Updated: May 21, 2021
Golf putting has received major attention within the sports literature; more recently in the form of online digital publications and YouTube instructional videos. Indeed, most of the literature tends to be focused on stroke and technique and is anecdotal rather than scientific.
Lets put golf putting into context: it is the most important component in playing golf when you consider on a par-72 golf course, a level-par round will typically consist of the following shots:
14 tee shots with a driver
4 tee shots with an iron on par-3’s
4 fairway wood shots on par-5’s
14 iron shots to the green
36 putts (if you 2-putt each hole)
Thus, on average golf putting accounts for almost 50% of all strokes played in a typical round of golf.
Visual Aiming in Golf Putting
Now, before I go any further with this blog, I think it is really important that you are made aware that there is ‘no scientific evidence’ to suggest the traditional visual aiming method; where golfers have long kept their eyes fixed on the ball during the putting stroke, ‘ball focused aiming’ (hereafter termed BFA) is the optimum visual aiming method. It's worth repeating, there is ‘no scientific evidence’ to suggest that fixating the eyes on or close to the ball (BFA) is the optimum visual aiming method. I know this because I have read and studied the literature.
So, why do 99.9% of golfers use the traditional BFA method when there is no supporting evidence that it is the optimum aiming method for putting performance? Unfortunately, I do not have the answer to that question. Maybe, the answer to that question should be addressed by those that write the golf putting instructional manuals for teaching professionals.
Are there viable alternatives to BFA? Well, the good news is yes, there are viable alternatives to BFA. Notably, a method that I call ‘target focused aiming’ (hereafter termed TFA) where golfers direct their head, neck and eyes towards the target. For clarity, I define TFA as golfers fixing their gaze on the target (i.e., the entry point of the hole for straight putts or the breaking point for sloped putts) before stroke initiation and throughout the execution.
You may recall major champions Jordan Spieth, and Louis Oosthuizen having sometimes opted to use TFA as their preferred choice of visual aiming method. Indeed, Louis Oosthuizen said he used the technique several times including the U.S. Open, where he shot a back nine of 29 in the final round at Chambers Bay that left him just one shot short of a playoff with Spieth. "I did it (TFA) a lot coming into the last nine holes on Sunday and it worked," Oosthuizen said. "On a clutch putt which I felt I needed to make, I freed my stroke a bit by doing that."
Tiger Woods played with Oosthuizen during the first two rounds of the same US Open and noticed "I've played a lot of golf with Louis, but I've never seen him look at the hole before”, Woods said. "He was looking at the hole when he was hitting putts, and they were going in from all different distances. I've never seen that before, but it worked."
Jordan Spieth, a 3-time major champion is recognised for using the TFA method. Spieth turned professional in 2012, and during the next five years using the TFA method on short to medium-length putts, he won 14 times on tour, including his 3-major championships.
Interestingly, at the time Paul McGinley, Sky Sports Golf pundit, European PGA Tour player and winning Ryder Cup captain said “why was it that a large number of touring professionals were readily adopting different putting grips like the claw, (e.g., Justin Rose, Tommy Fleetwood and Phil Mickelson) and yet no one is adopting TFA that Spieth used when winning all these tournaments?
I agree with McGinley; it does seem strange that no one else is adopting TFA especially given Spieth’s, and Oosthuizen’s successes. According to Dr Bob Rotella, who suggests that “whether they realise it or not, most golfers would rather miss short putts than face the social pressure of doing something that's seen as strange” such as TFA. I agree such social pressure may contribute to the limited uptake of TFA. And, lets not forget the PGA instructional manuals only ever include BFA as the visual aiming method of choice.
However, I also believe that tour professionals probably don’t try TFA for the same reason that most recreational golfers haven’t tried it, they tend to assume that if they look at the target they won't consistently making solid and accurate contact with the ball, and that it must require a great deal of practice.
Fortunately for both groups of golfers these assumptions are misplaced as the scientific evidence (including my own empirical research) has determined the brain knows exactly where in space the body is in relation to the putter head, and ball. The brain can calculate the exact amount of force the golfer must impart on the ball to get it to the hole, it can set the optimum face angle for accuracy of strike and direction, and it can do all of this when the eyes are fixated on the target.
Therefore, the golf putting coach must play a pivotal role in the education and improvement of different visual aiming methods from both a mental and technical perspective. Of course, as a putting coach, I am ultimately concerned with developing an understanding of different visual aiming methods and sharing this knowledge with you.
Below are the empirical research findings for TFA. Sources for this information are from my own empirical research and that of other researchers. This is what we discovered:
1. The research suggests that TFA is more effective as the brain provides a continuous flow of visual information to the central nervous system, allowing successful interaction with the muscles of the shoulders, arms and hands
2. TFA reduces distracting and potentially intrusive thoughts (e.g., a distraction from the hands and/or putter movement) to permit even greater focus on the hole/target
3. The performance of TFA versus BFA with golfers using it for the first time on an actual putting green and under competitive conditions resulted in no significant difference
4. There is no significant performance difference between TFA and BFA in accuracy of strike
5. Swing speed variability of putting was significantly less when the golfer focused on the hole or target (TFA) rather than the ball (BFA)
6. For process measures relating to putter head kinematics, the main difference appeared in the level of consistency between strokes, with TFA affording lower stroke speed variability
7. There was no significant difference between TFA and BFA in the quality of impacts assessed by the variability in putter face angle, stroke path and impact spot
8. TFA is showing strong potential (on a first time of trying it) to place golfers into a more effective mental state for putting
9. TFA improves make percentage and miss distances on moderately sloping putts inside 14ft.
10. With the TFA method, the stroke can be performed without any tendency to move the head creating increased stability and postural control
11. TFA increases the focus of attention, is easy to learn, and improves distance control
12. Using TFA you are less likely to think about technique or being stroke conscious
13. TFA significantly reduced putter stroke speed variability equating to improved distance control
14. TFA is an effective practice distance control drill for BFA users
15. TFA has no reliance on the brains memory to process distance, depth perception and green topography
16. Golfers’ reported their mental focus as consistently being on the hole/target when using the TFA method
17. Golfers’ reported their mental focus was less consistent with the BFA method i.e., their focus varied from the ball, close to the ball, aim-line, or club-face
18. A common putting fault amongst golfers is deceleration of the club before impact, this is unlikely to occur with TFA
The biggest area for subsequent attention is associated with what happens when golfers are introduced to TFA, then get the chance to establish and embed this approach. So, I would like you to try TFA as it will generate a more positive mental state to your performance. Furthermore, TFA does not seem to be a sufficiently distinct skill from BFA in such a way that introducing it generates any relearning process.
The importance of these findings and the practical implication of the results mean that golfers' might choose to putt with either method based on personal preference and with no risk of performance decrement. Therefore, I strongly recommend and encourage golfers to experiment with TFA and BFA; for different types of putt with varying playing contexts, and use the method for each type of putt in each situation that works for them to produce their best putting performance.
Follow your normal pre-putt routine whilst fixing your gaze on the target (e.g., either entry point of the hole for straight putts or the breaking point for sloped putts) for a minimum period of 2 s before stroke initiation and to leave the eyes fixed on this position throughout the putting stroke.
Practice TFA until you have complete control over your club-face and can hit the putt accurately enough to get the ball rolling end-over-end (make it easier to see if you draw a line on your ball) which is an indication of accuracy of strike.
Focus your mind on a specific component of the putting stroke (your choice, as its a personal thing).
Personally, I like to see in my mind's eye the putter face hitting the ball on the equator line; other students of mine like to think about a smooth stroke.
Whatever your choice you must pay 100% attention to your attention, do not let your mind wander!
Good luck, and enjoy TFA!