Updated: Dec 26, 2020
Technical skill creativity and innovation is an inevitable aspect of sport, most typically introduced by a few athletes and then, sometimes, adopted by many. Positive examples of innovation include Dick Fosbury’s influence on the high jump and Jan Boklov’s ski jumping technique. Both performers were first considered to have had unconventional styles. Recently, golf has experienced a similar challenge to known, accepted and comfortable orthodoxy regarding putting. Specifically, while golfers have long kept their eyes fixed on the ball during the putting stroke, major champion and recent winner on the PGA Tour, Sergio Garcia has opted to putt with his eyes closed.
After his win on the PGA Tour (October 2020) Sergio stated: "I would love to putt with my eyes open, but I feel like my stroke is more consistent when I kind of try to forget about it and just kind of feel it," he said earlier in the tournament. He also reported: ”Sometimes I feel like I have it under control and I'm like: 'Well let's go back to like I practice normal' and it feels good. But when it comes down to the tournament, it just doesn't feel quite the same so I would say I putt with my eyes closed 75% of the time.” Interestingly, in his post-final round interviews, Sergio was talking about ‘feel’ but I am unsure if he knows what ‘feel’ means in a neurophysiological context. To help him and others address this conundrum it is important to consider whether what a golfer focuses on whilst putting is the same as what they are looking at or indeed thinking about, or in Sergio’s case what he is not looking at!
To start with, it is possible that coaches, practitioners and researchers may have overemphasised how important the visual system, as opposed to mental focus itself, actually is to the successful execution of putting skills. So, let's look at the science at a neurophysiological level when putting with your eyes closed. During my PhD research (which was golf putting related) I was able to look through a variety of lenses that gave me insight into how our attentional processes (i.e., what we focus mental effort on) guide our actions. For example, as an elite golfer, Sergio does not have to rely on complete sensory integration to support subsequent performance, as the putting task provides enough kinaesthetic information to support performance without the need of the visual system.
So, what is happening in his brain when his eyes are closed? Well, according to the research there is a reduction in processing activities of his visual system, and an increase of his neural efficiency and proficiency towards motor areas (e.g., putter movement) of the cortex. In other words, Sergio’s brain is better at discriminating processes that are functional to optimal execution of the putt with his eyes closed from those that are not. Indeed, from a contemporary perspective, a ‘positive self-focus’ toward the putting stroke movement can serve to consciously activate the motor representation when thoughts relate to the entire putting stroke movement. This focus offers Sergio a beneficial action strategy for ensuring activation of the entire putting skill from his long term memory, especially when executing the putts under difficult conditions (e.g., winning The 2017 Masters at Augusta).
As a consequence of avoiding vision of the ball and clubhead, this may reduce distraction and potential intrusive thoughts (e.g., what is the clubface doing at impact?) to permit even greater focus on the putting movement action. So, when Sergio says “ when my eyes are closed I feel like my stroke is more consistent when I kind of try to forget about it and just kind of feel it”, I think what he is saying is his mental focus is on his stroke which in turn prevents him from visual distractions and self-focus. We can, in turn, infer that the processing of aim-related visual information decreased before he initiated the putting stroke.
Therefore, It appears that success in putting, at least for elite golfers does not seem to be related to whether they look at the ball or have their eyes closed. Once they have completed their pre-putt routine, the brain has no further requirement of the visual system, it disengages and focuses on the motor control system (e.g., putting action) to ensure a smooth stroke to increase the chances of holing the putt.
In conclusion, there is room for individual differences and strongly recommend that the method used be dependent upon personal preferences and until that decision is made, coaches should be encouraging all skill levels of golfer to experiment practicing with the ‘eyes open’ and ‘eyes closed’ method. Importantly, this coaching strategy could provide valuable insights as to the potential for golfers who suffer from the yips caused by psychological mechanisms, to putt using the ‘eyes closed’ method. Furthermore, when blindfolding beginner golfers they could learn to attend selectively to the movements required in golf putting. This method would undoubtedly force attention inwards and so guidance from a coach to ensure this was towards important and relevant aspects of the skill would be required.
Therefore, golf coaches should consider blind putting drills in which golfers close their eyes to improve their motor control. Practicing with the ‘eyes open’ may show benefits for body positioning and alignment while practicing with the ‘eyes closed’ may show benefits for kinaesthetic awareness and the regulation of force control parameters.