Lining Up A Putt: Surveying the Line and Other Practical Considerations (Lesson 2, Part 5)

A Summary of this lesson series: Don’t think like this.

Lining up a putt involves getting a read on the green and translating that read into a stance over the ball. Let’s turn this into some practical analysis.

As we have seen, there are two important tools every golfer has – his feet and his eyes.  They help you read the green and get an idea of how a putt, depending on its speed and initial line, will travel, we hope, to the hole.

Beyond that, there are different thoughts about how to line up a putt.

Know your dominant eye

The first thing every golfer should know is which eye is dominant.  Determining which is dominant is simple.  Put your finger about two feet in front of your face.  Line it up with a distant object.  Close one eye and the other.  You should find that one eye or the other will retain the view you have.

This is what happens when you mis-align a putt: Palmer throws his putter in the 1963 Ryder Cup. Likely problem — he still had not learned which of his eyes is dominant.

That eye is the dominant eye.  When lining up a putt, make sure that eye has a good view.  If that means opening your stance or standing more over the ball, it is important so that eye can see the direction in which your putter is aimed to hit the putt.

A line on the ball, the granny method, and picking a spot 2 inches in front of the ball.

Many putters will do something near the ball to make it easier to line up.  I am not a fan of these methods, other than, as mathematicians say, a first approximation.  In essence, by doing so, you are trying to create surveyor’s tools for lining up your putts.  Whether it is with a line on the ball, standing behind the ball and holding the putter as though it will be aligned when you take your stance (the ‘granny method’), or picking out a spot two inches in front of the ball over which to aim.  (Of these methods, I prefer the last one.)

If it works well for you, that’s great.  There are two reasons I am not a fan.  The first is that it tends to get people in the habit of increasing the reliance on mechanical methods, and reducing reliance on one’s own equipment (the eyes).  Related to this point is that nothing – not a thing – you do on the putting green can replicate a surveyor’s tools. So if your eyes are better than a surveyor’s tools – at least in the range of relevant distances on a putting green – a mark on a ball is likely to be less than accurate.

A line drawn on a golf ball to aid in aligning putts.

Ah, you say, but I’ve drawn a straight line on my ball with a little gadget I have that ensures that the curvature of the ball does not interfere with making a straight line.  This is a good example of why thinking you are using a surveyor’s tools, when you aren’t, can be deceptive.  Here is the problem:  because a ball is curved, it is in fact a very poor surveyor’s tool.

A surveyor lining up a putt.

I have noted many times how players think they are getting the line lined up correctly but actually make a decent sized mistake.  An ever so slight mistake in placing will lead to misalignment.  As we’ve seen in our discussion of tan(θ), small errors at the place where the putter and ball are near can lead to large errors five to fifty feet out, depending on green speed, green slope, number of breaks, and the amount of the error.

Let’s be clear.  These methods are good.  If they work for your game, you may not want to change.  As Nicklaus says, “whatever works.”

Dave Stockton’s Method

My own preference runs in the complete opposite direction.  Dave Stockton has a youtube  video [Ed. Note:  I will later update the post] in which he describes using one’s eyes to line up a putt.  I believe that Stockton’s method works well because, frankly, a golfer has no other tool that is better.  Small tiny adjustments of the hands and feet, coordinated by one’s eyes, while standing over the ball can make for the difference between a made putt and a missed putt.

Long versus Short Putts

My preference for the human eye, in essence, is influenced by the length of the putt.  All other things being equal, one’s eyes are better at one to 30 feet than they are beyond 30 feet, for many reasons.  Moreover, the chances of sinking a putt of even over 15 feet in length is not high, ever.  There are simply too many variables that come into play.  Some of those variables are one’s we cannot even detect.  We can have a feel for green speed, but green speed 40 feet out for a putt that is slowing down is very, very difficult to calibrate.  The simple fact is, no one even tries.  Stating the problem makes one realize how ridiculous it would be to try.  (Some people call this feel.  That’s fine.  I agree that is a good way to describe the way one’s mind processes the myriad of variables that come into play – feel, aided by experience.)

Therefore, on long putts, I tend to think that the surveyor methods of lining up putts do gain a relative advantage.

Isaac Newton

I. Newton

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