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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Why Tiger Can't Putt

Ok, maybe that's a bit harsh, but you know what I mean. Before the rumors start circulating about Tiger dallying with over 100 putters, I want to tell you what I think is causing the problem. While Tiger has a reputation as a good putter, we've also seen him have days (and tournaments) in the past when he couldn't buy a putt. His current woes are just that problem grown big, and hopefully this will help those of you struggling with similar problems. (The pic is from an article at You can read it here.)

Tiger staring at putterFirst, I want to gloat a bit because it's relevant to this discussion. (That's my story and I'm sticking to it!) Back in December I wrote a post about Tiger's fall from grace where I said:
...Many of these players who have stood in awe of Tiger are going to see him in an entirely different light. Come on, if he can make mistakes this bad off the course… These players will get a boost of confidence from this newfound revelation that perhaps the beast can be slain. It will elevate their play.

I also suspect some of the players will start to see themselves as better than Tiger – not a superiority in skills, but in morals. They won’t say so in as many words… but they will think it, just the same...
Isn't that exactly what's happened? Besides the unnamed 25% of a group of Tour players who said they now believe Tiger has used PEDs and the media people who now bash Tiger regularly, this weekend we heard repeatedly how Tiger has lost his swagger, how a new breed of player with no fear is coming out, and how we must now doubt that Tiger will match -- let alone pass -- Jack's record.

Personally, I think this is all overblown hyperbole EXCEPT for the bit about Tiger losing some swagger. Confidence comes from knowing you can rise to the challenge, and Tiger no longer believes that... primarily because of his putting. I picked Tiger to win at St. Andrews because I thought he would have his long game back in shape, and I was right; even his swing critics remarked about how much better he looked this week.

But that putter... ! Why has it deserted him?

The problem (which he's always had) is that Tiger hits his putts, rather than swinging the putter. I devoted an entire chapter in Ruthless Putting to swinging -- it's called "The Gravity of the Situation," for those of you who are interested -- and added a short routine (on pages 121-122) on how to use that swing to get a quick grasp of green speed. I'm not going over all that material again here (the post would be a few thousand words long if I did) but I want you to understand why swinging is superior to hitting when you putt.

First, you all know that you want to keep a light grip when you putt. Using gravity to "power" your swing rather than using your muscles to hit the ball is what makes this possible. Why? Because gravity always pulls the same way, so you don't "wiggle" your stroke as much, and your "soft hands" can absorb any excess movement; think of this as a passive dampening of excess movement.

By comparision, when you try to hit the ball by adding muscle power, you increase the amount of "wiggle" that your grip must absorb to make a smooth stroke. In addition, this extra movement created by your muscles isn't always "going in the same direction," so the dampening movements are active and must be a little different each time. This causes the small muscles in your hands and wrists to become more involved in the stroke.

Second, by using a gravity-powered swing, the power source is always consistent. Anywhere you might play golf -- even if you're 8000 feet up in the Rockies -- the speed of a "gravity swing" remains virtually the same. And because of this, your speed control remains consistent... and you can control it totally by the length of the backswing. Compare this with a muscle-powered hit, where a short backswing might send the ball farther than a long one, depending on how you use your muscles... and you will use them differently each time. Count on it.

Third, the gravity swing is freeflowing, which means you naturally accelerate the putter through the hitting area (gravity is a constant acceleration, for those of you who didn't take physics) and the free swinging motion eliminates the tendency to decelerate the putter at contact. All of this must be consciously controlled with a muscle-powered hit... which appeals to control freaks like El Tigre, but can desert you at the worst possible moment (such as when you're mounting a charge at the Open).

Fourth, hitting just takes too much practice. We talk about Jack's putting, but many consider Billy Casper one of the best putters who ever played the game. Casper began as a "hitter" and racked up a great record doing it -- 3 majors, 51 PGA Tour wins (7th all-time), and 5 Vardon (scoring) trophies, among other accomplishments -- and he did so during Jack's heyday. Yet Casper changed his putting style during that time because, as he said, it just took too much time to keep it working properly. Now, how many hours does Tiger spend on his putting...?

Finally, hitting leads to yips. Although most teachers don't ever tell you what yips are, they're really nothing more than micromanagement of your putting stroke. It works like this: The stroke doesn't do what you want, so you try to change things during the stroke. Ultimately you must use your finger and wrist muscles to get the fine control you want but the stroke happens too fast, so you have to use more force and the movements become bigger. Eventually you end up trying to speed up and slow down repeatedly during the stroke, resulting in jerky motions. Here's a big tip: If you use a light grip and make a gravity-powered swing, it is virtually impossible to yip.

And that's why Tiger can't putt. He's trying to hit the ball with the putter, when he ought to let the putter swing freely through the ball. With all the stress he must be feeling these days, his muscles are just getting too involved. To put it simply, to regain control of his putting he's going to have to learn to let go and just swing.

It's not going to be easy for golf's ultimate control freak.


  1. Hmm - Tiger's a "good" putter ? 70+ wins and 4 majors...that's not "good" putting - that's GREAT putting.

    Just like that is excellent instruction.

    However, I don't see the same thing you see with Woods' stroke. That looks like a near perfect shoulder rock to me, and nobody hits the center of the face and the line better than Woods. He may have off weeks - and he definitely is down a few notches in confidence right now - but he is light years above being a "good" putter who hits at the ball.

  2. I'm not talking about his technique, Court -- you've read my book, so you know I believe almost any technique will work if it feels natural and you avoid a few basic flaws like twisting your forearms.

    Swinging vs hitting is how you generate power, independent of your technique. You can muscle the club with any technique, and bring those unpredictable muscles into play... and your putting becomes unpredictable as well. You can also swing the club with any technique, and eliminate the twitchy muscle problems. Tiger doesn't need to change his technique -- he just needs to learn how to swing the putter freely, rather than hitting the ball.

    What I'm afraid is going to happen is that he will change his technique in his attempts to solve his putting woes... and you are entirely correct, he does NOT need to. I'm only talking about muscle relaxation during his stroke, nothing else.