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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Why Accelerating Your Putter is a Bad Idea

(I've tagged this post with "mindset" because so much of putting is just about how you think. In this case, it's especially so.)

When Dexter told me he'd been three-putting way too much, I commented:
Let me guess... you've been listening to all that crap about "accelerating the putter through the ball."

That's a sure way to destroy both line and feel.
And he replied:
Isn't that what all the pros say? "Accelerate through the ball and then hold the follow through."
So here's a new post on what I believe is one of the greatest putting heresies ever taught... especially since it's taught by really great teachers who should know better. I wrote an entire chapter about this in my book Ruthless Putting, so I'm not going to rehash the whole thing. But I do want to point out why this is bad advice and what the proper "technique" is.

1) The Relaxed Grip Conundrum
Here's the first reason this teaching makes no sense. We are constantly told -- and rightfully so -- that we should hold the club with as gentle a grip as possible. Sam Snead was notorious for the "holding a bird" metaphor that is often cited along with this important concept. Simply put, a gentle grip increases your ability to feel the clubhead and hit the ball the desired distance.

Now, to accelerate your putter you have to make a change of direction with your hands which the putter will resist. The putter's resistance is called inertia, as in "a body in motion tends to remain in motion until it is acted on by an external force." That's Newton's First Law of Motion.

Folks, if your grip is relaxed and you try to change the putter's direction (which is what acceleration will do), your wrists will cock. This is supposed to be a no-no, isn't it? That wrist cock will create power in the stroke that you don't want. You'll have to tighten your grip to resist that cocking motion. So accelerating the putter is advice that works against keeping your grip relaxed.

OK, there's a solution: Don't accelerate your putter until it has come to a complete stop on its backswing. I would argue that this is a delicate timing issue and presents serious problems when you're under pressure... but, as it turns out, this timed acceleration happens all on its own if you don't interfere.

2) The Nature of Gravity
If you hold a golf ball at shoulder height and drop it, does it fall at a constant rate or does it accelerate?

That's a trick question. Gravity is a constant acceleration of 32 ft/sec2 (32 feet per second per second), which means your ball speeds up at a constant rate that causes it to cover an extra 32 feet each second it falls. Or, if you prefer:
  • At zero seconds, the ball has not moved.
  • The ball falls 32 feet in the 1st second.
  • The ball falls 64 feet during the 2nd second, because it has accelerated enough to cover 32 feet more in this second than it did during the first one. At the end of 2 seconds, the ball has actually fallen 96 feet (32 feet during the 1st second, 64 feet during the 2nd second).
  • The ball falls 96 feet during the 3rd second, for a total of 192 feet in 3 seconds. (That's 32 feet + 64 feet + 96 feet = 192 feet.)
  • And so on...
Now, since we see this constant acceleration all the time and are used to it, we tend to see it as a constant speed. Do you understand the implications of this? If we just let the club essentially fall without us adding any power (think of a clock pendulum), gravity causes the putter to accelerate without ANY help from us whatsoever. And if we try to help it, which we think is acceleration, all we're actually doing is JERKING the club.

If we do that, we not only jerk the club off-line and thus affect its path, but we also alter the tension in our hands and thus hinder our ability to return the club face to the square position we had at setup. If we had just let gravity do its work, we could have kept our nice relaxed grip and not altered the path or the face... which means we would have hit a better putt.

And since gravity's acceleration is the same anywhere we're going to be playing golf, the speed of our stroke will be more consistent, which means we'll have better distance control.

All if we let things happen naturally and don't interfere.

3) Driving a Tack
One last thought. You've may have been told to practice your stroke by attempting to push a 2x4 straight toward the target with your putting stroke. (Shame on you, Martin Hall and Michael Breed!) This may have originated with an article Bobby Jones himself wrote called "Looking at the Ball," reprinted on pages 85-86 in Bobby Jones on Golf, where Jones wrote about visualizing the putting stroke as "an attempt to drive an imaginary tack into the back of the ball."

However, Jones never suggested accelerating the club in any way. Rather, he says it is to help him contact the ball more accurately. It's an aiming device, nothing more.

Obsessed with Power
This has all happened because we've developed an obsession with power in the game. Most teachers now advise making a short backstroke, then accelerating through the ball. That's a recipe for jerking the club off-line, twisting the face, and messing up your distance control.

I'll leave you with this: The first of the How I Play Golf film series that Jones made in the early 1930s was about the putter. This version is slightly chopped up, but it's the best I could find on YouTube. I have a DVD of the original, so I know what's in the whole film and I'll point out what Jones actually stressed in it.

A quick word before you watch, though. Jones is a pop putter, but his style is very different than what most people think of when they hear the word "pop." I spent considerable time analyzing his swing in my book, mainly because it's such a different approach. For now, just note that his right hand -- not his left -- is anchored; the left hand provides the power, the right hand is an unpowered hinge. Now listen to what Jones says:

Here's a few things you should pay attention to.
  • Here's the Jones "pre-shot routine": Tap the ground in front of the ball, tap the ground behind the ball, hit the ball. This is one of the greatest putters ever to play the game, and there's none of that fussing around you see in modern players.
  • Jones keeps saying you should take a long slow backswing that sweeps the ball. Doesn't the downswing look to be the same speed? There is no rushing the shot, no accelerating the putter. It's just a pendulum stroke. He's sweeping the ball. At the end of the original film, which is chopped off here, Jones says the one thing you have to remember is that long slow backswing. Do that, he says, and you'll never have a problem getting the ball to the hole. There's not one #%^@ word about acceleration in the whole film!
  • And look at him hit shot after shot, with barely a breath between them, and all the strokes look identical. You can't do that if you're trying to do it. Jones is just getting out of his own way and letting it happen.
So that's today's rant. Hold your putter with a gentle grip and forget about accelerating your putter through the ball! Learn to make a relaxed sweep the way Jones does, taking a long stroke and letting the putter do all the work. It's amazing how quickly your putting will improve once you stop trying to accelerate the putter.


  1. Hmm.
    I sucked at putting until a guy told me to accelerate thru the ball.
    Now Im even one putting 10-12 footers.
    Must be an individual thing.

  2. Everything is golf is somewhat individual -- that's why we have so many teachers and why so many players get frustrated. To a large extent, you have to learn by experiment.

    It depends on how you interpret "accelerate." In my experience, too many players start jerking the club when they try to accelerate it, rather than making a smooth stroke. The jerking makes them pull or push their putts offline. Obviously you're making a smooth stroke, so -- keep on keepin' on! ;-)

  3. Holding your putter as loose as possible is a very bad idea.

  4. Don't misunderstand, William. You don't want the putter flopping around in you hands. You DO want as little tension as possible in your grip.