UPPER ST. CLAIR, Pa. — Above all, golf is a visual game. Or so I thought.
In addition to the pleasant sights of a typical round — green grass, white sand, blue water and, most importantly, the gentle curve of a perfectly-struck approach — the eyes tend to dominate the sensory information our brains upload as we prepare to play a shot.
Usually, that’s a good thing. Depth perception, wind direction, strategic risk assessment … all of these decisions are made primarily via the optic nerves.
But when it comes to putting, those same eyes that normally serve us well can deceive. Anything from the surrounding area’s architecture to the flag snapping in the breeze can distract from determining the nature of the slope between our ball and the hole.
And, as certified ‘AimPoint’ instructor David Kuhn reminded me before my formal introduction to the technique this week at Frosty Valley Golf Links, the slope is all that matters.
That might seem obvious, but the next time you watch televised golf and hear a commentator assert that all putts on a given green or course break toward or away a certain topographical feature, you realize that even the most experienced golfers can get thrown off the scent.
The heart of ‘AimPoint’ is this: Slope is everything, and our feet — not our eyes — can tell us all we need to know about it.
The first part of the ‘Express’ class I took this week focuses solely (get it??) on feeling the slope of a putt through the bottoms of our feet. Our natural ability to balance on uneven surfaces functions as the golfer’s guide to effective green-reading.
How do we accomplish this? Well, you’ll have to get over the fear of touching your putting line to the hole that so many golfers have internalized over the years. Fortunately, the USGA gave us an opening for this when they revised Rule 16 last year, allowing players to touch their intended lines in whatever fashion they wish.
Usually this leeway is used to repair inconsistencies in the green, but for the purposes of ‘AimPoint,’ the player is encouraged to stand on or straddle the line in order to determine which way the putt will break, in addition to deciphering how severe the slope is.
That second part is where the skill lies. While ‘AimPoint‘ was created by a software developer and has its basis in proven science, the player still has to figure out the degree of slope that exists and apply a numerical value to that sensory perception.
No simple task, but with our feet as our primary method of data collection, as opposed to our eyes, we have a much better chance of getting it right, both in terms of direction and degree of slope.
Fortunately, I had an opportunity to put my learnings right into use after the tutorial, by playing the nine-hole layout at Frosty Valley. (Review coming soon!) On no fewer than three lag putts, I would’ve read the break going the complete opposite direction had I only used my eyes.
That’ll scare you straight. I knew I wasn’t getting the right read all of the time, but I think I was actually overestimating my ability to see the proper line. How have I been making anything at all?
The proof was in the results from my on-course trial: No, I didn’t make any bombs, but every putt had a chance to go in, and my dispersal of misses was greatly reduced. In other words, I had more stress-free tap-ins than usual.
From my (admittedly brief) experience trying to implement the ‘AimPoint’ system, there are two main impediments to full conversion.
Number one is simply trust. The first time I got a read that ran counter to what my eyes told me, I didn’t quite buy in. Instead of playing 18 inches of break, I played closer to a foot. I missed it on the high side by about — you guessed it — six inches.
The second obstacle I found is the adjustment to your pre-putt routine, both in terms of the change itself and how using ‘AimPoint’ looks. Taking more of a scientific approach to putting might require more mental discipline than you’re used to devoting to what we’ve been told is a subjective part of the game.
This is definitely a different feel, I can confirm. Not bad, just different.
Also, you’ll have to be ready to answer questions from your usual playing partners about what exactly it is you’re doing when you a) straddle your intended line multiple times, and b) hold up a number of fingers in front of your face to determine how far from the hole to start your putt.
But if embarrassment is getting in the way, just look to the best in the world for encouragement. Last week at the Travelers Championship, Dustin Johnson and his caddy were obviously using the ‘AimPoint’ method en route to a win, while former Masters champion Adam Scott has been a longtime devotée to the concept.
I discovered another benefit to quantifying the slope. In my zeal to nail down the read, I was taken out of my usual anxiety about results. Making or missing is still front of mind, of course, but that aspect of the game took a backseat to the process.
Maybe that’s more of an effect for the ‘AimPoint’ beginner, but I’ve found anything that puts me in a pure process mindset is worthy of exploration.
It’s not quite as simple as it sounds. There are adjustments that need to be made for green speed, excessive wind, double-breaking putts and the all-important individual visual perception. Also, for some people, there’s a certain distance from the hole at which an adjustment must be made to the usual reading technique.
Oh, and you have to hit the putt on line, too. No one said golf was easy.
Still, I have seldom — if ever — experienced a paradigm-shifting lesson like the one Kuhn administered to a handful of us open-minded players Wednesday morning. It’s not overdramatic to say that the way I look at putting has completely changed.
Actually, take that back, the way I feel about putting has completely changed. Some habits are hard to break.
PGN Grade: A