At the most recent Ryder Cup, there was a stretch in the Sunday singles match when the players on both sides—but especially on the European side (ahem, ahem)—made more long putts than I think I’ve ever seen. Ten feet, twenty feet, fifty feet—the balls kept rolling into the cups from everywhere. Up in the broadcast booth we had to tell our viewers, "This isn’t a highlight reel, folks. This is live."
If I had to pinpoint one cause for this extraordinary display, it would be confidence. When you have the mechanics down pat and also have the talent, and when the atmosphere is contagiously conducive to good putting, it’s amazing what can happen. You can’t fake confidence, of course, but if you’re an amateur you can definitely improve the odds on long putts by spending some focused time on the practice green.
Distance control, obviously, is the essence of long putting, and the classic drills for improving it are quite effective. Before a round or for some quick practice, it’s easy enough to drop balls every couple of paces across the green and putt them back to a hole, from ten to seventy-five feet away. (That’s about as long a putt as you’re likely to face in a round.) Or to push tees into the green five yards apart and then putt from a single spot to each in succession. When you have a little more time, however, try my favorite drill of this kind: the box drill (previous page).
When doing distance-control practice, the key is to pay primary attention to feel, not to line or to how a putt breaks (doing so dilutes the distance feedback). Close your eyes from time to time and try to memorize the sensation of stroking putts different distances. Alternately, try looking at the target as you putt and watch the ball roll out; that will help cement the relationship between what your eyes see and what your body is experiencing.
The one thing you want to avoid is gripping the putter too tightly. Even the least bit of firmness in the grip will tense the muscles in the wrists, the forearms, the upper arms, the shoulders and the neck—the whole putting unit—and that’s death. Most amateurs underestimate how lightly they can hold the putter. As an experiment, grip the putter as tightly as you can and hit a few fifteen-footers. Continue putting, relaxing your grip a little bit more each time. You’ll be amazed how absolutely relaxed your hands can be: You can almost feel sloppy about it and still control the putter face through the ball.
I like to think of an artist working with a paintbrush: If he doesn’t allow the brush to flow lightly behind his hand as he paints, he’s probably a lousy painter. Or imagine that your hands and arms are moving through oil or are on rollers or ball bearings—whatever image works to help you achieve a smooth, syrupy stroke. I’ve found that the nine-iron drill is a superb technique for getting the feel of a relaxed yet precise release through the ball.
Intimately related to feel, especially on long putts, is tempo. You can’t have one without the other. I work to maintain a steady one-two rhythm: one back, two through the ball. For people who learn in an auditory way like I do, actually saying the words "one-two" under the breath during a stroke can be very helpful. If those words produce a tempo that’s too quick, try saying "smooth-smooth" instead. Or if you want to speed up the tempo a bit, I’ve found that saying "square-square" sometimes works. For some of us, matching words to a desired tempo is a powerful tool.