It works for Jor­dan Spieth, too

Golf Digest (South Africa) - - News - By David Owen

Why Jor­dan Spieth and I look at the hole on putts.

On the Golf Chan­nel ear­lier in 2015, long­time tour pro John Cook demon­strated Jor­dan Spieth’s cross-handed putting tech­nique, and nar­rowly missed a seven-footer on a prac­tice green on the set.Then Cook dis­cussed what’s prob­a­bly the most talked-about el­e­ment of Spieth’s method: the fact that he some­times looks at the hole, in­stead of the ball, as he putts. “For my­self, I don’t re­ally un­der­stand that,” Cook said. But he gave it a go any­way – and sank the seven-footer he’d just missed.

Well, hmmm. I my­self started look­ing at the hole, on all putts, seven or eight years ago, af­ter read­ing about a study in which a group of am­a­teurs had sur­prised re­searchers by putting sig­nif­i­cantly bet­ter that way, de­spite hav­ing been given min­i­mal op­por­tu­nity to re­hearse. Even more sur­pris­ing, the im­prove­ment was greater on long putts than on short ones. Cameron McCormick, who is Spieth’s teacher, told me that one of the ben­e­fits is “to elim­i­nate any ten­dency we have as play­ers to be aware of the move­ment we are us­ing in ex­e­cut­ing a task,” a ten­dency that usu­ally leads to trou­ble.

Ig­nor­ing the ball made me a bet­ter put­ter al­most im­me­di­ately – by 20 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to my friend Tony. Re­cently, I talked with Dr Bob Christina, a sports psy­chol­o­gist and as­sis­tant golf coach at the Univer­sity of North Carolina. It was Christina who con­ducted the study I read about, in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Eric Alpen­fels, the di­rec­tor of golf in­struc­tion at Pine­hurst. (In 2008, they ex­panded their find­ings into a gen­eral the­ory, in a book called In­stinct Putting.) “The bot­tom line for me is that look­ing at the tar­get frees you up to stroke the ball more nat­u­rally,” Christina said.

Another ben­e­fit is that it in­creases your abil­ity to take ad­van­tage of a ta­lent that most golfers don’t re­alise they have. If you’ve played for even a few years, you’ve had the ex­pe­ri­ence of watch­ing some­one else stroke a long putt and know­ing, be­fore the ball has trav­elled half­way to the hole, that it’s go­ing to go in, or stop an inch short, or just miss to the right, or what­ever. Some­how, you’re able to an­tic­i­pate the com­plete tra­jec­tory and end­point of the putt, even though you’re stand­ing off to one side and (as far as you knew) not pay­ing that much at­ten­tion. “That looked good all the way,” you say – and it re­ally did.

But how could you tell? The ex­pla­na­tion has to be that our brains know much, much more about the physics of mov­ing golf balls than we give them credit for. Golfers who do what putting teach­ers some­times tell them to do – keep their head down un­til they hear the ball hit the bot­tom of the cup – de­prive them­selves of their best op­por­tu­nity to en­large their ball-be­hav­iour data­base. Look­ing at the hole also keeps your in­ter­nal range fin­der fully en­gaged and en­ables your in­creas­ingly well-ed­u­cated sub­con­scious to in­ter­vene, on its own, when it senses some­thing go­ing awry. Be­sides, the eas­i­est way to keep your head still is to aim it, at the out­set, to­wards the thing it yearns to peek at.

Peo­ple who haven’t tried it usu­ally as­sume that con­sis­tently mak­ing solid con­tact must take lots of prac­tice, but it doesn’t – very lit­tle more than clap­ping your hands with your eyes closed. (For me, it has be­come so au­to­matic that I some­times in­ad­ver­tently chip while look­ing at the hole, and not nec­es­sar­ily with dis­as­trous re­sults.) One sur­pris­ing ben­e­fit is that it helps even when you don’t do it. Christina and Alpen­fels have found that, when golfers try it for a while and then go back to putting con­ven­tion­ally, some of the im­prove­ment “trans­fers” to their old tech­nique. At UNC, Christina uses it as a drill.

Be­fore stars like Spieth and Louis Oosthuizen be­came known for it, look­ing at the hole was as­so­ci­ated mainly with yip­pers – for whom it can be highly ef­fec­tive, be­cause it shifts their fo­cus away from their tor­men­tor, the ball. But they’re not the only ben­e­fi­cia­ries. Dana Rader, who owns a golf school in Char­lotte, has been teach­ing it for about 30 years, and she told me that she sel­dom has stu­dents who don’t im­prove while do­ing it. “I don’t know why ev­ery­body doesn’t putt this way,” she said.

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