The Results of This Golf Putting Study Will Surprise You

The Results of This Golf Putting Study Will Surprise You

This article is controversial – but understand I am simply explaining what I found. As much as the results of this study may force you to question your beliefs, have a real good think about these results and the possible implications.

People often ask me how I came to my beliefs on certain topics. Well, mostly it is because of the results I see day in – day out while teaching over 1000 people each year. And, when something questions my own beliefs, I don’t just ignore it – I usually end up doing a study on it, which evolves my way of thinking.

A lot of things in this article are things I also used to believe. Hell, I even wrote about a few of them. But things change.

 

The Study

A few years ago, I did a study with 20 golfers which brought a few things to my attention. The study procedure is outlined below;

  • Players were asked to putt down the Pelz putting tutor – a device which notes whether or not you start the ball on your intended line successfully. This was done on a flat 20ft putt.
  • Players were then asked to guess the break on a breaking 20 foot putt
  • Players were then lined up to their intended line using the Pelz Putting Tutor and made 10 putts
  • The line was then adjusted to a more acceptable one, and the above procedure was repeated
  • Players were then asked to hit 10 putts focusing more starting the ball on their intended line
  • The Pelz Putting Tutor was taken away, and players were asked to putt naked with the improved awareness of the better line

pelz putting tutor

 

The Pelz Putting Tutor – roll it down through the ball bearing gates.

All of this took less than an hour. Each part of the study is like its own little study. The findings are below – and they may shock you.

 

 

Performance Baseline

Before the experiment took place, players were asked to make putts to a 20ft putt with a significant but realistic curvature. Their ability to get the ball to finish within a 2ft radius of the hole was noted

study 1

Average score = 6.2 out of 10

 

 

Start line

So, the first part of the study was to check how good a player was at starting the ball (roughly) on their intended line. Players fired 10 putts down the Pelz Putting tutor on a flat putt of 20 ft.

The Pelz Putting Tutor can be set at different levels. The task difficulty was to a level where players could roll 8-10 balls out of 10 through the gate comfortably – showing that their start line was within certain boundaries.

Average success rate for group = 8.9 out of 10

 

 

Guess the Break

Players were then taken back to the 20ft putt with a realistic but significant curvature. They were asked where they think they should start the putt – in other words, how much break they should play. This point was noted down with a coin.

 

study 2

Yellow star showed good starting line – coin shows where a lot of people aimed

Out of the 20 people,

  • 16 people under-read the break
  • 1 person over-read the break
  • 3 people got it within acceptable boundaries (meaning their chosen line allowed the putt to be hit within 2ft of the hole)

This fits with what Dave Pelz found, that most players under-read break – and by quite a lot in most cases

What does this mean?

  • Most players have very poor green reading skills
  • Therefore, an increased ability to start the ball on your intended line (better putting stroke) will make you WORSE putter

 

 

Now show me

I then asked them to aim the Pelz board towards their chosen line and try to make 10 putts towards the 2ft circle. I noted down their ability to start the ball on their intended line by how many putts they successfully got through the Pelz Putting Tutor gate.

study 3

Players were constrained to aim at their intended target (where they placed the coin).

Their ability to start the ball on their intended line dropped dramatically from 8.9 out of 10 to 1.3 out of 10.

In other words, when the players aimed at a poor start line, they completely lost the ability to make a normal stroke.

This makes a lot of sense in terms of the player having misread the break consciously – so their subconscious kicks in and tries to pull/push the ball up the slope to ‘compensate’ for their poor conscious read.

 

What does this Mean?

  • Your subconscious is clever and will try to override any conscious reading mistakes you make

 

 

A better break

This is the really interesting one.

Now, we went through a process of finding a more correct amount of break – one which allowed all putts with a good speed to stay within a 2ft radius of the hole. This was done really quickly as I had done it for this putt a million times before. Next, the Pelz putting board was aimed along this more ideal line and players were once again asked to putt towards the 2ft circle and hole.

I let the players have 10 putts and recorded their ability to get the ball through the gate on the Pelz Putting Tutor.

study 4

Players were measured by how many balls they got through the pelz putting gate out of 10 attempts

Their ability to start the ball on their intended line was only 3.65 out of 10

It makes sense that their ability to start the ball on their intended line was increased when they were given the correct break – in fact, it doubled from when they were constrained to the incorrect break.

However, it was still lower than on a flat putt. Their technique was negatively affected by the improved conscious awareness of a better line, evidenced by the fact they went down to 3.65 out of 10 from an average of 8.9 out of 10 on a flat putt.

 

What does this mean?

  • The technique you use on a flat putt is not necessarily the same technique you use on a breaking putt.
  • Even with a correct conscious line picked out, ability to start the ball on-line was diminished compared to a flat putt.

 

 

Keep going

Ok, so a better conscious line marginally improved the techniques of a player (ability to roll the ball down the intended start line). But we are not rated on how perfect our putting swing is, we are rated on performance.

For that reason, I wanted to see how picking the correct line also influenced end-point performance – ability to get the ball in the 2ft circle. I did this by allowing the pupils to continue to putt through the gate with the correct line until they had got 10 shots through successfully. Out of those 10 successful putts, I measured how many finished in the 2ft circle.

study 5

players continued until they got 10 shots successfully through the Pelz gate

Results – out of 10 successful putts, only 3.85 finished in the 2ft circle, compared with 6.2 in the pre-test

They got the read and the start line correct, but for some reason their speed control was now worse.

 

What does this mean?

  • Picking a correct line consciously might mean making a slightly better putting stroke than if you pick the incorrect line, but it is often still worse than on a flat putt.
  • Even when picking the correct line and making a better putting stroke, it doesn’t necessarily lead to better performance

Read that last one again.

Yes, that’s right. In this part of the test, players had the correct line picked out and were lined up towards it. Also, they made 10 successful putts which started on their starting line (as those were the only ones allowed for measurement). Yet, because this was all done consciously, their performance declined.

 

 

Directing attention

This one is even more interesting.

I decided to see what would happen if I then directed their attention towards making a better putting stroke. In order to do this, I asked them to focus more on the act of getting the ball through the gate, setting the challenge of trying to beat their previous score  (group average was 3.65/10). I also asked them to give me specific feedback as to whether they thought they had hit more of a pull or a push (we used high speed video to confirm).

start line focus

The results showed that they successfully rolled only 6.25 out of 10 through the gate

While you may be thinking “That’s great, they improved their technique by focusing on it”, you have to realize that they still performed lower than on a flat putt (8.9)

This brings into question our ability to consciously control our stroke. There is a whole bulk of literature on free will which would agree with these findings – as well as literature on perception-action coupling.

 

What does this mean?

  • Our ability to control our stroke is not 100% in our conscious control. Subconscious mechanisms will play a large role in what technique we provide
  • The scenario you are in (uphill/downhill/right to left etc) and your perception of it will dictate a lot of what technique arises

 

 

Keep going

I then allowed them to continue to putt until they had successfully got 10 putts through the gate. As their attention was on their technique and more focus was placed on starting the ball through the gate, they got ten successful putts much quicker than previously (although I didn’t record this stat).

So, by focusing on technique/start line, they made 10 successful putts sooner – but at what cost?

Out of the 10 successful putts (start line), only  2.85 finished in the circle

That’s lower than when they weren’t focusing on their start line – which makes sense, as their conscious mind had less processing power for speed control as it was directing more of it to controlling the line.

 

What does this mean?

  • Trying to make a perfect putting stroke may help you get closer to making one, but potentially at the cost of speed control.

 

 

The grand finale

To finish it all off, I took the Pelz Putting Tutor away and just allowed the players to make ten more putts towards the circle, with one final attempt at seeing how many they could score. I kept the coin there as a reminder of what line to start the ball on.

study 6

Pelz board was taken away, and players then putted freely towards target with new understanding of better start line

Average score = 5.65

Therefore, being aware of the correct start line does not automatically make you a better putter. This is because an increased awareness can interfere with the subconscious mechanisms which tie everything together. In motor learning, we say that increased declarative knowledge does not always mean increased procedural knowledge.

 

What does this mean?

  • They scored lower (5.65 versus 6.2) when they were more aware of the correct line than when they guessed the incorrect line in the pre test.
  • Conscious awareness of correct line does not trump unconscious control of all the mechanisms.

 

 

Conclusions

I will try hard not to make extrapolations from this, but I am simply reporting the data I found when I did the study a few years ago. However, from the evidence, it is safe to say

  • Most people under-read break
  • A better putting stroke will make you perform worse, unless you improve your green reading
  • Your subconscious will make you produce a different stroke on a breaking putt, and you may be powerless to stop it.
  • While you can increase your conscious ability to control your stroke, you may do so at the expense of performance
  • While aiming at a more correct line reduces the amount of subconscious compensations and improved the stroke, that doesn’t necessarily lead to improved performance

 

 

Perception-Action Coupling

All of this screams at PA coupling – a phrase I had never heard about at the time I did this study.

This refers to how our perceptions (internal and external, conscious and non-conscious) can influence our action (putting stroke).

Perception action

 

We are not just robots which give mechanical outputs. We have perceptions which we are aware of (and lots which we are not aware of) – all of which influence our actions, often-times beyond our conscious control – as we have seen.

So, any successful intervention should also take these factors into account.

 

 

Plate Spinning

A successful intervention must also be able to tie everything in together.

Good putting performance is dependent on picking an acceptable start line (sub/consciously) starting the ball on that acceptable line and with the right pace. All of them are inextricably linked – you can’t just get one.

Four spinning plates

 

The hard part is keeping them all spinning. The more you place your attention in one area, it can affect the other areas.

Four spinning plates

 

 

Final Thoughts

We have to remember that this study was short-term, and that longer-term studies should be done (with control groups) to assess the benefits of certain interventions (reading, speed or mechanical isolations). It is my hypothesis that these negative effects are short-lived, and that the interventions can produce positive outcomes, given enough time.

However, with that said, it would be important to understand when to (or when not to) make an intervention in someone’s stroke mechanics/reading skills consciously, as it may negatively affect performance in the short term.

I discuss these ideas in Next Level Golf – as well as showing some drills to improve perception-action coupling, target awareness, good variability etc.

Next Level Golf also includes detailed information on;

  • Swing technique
  • Training/practice
  • Strategy/course management
  • Skill development
  • Psychology

And much more. Click the image below to learn more about Next Level Golf

If you prefer to read, why not pick up a copy of The Practice Manual – The Ultimate Guide for Golfers (click below for more information). I dedicate specific phases for improving certain areas (such as technique or performance). I also give my views on how variability may help putting performance (as well as performance in other areas of your game). Click below to find out more

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Your Turn

So, what are you thoughts on this? Comment below.

33 Comments

  • Dr Noel Rousseau

    Really interesting results! Why do golfers obsess on the putting stroke when it is so mechanically simple? To many missed putts are put down to stroke error when in fact, it goes a lot deeper. What appears like a stroke error typically emanates in some form of mental glitch. The cognitive skills involved in a breaking putt are little understood and much overlooked. This is why a commitment to ‘around the hole’ drills as part of the an ongoing regime is paramount to developing effective putting. It’s the cognitive skills that are honed during this time.

    In my opinion, these are some of the skills and internal strategies that develop through such practice.
    Being able to choose a line and commit to it while ‘finding’ the corresponding pace requires

    *Mindfulness of task – being able to hold the intended line and the hole in working memory.
    *Commitment – to the chosen line.
    *Attention on line and hole and NOT on the stroke mechanics.
    *Peripheral vision

    • admin

      Top comment as always Noel

  • Jack B. Erhart

    Great stuff Adam. But the answer being found only on your practice manual seems to be a bit arm twisting. But I understand that you, like most all others that do these instructional post do so to sell product. Wonder if there is anyone out there that just wants people to really just play better golf.

    • admin

      Jack – I am not saying the answer is only in my manual – I am simply explaining the results of a study – which relate strongly to some motor learning principles (namely procedural versus declarative knowledge).

      The results of the study, which was conducted long before I wrote The Practice Manual, simply guided me in my beliefs and philosophy.

      If I just wanted to sell a product, it would be easier to sell something more tangible (as people like that). As easy as it would be to do that, this study is a more honest look at the realities. So, in fact, yes, I am trying to get people to play better golf. Maybe you are questioning the wrong party here – I am the one who is saying it is not so clear cut as “X + Y = Z”.

  • Jack B. Erhart

    Thanks for clarifying that Adam. Much appreciated.

  • Markus

    Adam, it may worth to try another approach. Check the near area around the hole and determine the final 3-4 feet how the ball should role into the hole depending on the given break.
    Go away to the starting point and ‘see’ (Jack Nicklaus : I holed every put in my imagination before I put) the ball go in. Downhill the ball slips slightly in the hole, uphill it runs into the back of the hole. See the ball roll in.
    Simply let it go. Results are amazing.

  • Yang

    I have the same idea with you but you express it in a more acceptable way . Great job!

  • Brad Brewer

    I have been fortunate to have three friends whom are considered some of golfs greatest putters, Arnold Palmer, Ian Baker-Finch and Brad Faxon. They have all given me similar advice with putting. Read the speed and feel the rhythm of your putter before you see your line. Because speed dictates line. The other key to their success is that this process engages right brain thinking and procedural memory vs swimming in the deep pool of left brain analytical thinking. When good players come to me with putting issues it begins with calming down their left brain knot. When you learn to visualize, feel and trust what you see the subconscious genius creates amazing success.

  • Daniel Palanza

    Based on my experience with teaching many new players to swing a club. Holding to the belief that a putter is the first swing to learn as it holds the vital aspects of all swings in so much as becoming aware of backswing, transition where one understands the weight of the club begins forward, acceleration and follow through. Create a mechanical understanding, all that left brain activity. Then once we have a mechanical ability, we need to understand the mechanics of the shot or green. Testing in the mechanical such as Pelz guide brings in left brain thinking. With my students I used railroad tracks, two sticks. Then once they have achieved feel, remove the sticks and let them begin the process of seeing the task from the right brain. Interestingly when the mechanical structure was absent the ability to be more creative developed. Students would then attempt different lines and speed, unknowingly developing an ability to grow creativity. The study was well done. I think that mechanical aspects are critical, once established the individual must do the work to establish Individual creativity. Helping people to play better is done through gaining feel.

  • Ike

    Thanks for posting your results. I am reminded of one student who had p troubles and when observed had good alignment, but an awful stroke sequence. Had him count a rhythm 1-2–1 out loud with no ball, then with a ball that was pulled before impact to ensure a positive rhythm and not ball bound. When finally given opportunity to stroke balls he was able to sink 9 of his 10 shots from 10 feet. SO MANY VARIABLES. More often than not a student will not borrow enough and pays the price with a longer come back putt. Taking a wider approach and improving tempo are two items my students use to improvement. You have helped spell why part of this is so impactful. Thanks again!

    • admin

      Again, another great drill (counting). For some players who are bound by internal technical thoughts, this can free them up. I use this drill for short putts in my own game, as my internal dialogue can often cause me to make errors. Counting distracts my conscious mind, so I make a better stroke mechanically (data captured using SAM puttlab)

  • Rick

    Interesting results. I would be curious to see the results of a similarly structured study using a heads up or instinct type putting (looking at the hole, as opposed to the ball during the stroke) as espoused by Sasho MacKenzie and a few others. I’m sure you’ve looked into the concept, would like to hear your thoughts.

    Great job advancing the understanding of the learning process.

    • admin

      Hi Rick. I did another blog on this style of putting – here http://www.adamyounggolf.com/the-science-of-spieths-putting/

      I would imagine that, once the discomfort of looking at the hole is over, lots of players would be able to tap into their instinct better. I often use this drill with players, and see noticeable improvements. We then work it into a routine where they look at the hole during practice swings, but briefly look at the ball during execution

  • Shonn Arndt

    Interesting article and not really a surprise to me! Joan Vickers Quiet Eye testing provides more in depth look at this concept. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3111367/

    My putting was not really good at the start of the year. I could have dusted off my many putting aids, however, I improved my putting based on what Jack Nicolas said in an interview earlier this year combined with quiet eye (external focus). Jack said he looks awkward putting because he is right eye dominant and “needs to get behind the ball” to see the line. The small subconscious autocorrects also help;)

    BTW, I have the Practice Guide book on my shelf and would recommend it to any one who wants to create a custom practice plan and play better golf! Always look forward to reading your informative blogs.

    • admin

      Cheers Shonn. I haven’t looked in depth at quiet eye yet, but would put it in the “neutral focus” category.

      On the topic of visualization, there is definitely something in it which allows us to create a good mix of the variables. Our subconscious is amazing, give the right information. I think that when we break something down too much, we can lose the glue which holds it all together.

  • andy williams

    played golf this morning and a ten year old lad in our group holed everything, just walked onto the putting green and bang in the hole it goes all done with a very unorthodox grip

  • JP

    My putting has improved dramatically focusing on my start line but that focus is practicing at home rolling puts over a dime (US) two feet in front of the ball. Once at the course I trust I can start it online and focus of making sure face is square to my start line (the last step in my conscious routine) then make a rythmic stroke to a count like others above, but trying not too care, something I heard Faxon practiced when putting. I believe over time the green reading improves when you know you are hitting your start line consistently. I struggle the most when I start watching that putter head in the backswing (conscious) instead of feeling the backswing (unconscious).

  • Christopher Trunzer

    I agree with everything. However,like every other great golf coach in the world except 2 men- you forgot to address the most important part of putting to the masses (most good golfers do an ok job at it… ) :

    “Immediate Roll”

    I like how you encourage the powerful instinct part of putting, which chooses line and speed and stroke by itself. But if you cannot turn the ball over asap, rolling with internal stability and sticking to the ground then even the same ball speed and launch direction will give a golfer different results if ball 1 is being chipped over a break and ball 2 is not. Especially on Bermuda grass for example. If interested for a solution- email me.

    Great website btw!

  • Coachlieb

    One of the very best studies on putting I’ve ever seen. I love how you’re willing to put the results out there rather than try to sanitize or package them for some ulterior motive. This has such bigger implications than people may realize. We hear all the time “I wish I could put like a kid again” ….this information gives insights to that thinking. Well done Adam…brilliant.

  • Jon Adler

    Love this stuff. I wonder what the results might be if putting with eyes closed was tested? May decrease mental interference?

  • Steve Ruis

    I have adopted the viewpoint that we consciously create a plan for a shot and then subconsciously execute it. Possibly focusing on line and speed is not the best way to communicate that plan to our subconscious mind. When executing full swings, we tend to focus on shot shape and landing spot and this approach may be more acceptable to our subconscious mind, so visualizing the path the ball will take and where it will enter the hole (or two or three foot circle is lag putting) may be a more acceptable way to communicate what we want executed.

    The line and speed approach was developed to make it simple for our conscious minds to analyze a putt, but this approach may not serve the needs of the subconscious mind as well. I once saw David Toms make the same putt on three different lines (from the same spot) by varying the speed. I would love to know what went through his mind when he did that.

    • admin

      Great points. I think we underplay the role of the unconscious mind as instructors because 1. it’s difficult to fully understand, and 2. it’s hard for most instructors to comprehend how to teach/improve this ability.

      This is where constraints and drills which include all variables at once – as well as a deep understanding of how locus of attention affects the “whole” comes into play.

  • Mike

    I understand what your saying but i wonder how much adding the putting board placed them in a mecanical state of learning. That often times creates error but it is very valuable to the learning process. I wonder how longer term practice with the board would change results.

    • admin

      Hi Mike – good points, which I did cover in the article.

      A mechanical state of learning can disrupt things like speed control and unconscious line. But it may also hold great value in the long term. My answer to that is therefore to not remove mechanical training, but to do it at appropriate times, so that you get the benefit of the training long-term, without the negative short-term disruption.

  • John

    “The Lost Art of Putting” by Gary Nichol & Karl Morris.

  • Fred Closs

    You nailed it Adam. We are not robots and no one can get the ball started on the same line and speed, twice in a row, much less 10 or 20. To that end, no putt can be holed with the wrong speed but poor speed will cause more 3 -putts that being a few inches off the intended line. The ensuing variences in speed and line when you removed the Pelz Putting Tutor may explain why the scores were better in your “Grande Finale”. Their subconscience took control.

    It seems to me that if a player will strike putts more solidly their speed control will improve. Also, their putter face square will tend to be square to their intended start line at impact, allowing them to start more putts on their intended start line. Through practice, they will then learn to read break better and such that they can choose the correct line and speed, resulting in making a lot more putts.

  • David Guzman

    While the mechanics of putting (stroke, alignment, read, speed) are critically important and necessary to superior putting, they are not sufficient. “Feel” is equally important.

    I put my best when, after making calculated decisions on the mechanics, I focus on “feeling” the putt.

    The days that I focus on the mechanics I simply do not putt as well as when I focus on the feel.

    It is not either/or, it is both – but the point is what is the focus at the “moment of truth”.

    • admin

      Great points David. In Next Level Golf I discuss how to find your optimal “moment of truth” focus, as well as the ideal order of loci of attention preceding that moment.

  • Tristan Bexton

    Awesome eye-opening post Adam thanks for sharing. What if you went even deeper and and used the Goldilocks principle for determining line? I find that it is a ‘conscious way to tap into the subconscious’!

    • admin

      Definitely. I love that form of practice. I posted a video of me doing exactly that in my Next Level Golf Program.

  • Terry

    Adam, what are your thoughts on the Aim Point method of finding the correct line?

    • admin

      From what I have seen, it’s a great way to get a golfer to have a better ball-park conscious read. However, as this data showed, that doesnt always translate to better result initially. I’m sure, over time, it will help the player with poor conscious reads. However, as an instructor, I wouldnt be implementing it with everyone, and would choose specific times to use it.

  • Don

    Hi Adam. Great article. I think that the pre-shot to putting is mechanical/analytical and the actual putt should be all sub-conscious. Teaching sub-conscious is actually quite easy – the people I work with I have told them to think of their favourite football team over and over as they address the ball and make a stroke – this distraction takes them from the conscious to the sub-conscious. They are amazed to look up and see a 20foot putt finishing right next to the hole. It does sound bizarre, but distracting the conscious is I believe, the secret to great putting.

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