The commitment to practice distinguishes the expert putter from the vast majority of golfers who seem to have remarkable difficulty meeting the much lower demands of knowing why, what, where, when and how to practice. Mastering the skill of putting means deliberate and structured practice in green reading, aiming, force control, stroke speed variability and mental readiness techniques. Deliberate and structured practice is consistent, intensely focused and targets content or frailties that lie at the edge of the golfers’ current abilities.
In this blog, I characterise deliberate and structured practice—those activities that have been found most effective in improving putting performance that is appropriate for a given individual at a given level of skill development. Golfers’ may then make the necessary adjustments to improve specific aspects of their putting performance to assure that attained changes will be successfully retained and integrated into competitive play.
As scientists get closer to unravelling the secrets of our brains our understanding of practice will only improve. In the meantime, deliberate practice is the best way we have of maximising our putting potential. It is clear, expert putting performance is the result of an extended process of skill acquisition mediated by large, but not excessive amounts of deliberate and structured practice. In contrast to playing, deliberate and structured practice is an activity, the explicit goal of which is to improve putting performance.
Why do we practice?
The deliberate and structured practice of putting activities affects the inner workings of our brains. So, what does deliberate and structured practice do in our brains to make us better at putting? Well, our brains have two types of neural tissue, grey matter and white matter. The grey matter processes information in the brain directing signals and sensory stimuli to the cells while white matter is made up of fatty tissue and nerve fibres. In order for our bodies to initiate and execute the putting movement, information needs to travel from the brains grey matter down the spinal cord through a chain of nerve fibres called axons to our muscles. The axons that exist in our white matter are wrapped with a fatty substance called myelin and it's this myelin covering or sheath that seems to change with deliberate and structured practice. Myelin is similar to insulation on electrical cables, it prevents energy loss for the electrical signals that the brain uses, moving them more efficiently along neural pathways. Some recent studies suggest that the repetition of a physical motion increases the layers of the myelin sheath that insulates the axons. Indeed, the more layers, the greater the insulation around the axon chains forming a super pathway for information connecting your brain to your muscles. Notably, it’s the myelination of neural pathways that give great putters the edge because their neural pathways are faster and more efficient and that’s why practice matters.
How much practice?
There are many theories that attempt to quantify the number of hours, days, months and years to master putting. While we don’t yet have a magic number we do know that mastery isn’t simply about the number of hours but the ‘effectiveness’ of that practice. In other words, your practice must be structured in such a way that you have a clear purpose (e.g., ensuring correct alignment), you are motivated (e.g., you have the desire to improve), can measure outcomes (e.g., data shows you consistently miss more putts on the low side) with relevant feedback and are practicing the correct putting activities.
Interestingly, Gary Player recalls that when he was developing his golf game as a young man in South Africa that would lead to nine major championships on the regular tour and nine major championships on the Champions Tour and 160 professional wins worldwide; he would practice putting for approximately two hours per day, (approximately 33% of the overall time he devoted to mastering his golfing craft). Player believes that if he had his time again he would devote even more time to putting. He believes that when you are a good putter this proficiency also affords greater confidence and better morale to sustain other aspects of your game.
I advise putting practice sessions should last only for as long as you can give your full attention to the matter at hand. That is, if you lose your concentration and start hitting putts carelessly, you will tend to do the same in actual play.
Where to Practice - Home Simulation
So, if deliberate practice is the key, how do we get the most out of our practice time? Well, you can start with brain simulation, that is, practice putting inside the brain in vivid detail when at home. You may be surprised but a number of research studies suggest once a physical motion (e.g., the putting stroke) has been established it can be reinforced by brain simulation. For example, in one study 44 golfers were divided into two groups, Group A physically practiced holing 8ft. putts for 1 hour per day for 14 days, while Group B only mentally practiced holing 8ft. putts for 1 hour per day for 14 days. When both groups were tested at the end of the 14-day research period, both groups had improved by literally the same amount. Therefore, if your time is limited and you can’t get to the course as much as you would like then start practicing in the comfort of your own home. Practice holing simulated putts just by using your brain to create the imagined putting environment.
Where to Practice - Home Carpet Putting
Physical putting practice at home especially during the winter months will pay off a hundred times over in the achievement of better putting results in the spring. There are lots of different types of carpet that can simulate very closely the usual surface of a golf green. Another important factor about carpet putting is that with very few external distractions, you are able to forget about whether you are holing putts or whether you are short or long, just concentrate on your stroke and technique. That is to say, you can focus your attention on the stroke and technique to an extent completely impossible on the actual putting green.
Try this drill at home, hit putts with your dominant hand only on the grip to appreciate the sensation of lag and acceleration in your stroke. This drill will also help you focus your attention on controlling the clubface, then switch to both hands on the grip and try and recreate the sensation.
Where to Practice - Putting Green
To start improving your putting in the physical world measure your current performance using a baseline test prior to any practice to enable assessment of any subsequent learning. This test consists of holing as many putts as possible from a distance of 8ft.
Eight golf tee pee pegs need to be positioned as measured from the hole centre and positioned equidistant to each other providing a variety of challenging putts (e.g., breaking right-to-left, uphill breaking, downhill breaking, straight putts and breaking left-to-right putts) and pushed below the surface of the grass. These determine the points from where you should place the ball during the pre-putt routine. Complete the putting task (8 putts) and record how many putts were holed.
Following on from the baseline test you will conduct a structured and deliberate putting programme for 4 weeks.
4 weeks - Deliberate & Structured Practice Programme
Each week requires two sessions of practice, consisting of 30 putts each session spread evenly over three categories of distance:
Short putts 2ft. - 8ft.
Medium putts 8ft. - 20ft.
Long putts 20ft. - 35ft.
You can choose any distance for each of the 30 putts. However, you must vary each practice period and each session in terms of execution order and distance of the putt.
After 4 weeks of deliberate and structured practice follow the set-up for the baseline test (i.e., 8 x putts from 8ft.) and compare your results.
Tips for Practice
Focus on the task at hand and minimise potential distractions by not practicing with headphones and listening to music
Ensure you follow your pre-putt routine for every putt, with no shortcuts!
Replicate your competitive putting behaviour as much as you can when you practice
Practice on your own and not with your buddies, you are trying to simulate real-life whilst limiting distraction
Frequent repetitions with allocated breaks are common practice habits among elite golfers
Studies have shown that many elite golfers spend 1 to 2 hours per day on activities related to their putting, you should start with 1 to 2 hours per week and work your way up
Always practice with intensity, you must make the same effort with every putt in practice as you do in competitive play
Practice green reading, aiming, force control and mental readiness techniques at least 70% of the time and 30% of your time on stroke mechanics
Always measure and record your performance and on completion of each session pause and reflect on the outcomes
Don’t expect improvements to come quickly, be patient and remember holing 1 putt more today than you did yesterday is progress
Deliberate and structured practice is the repetition of an action with the goal of improvement and it helps us putt with ease and more confidence.