The core fundamentals in putting are setting up square to the target line and making a smooth stroke that gets the ball rolling straight at the target point every time. The funny thing is, however, there are very few straight putts in golf—if by straight you mean a putt that doesn’t curve on its way to the hole. But the way I look at it, every putt is straight. Even on real twisters, I pick a target point, align my body to that target and try to hit the ball straight at it.
That’s not the way most amateurs treat a breaking putt, however. They almost never align themselves to make a straight putt along the proper line. Often they line up to putt directly at the hole and jiggle their bodies and putterheads around to send the ball off more or less in the right direction. Or they align themselves somewhere between the hole and the correct aiming point and make less dramatic compensations with their bodies and their strokes. Any prior work they may have done honing a sound, repeatable, squarely aligned stroke (the area that I talked about in my previous article) goes out the window.
If you want to prove how off your usual alignment is, find a medium-length breaking putt on the practice green and make your standard read. Say you think the putt breaks three balls from right to left. Put a tee in the ground three balls to the right of the hole; then, instead of setting up and stroking the putt as normal, carefully align yourself to that tee. Use a club shaft or block of wood to be precise. If you’re like most amateurs, a ball putted straight at the tee will break well left of the hole.
During an actual round, you will no doubt sink some putts setting up as usual, but only because your body automatically makes compensations. This is a hit-or-miss style of putting that will often fail you in the clutch.
When people ask me what the game’s best putters have in common—Seve Ballesteros, Tom Watson, Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods—I tell them it’s the ability to read greens well. And by good green reading I mean not just the ability to determine where the slopes are and how the ball will react; I also mean the ability to line up correctly in response to one’s reads. The next time Tiger is on television, watch his setup carefully. No matter how much the putt is going to break, he positions himself to make exactly the same stroke on the ball every time: a straight putt.
Before I go further, let me make an important point about practicing breaking putts: Before each session, take a few minutes to make sure your fundamentals are in order. Find a flat area of the green and stroke some straight three- to five-foot putts until you’re confident you’re not pulling or pushing the ball or making some other distorting mechanical error. Then stroke some six-foot putts, again on as flat a piece of green as you can find but from different compass points to the target, this time focusing on alignment. Start the alignment from scratch with each putt. The goal is to be as sure as possible, when you begin practicing breaking putts, that you can tick off bad mechanics and poor alignment as causes for your misses. "That wasn’t me, it was a misread; I did my bit perfectly," you want to be able to tell yourself.