Getting the Ball to the Hole: To Die or Drive on By (Lesson 3, Part 6A)

Live fast, die hard -- summer golf camp for the Upper East Side crowd.

Live fast, die hard — summer golf camp for the Upper East Side crowd.

This is an introduction to a familiar debate in golf:  whether to try to die the ball at the hole on your putts (e.g., Nicklaus’ preference) or to try to give it enough force to go 17 inches by in case it misses (the “engineering” solution Pelz tells us drops the most putts).

We all have our own putting weaknesses, and it is most likely profitable to analyze our patterns before trying set up any general rule about how close to the hole one wants to be.  Having said that, there is something to said for a variety of views.  Of course, a putt that is short can’t go in.  We know that.  That will turn out to be a point of note, but not for the obvious reason, “never up, never in.”

Never up...

Never up…

When one thinks about the problem methodically, three main factors come into play.  One is the desire to use the “entire hole,” which will give the ball the best chance of dropping.  We discussed this, complete with illustrations, last year in the post, “The Faster you Putt, the Smaller the Hole.”

The second factor of importance is variability.  The more consistently you can judge your stroke, the more routine it is, the less variability you will have in your distance judgments; and conversely.  We will see how variability enters into the equation of whether to try to die the ball at the hole or putt some distance by.

The last factor of importance is, of all things, direction.  Not only can a putt that never reaches the hole not go in.  But a putt that starts off-line, can never fall into the cup.  That much is obvious.  What is less obvious is the trade-off between this factor and the other two factors, using the entire cup, and variance.

In our next parts of this lesson:  understanding in turn direction, variance, and using the entire cup before pulling it together with a practical application of the principles we learn.

Sir Isaac Newton

Sir Isaac Newton

I. Newton

Editor Note:  Mr. Pelz is an engineer and a fine one.  In many circles there has been an attempt to minimize much of what he has brought to the game of golf.  This is disappointing.  If one reads the USGA rules process on square grooves, one realizes that a lot of engineering and technical thought went into it.  I personally am disappointed that we have seen no similar approach with the belly putter.  People hurl claims back and forth, almost like epithets, and yet no real systematic thought or methodology has been brought to an issue that cries out for it.  Is it really an advantage, sometimes an advantage, only an advantage in some conditions or for certain players, or only a mythical advantage?  Could some players be better with it than a standard putter, while others are better the other way around?  We have no idea.  The USGA and R&A have not given us any information, which is how these things, in this day and age should be decided.  Lawyers can debate ad nauseum what a “stroke” is.  To me, such discussions are rather pointless.

There is a problem I have with engineering approaches — or perhaps developing rules of thumb about best practices from experimentation.  One needs to reason first from principles of physics and mathematics to have some hypothesis of what might work better, why, and when.  Only through a principled structure do people really learn how to adapt; a purely experimental one tends to lead to mechanical thoughts about how one should play golf, and golf is fun precisely because it is so complex — no two situations are ever alike.

Is there such a thing as a theoretical engineer?  I think, to those who know engineers, scientists, and mathematicians, the question answers itself.  I, however, digress.  And have you ever tried to play a round with an engineer?

In any event, appropriate kudos to Mr. Pelz for attempt to bring some rigor to the way we conceive of golf.  It is easy enough to criticize.  The path to knowledge, however, comes from starting down the right road, not from supposing that there is an end to that road or that all knowledge on even a fairly simple subject like the one we discuss here is possible to summarize in writing.

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