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.
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
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.
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
Average score = 6.2 out of 10
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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
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.
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.
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
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).
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.
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.
The hard part is keeping them all spinning. The more you place your attention in one area, it can affect the other areas.
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
- Strategy/course management
- Skill development
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
So, what are you thoughts on this? Comment below.