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Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Negative Putter Loft

Patrick (aka "Lefty") left a comment on my belly putter post about something odd Michael Breed talks about in his new putting book. The 3-Degree Putting Solution advocates using negative putting loft to improve your putting. Breed explained it some on The Golf Fix Monday night but I didn't think he was as clear as he could have been, so here's my attempt to explain it.

First, here's a diagram to help you get a quick grasp of the basic concept:

Diagram showing how negative putter loft works

Obviously, a normal putter has loft. The Rules of Golf limit you to 10 degrees; historically, most manufacturers have made 3 degrees standard, while many teachers (such as Stan Utley) recommend around 5 degrees. As you can see, Breed's -3 degrees of loft is a real departure.

Now, as Breed is explaining it, the putter doesn't necessarily have to be made with a negative loft as my diagram shows. As long as you have an effective negative loft -- which means you swing the club in such a way that the putter face is pointing down toward the ground when it strikes the ball -- as long as you have that, the concept still works.

BTW, if you've been considering a Medicus OverSpin™ putter or some such similar device, this is the basic idea behind it. You can get almost the same effect by having an existing putter adjusted to have a negative loft.

There's a second aspect to what Breed was talking about. Instead of making a stroke that stays low to the ground, you want to make an upward swing when you hit the ball -- very much the same idea you use for hitting a driver.

By combining these two concepts -- negative loft and an upward stroke -- you supposedly keep the ball from being pushed down into the grass when you strike it. If you look at the diagram above, you would expect the first two putters to drive the ball down into the grass, which would make it bounce or "pop up" and roll an inconsistent distance. The third putter, swinging upward with negative loft, should start the ball moving directly toward the hole -- not up in the air or down into the grass -- with overspin, since the putter struck the top half of the ball.

Theoretically, that is. There's a reason that putters have traditionally been made with loft, one that I think is being ignored here, and it's something I complain about periodically on my blog. Namely, this advice applies best to professionals, not weekend golfers. If you ignore that, you can actually hurt your putting. Here's why:

Pros play every week on immaculately-groomed courses, with well-paid greenskeepers and their leagues of groundskeepers attending to the needs of the course. This includes mowing and rolling the greens. Pros play on closely-mown greens that are hard and fast. The pros don't have to worry about negative loft pushing the ball down into the grass.

But us weekend players play in different conditions. The only hard and fast greens we're likely to see are at a Putt-Putt... and unless the carpet's fairly new, they may not be hard and fast either. But unless you're playing hard and fast greens, you're going to need some loft to get the ball on top of the grass so it rolls well. That's not just my opinion -- I was told that by a knowledgeable pro who adjusted several of my putters when I interviewed him for my book Ruthless Putting.

So while I don't disagree with Breeder, I think you have to take his advice with a grain of salt. The conditions on the courses where you play dictate how useful this "negative loft" approach will be for you. If you play a variety of golf courses, you may even find that you need a couple of different putters -- one with regular loft and one with negative loft -- to play them all well.

And don't forget: You can tinker with your putter's loft and your stroke all you want. But if you don't hit the ball solidly in the center of the clubface, the best putter in the world won't improve your game one little bit. I make a big deal about not twisting your forearms when you putt (or during any stroke for that matter), and Breed emphasized that as well.

So my advice is this: First worry about making solid contact with the ball. Then you can get your putter adjusted and know that it's making the best use of your stroke.

8 comments:

  1. I just picked up Breed's book and it does seem to make some sense. I tried his method out with my Odyssey Metal X # 7 putter and it didn't seem to work very well for some reason, seemed like this putter doesn't like to be de-lofted too much. Could also have something to do with the greens I was trying it out on (you make a very good point on that). They were not pro quality greens and I was getting some hopping and might have been hitting the ball too high on the club face. I did better when I didn't worry too much about de-lofting, but just kept the handle angled towards the front pocket at address.

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  2. It's a bit confusing, isn't it, Gary? There's certainly some logic in the idea of creating overspin when you putt, but I've found it interesting that the best putters in the game -- Loren Roberts being a good example -- still insist that you should hit slightly down on the ball to get the best roll. I think there are some issues with the geometry of an upward hit; that's why players who use the technique still don't putt as well as players like Roberts.

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  3. I think slightly down seems to make the most sense. De-lofting than hitting up seems pretty complicated. In his book, Phil Mickelson doesn't like adding loft nor de-lofting. With the Metal X I was keeping it de-lofted through impact and that seemed to cause problems at impact, including a poor sound and feel and sometimes started the ball well offline. It even seemed like I missed the face at impact and hit the ball on the top edge of the putter on at least some occasions. Loren Roberts idea seems to be a good way to go.

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  4. If you think about it, hitting on the upstroke -- which is what the "negative loft" concept is all about -- is fraught with danger. You have to place the ball further forward in your stance to catch the ball on the upstroke, yet that's when the club is beginning to move inside your target line. It seems to me that you would either close the face or effectively cut across the ball, both of which would affect your line. You'd have to make an adjustment on every putt to counteract that.

    With Loren's technique, you can catch the ball almost at the bottom of your stroke when the club face is square to your target line and moving straight toward your target... and you don't have to make any adjustments at all.

    I understand why the "negative loft" concept has become popular, but I intend to keep putting the Loren Roberts way. It's a proven method and, in my opinion, less likely to result in an offline putt.

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  5. I have to agree with your opinion here, Mike. And think about it. The ball WILL start with skid, not roll, unless you absolutely top it; I'm talking basic physics here. So we're arguing about a small increase or decrease in the amount of skid. On a perfect green, the skid doesn't matter as long as it's the same every time. On the less-than-perfect greens that most of us play, you need a little positive loft to get any decent sort of putt.

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  6. Thanks, Dave. I think this is a case of technology over-complicating things. Nowadays we can study things in such minute detail -- and in ultra slow motion -- that it's easy to lose sight of the bigger picture.

    Of course, since you've worked at Bell Labs, you must have had to deal with that problem on a daily basis. Practical development of anything useful requires a balance of micro study and macro observation... and in golf, it seems we're beginning to err a bit too much on the micro side.

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  7. A big part of Breed's argument that has not been mentioned is the consistency of the distance that was revealed in his testing. When had different degrees of effective loft at impact tested using robots with the exact same amount of force applied to each stroke, the negative loft impacts rolled a much more consistent distance than with positive lofts. Positive loft was bringing the amount of backspin into play, along with the condition of the surface where the ball landed after impact, because with positive loft the ball was airborne after impact. Without going into all his results, it ended up that there was a lot larger margin for error in distance control in the negative loft range , and since humans are making the stroke, not robots, our impact lofts will vary by 2 or 3 degrees from putt to putt. If those impacts varied from -4 to -2 degrees of loft (2 degrees of variance), the differences in distance rolled was only about 2 feet from the shortest putt to the longest putt. But if those impacts varied from +2 to +4 (still 2 degrees of variance), the differences in distance rolled was about 8 or 9 feet from the shortest to the longest putt. (These aren't the exact numbers he used in his book, the the point remains the same). The net result should be more consistent distance control, and in the example above, it means more 1 or 2 footers for second putts instead of 6 or 7 footers.

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  8. I don't disagree with you, Steve, but I'd like to point out that the tests were done with robots... and that's the problem. Robots have a consistency of contact that humans -- especially humans in the midst of competition -- just don't have. And that's my point in this post. There's a small section of your putting stroke where the head is moving straight down the line with the face square; eliminate the downward, "positive loft" portion of that stroke and you've greatly reduced your chances of hitting the ball squarely. That's why players like Roberts say all good putters hit down on the ball. The best putters in history of the game have all used "positive loft" when they putted because it's more forgiving of mis-hits.

    Perhaps the biggest problem we have in golf these days is an unhealthy belief in just how much control we have over the ball. For example, multiple blades of grass grow in each stalk. There are different numbers of blades, of different lengths and thicknesses and stiffnesses. Those characteristics are altered by cutting the grass, then they change all day as the grass grows. There's no way to take ALL the possible variations of ALL the grass stalks located in a given putting line into account when we putt. And that's just the length and construction of the individual grass stalks!

    Remember: Technology often tests one specific aspect of a skill, not the overall effect of that skill during a real world application. Just because negative loft can be proven effective in a scientific test -- which, by definition, means that the conditions are controlled -- doesn't mean it's the best option under actual playing conditions where the essence of the game is adapting to changing conditions.

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