When it comes to reading greens, there’s really no substitute for experience, but I’ve learned a few tricks over the years that I have found can help tremendously. One is to get in the habit of paying attention to any patterns in misreading putts that develop during your rounds and to use those patterns as clues to where you need to improve. If you find you miss most right-to-left breakers to the left, for instance, start aligning yourself for more borrow.
Also pay close attention, on misses, to what the ball does after it passes the hole. The area just beyond the hole is an often overlooked part of the putting landscape. Observing how putts die there will help you sink the comebacker and over time will make you smarter about how putts behave in general as they slow down.
One image I periodically return to in sizing up putts is to imagine the ball rolling over the cup, as if on a bridge, to finish eighteen inches or so on the other side. Obviously I hope the actual putt will drop in the cup and not roll past, but contemplating that area beyond the hole helps me better visualize the slope on the near side of it, too. It also helps me correct my most frustrating flaw: focusing so much on the foot or two in front of the cup that my putts end up there, short of the hole.
I like to look at putts of all significant lengths or importance from all sides, in part because in walking around a putt, the soles of the feet can tell you a lot about the lay of the land. The information coming up through your legs as you circle the hole is more useful than most amateurs think. Usually, experienced golfers also find that they read putts better from one side of the cup than from the other—and for many, including me, it’s from the opposite side of the cup from the ball. I feel that from there I get a closer look at the crucial last few feet of roll and can more easily track the intermediate points of the putt’s trajectory. But, as always, you may be different. Everyone should try to determine which view of the hole works best for them, so that when in doubt, they will be able to commit to their read from that side.
Finally, a special word about short putts that break. I’ve heard some people advocate taking a lot of the break out of such putts by hitting the ball confidently with extra speed into the center of the hole. Others insist that the best way, especially on downhillers, is to baby the putt, on the theory that many times it will tumble in at the edges and, on misses, your next putt will be shorter. Both methods have their virtues, and it’s worth experimenting. Tom Watson used to practice missing short-breaking putts on the high side and then on the low side, as a way of triangulating the speed it took to knock one in the center. That’s a great method to help you better understand breaking putts.
But I believe you’ll get yourself into less trouble over the long haul if you determine the speed at which you like to see long or short putts go into the hole, and then try to produce that speed in every instance. That way you’re not trying to hit some short putts soft, which leads to pushes and decelerations, and others hard, which leads to jerky, jamming putts. When someone on Tour gets into in a real putting groove, notice how their putts always disappear into the holes at a decent speed, neither too fast nor too slow. That’s a good image to strive for.