Getting the Ball to the Hole: Know Your Putter (Lesson 3, Part 3)

The highly slopey 16th green at Augusta National.

This is a continuation of our lesson about getting the ball to the hole.  In the previous lesson, we learned about the importance of correctly lining up a putt; how small errors in alignment can result in three-putts; what green slope and green speed are; and ways one can try to minimize the chances of misalignment.  Now we are discussing what considerations we should take into effect when try to move the ball from its resting place to what we hope will be the bottom of the cup.  We started out with a little-understood but essential part of putting – “top-spin” or “rolling the ball” or what a physicist would call the role of angular momentum in a roll of the putt.  In this part, we will discuss the putterhead.  [Ed. Note:  In the not too distant future, we will eventually get to the debate on whether the belly putter provides an advantage, or not.]

Be yourself.  Everyone else is already taken.  

       — Oscar Wilde

About this site: Golf As God Gave It To Us

Putting is probably the most personal aspect of golf.  So many different methods work, it seems; so many different stances, strokes, and putters.  As long as the ball goes in the hole, it doesn’t matter much how.

Heel-and-Toe Weighting

There is a wonderful book, put together by some British scientists circa 1969, Search for the Perfect Swing. [1] I recommend the book in general. It has many wonderful parts, start to finish, with photographs and illustrations. One of the things the scientists discovered, which apparently did not go un-noticed by Karsten Solheim, is that a heel-toe weighted putter improves putting because off-center strikes will not be as bad. (Incidentally, they also introduced the idea that perimeter-weighted irons would be more forgiving!)

The idea is really quite simple.

The head of an Ping Anser putter.

If one takes a flat piece of steel and uses it to hit a ball, an off-center (of gravity) hit will move the piece of steel.  Too far ‘inside’ and it will cause the piece of steel to “close” or rotate slightly closed.  Too far ‘outside’ and it will cause the piece of steel to ‘open’ or rotate slightly open.  This, our British scientists found, causes inaccuracy in putts.  As we saw in our discussion about the importance of alignment – do not underestimate that – a seemingly small opening or closing of the putter face can cause havoc on the putting green.

Rather than using a flat piece of steel, we put some extra weight on the heel and toe of the putter.  This means it is harder for a hit too “inside” to close the putter.  Why?  Because it has to rotate that extra weight out on the end of the putter closed, just as it is lever that has to be pushed.  Similarly, if we hit the ball off-center “outside” it is harder to open the putter because there is more weight on the toe for the ball to rotate “open.”

True.  Not a mirage.  Not a gimmick.

The downsides of heel-toe weighting

As we often say, golf is a game of opposites; or nearly every idea has a limiting principle.  It is true that the ball will be struck more accurately on off-center hits with a heel-toe weighted putter.  So what are we giving up?

We are giving up some feel and a bit of speed.  Why feel?  The more the center of gravity of the putter head has all of its mass concentrated at that point (take a hammer and putt with it, if you like) the more you will “feel” how the ball impacts the blade.  Because moving weight to the perimeter tends to dampen the vibration that sends messages up the shaft to your hands.  (Our nerves in our hands are very sensitive indeed.)  If you want more “feel” to your putter, buy one that has more weight directly behind the ball, or put lead tape on your existing putter. Jack Nicklaus and Jim Flick discuss feeling the weight of the putter-head here.  And at some point too much weight behind the ball tends to turn the putter into something of a mallet — you lose all sense of connection with the ball at impact.

The other effect of moving mass away from the center of gravity is to slightly reduce the speed of the strike.  The metal becomes ever so slightly more subject to compression because, at the point of impact, the ball weighs relatively more than the surface it is striking (think of hitting a ball with saran wrap, on the one side, which would just fold up; and the head of sledge hammer, so the idea becomes clear).  If you tend to play fast greens and want slower putts, this could help.  If you tend to hit your putts too slowly, this could hurt.

It depends on what you want.

What putter to buy

There are lots of variables affecting your putting, including others involving the putter and how they interact with you.  My coach will tell you, despite a very doctrinaire approach on many things, that putting is very personal.  It is.  Who else but you knows how nervous, or calm, you are standing over a 4 foot putt?  Do you feel like you tend to make side-hill putts, or not?  How do you feel like you best see the line of the putt?  And so on.  All these interact with the putter you buy and putting is a delicate art.  It’s not laying bricks, that’s for sure.

The best rule of thumb is to stick with what seems to work for you.

If it feels good; if the ball seems to roll “true;” if your eye seems to align the putts better with a particular putter; then don’t overthink it.  Some people tend to “cut” the ball, which is harder to do with heel-toe weighted putter.  Some people tend to pull it.

Villegas prefers lining up a putt in two-dimensions, not three. We won’t comment on the efficacy of this approach. Let the results speak for themselves.

I find it harder to pull a putt if there is more weight directly behind the ball because subconsciously I am aware more of a mis-hit (a pull is usually a shortened- swing arc closing the putter face too early).  Some people want less feel in their putter because they tend to be anxious around putting and more ‘feel’ promotes anxiety in a subtle way (part of why wristier putting strokes wear on most people).  Some people want more feel in their putter.  Stan Utley advocates a grip in which relatively few parts of the hand touch the putter, treating the putter almost as a surgeon would a scalpel.  And certainly he carves up the greens with a putter.

Myself, I play with a traditional heel-toe weighted putter but I prefer a putter with the weight a bit more evenly distributed.  Why?  Because while the putter head doesn’t rotate with an off-center hit, I like to feel a solid strike of the ball.  That is my psychology.  What works for you depends upon many variables. Go with what seems best, understanding why.

The next part in this lesson on getting the ball to the hole:

The faster your putt, the smaller the hole.

Sometimes all the choices work. Choose the one that suits your eye best.

I.Newton

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