

    Rob. Keep going. Go on. Do this. Get many more than 4000 eyes reading your golf blog. I will keep reading. And send comments maybe if you want them.

    • golfisagameofsimple says:

      Comment away. Two heads and all. Which reminds me, I have another part of the lever action to tell you about.

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