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Smart Golf: Putting Tips

IS YOUR AIM TRUE?

PROBABLY NOT, SAYS A TOP PUTTING GURU.

BY JOHN PAUL NEWPORT

Ten years ago, when Mike Shannon started his new job as head pro at Isleworth Country Club in Orlando, Florida, he was surprised at how many members, including even the many Tour pros, consistently aimed their putters right or left of the intended target. Being an enterprising sort, Shannon assembled a team of optometrists from the area and worked with them to develop a system he calls "laser optics" to try to solve the aiming problem. Then he spent a year on the PGA Tour videotaping and analyzing the pros' strokes and approaches to putting as part of a research project for Slazenger. For business reasons, nothing came of that effort for the equipment company, but Shannon learned a lot of useful stuff, some of which goes against prevailing wisdom. For instance, all of the top putters he studied had a stroke that opened slightly on the backswing and closed on the through swing, as opposed to the square-to-square stroke that is often taught these days.

Shannon has compiled his wisdom in a book titled The Art and Science of Perfect Putting, to be published later this year, and now teaches his system at the Sea Island Golf Learning Center in Georgia (he has worked with Davis Love III, Tom Kite and Mark O'Meara, among others). "Everything we do depends on the player's ability to aim the putter correctly, so that's where we begin," he said. "If you misaim, there must be some manipulation of the stroke for the ball to get started on the right line, which leads to cycles of putting. You may putt very well for awhile, but the negative phase of the cycle tends to be a lot longer than the positive phase, and that's what our system can help eliminate."

Shannon discovered that people's perceptions of where their putters are aimed is skewed by the degree to which they are left-eye or right-eye dominant and nearsighted or farsighted (even when their vision has been corrected by glasses or contacts). These aspects of vision change with age, so that people who aim well in their twenties often start misaiming in their thirties and forties without realizing it. "We think that's one reason so many pros used to wash up on the Tour when they got older," said Shannon. "They still hit the ball beautifully, but they'd lost their ability to aim putts correctly." Today's players, by contrast, have much better coaching and technology to keep their aim true.

According to Shannon, the combination of a player's particular vision characteristics creates his "triangulation point," which is where his eyes should focus to perceive the aiming line correctly. Rarely is this spot directly under the nose. By asking his students to aim their putterheads at a little board behind a hole on a practice green, and then checking the accuracy of that aim with a laser pointing device, Shannon can pinpoint the ideal ball position for every player. For right-handed golfers whose triangulation point is to the right of dead center, the perfect ball position will be more toward the back of the stance, and for those whose triangulation point is to the left, it will be more to the front.

Achieving perfect aim won't transform somebody into a better putter, however, unless he can make a simple, repeatable stroke. Luckily, Shannon said, learning to do this is easier than most people think. By far the most important factor in promoting the ideal, open-to-square-to-closed stroke shape used by virtually all of the world's top golfers is to stand the correct distance from the ball. If you stand too close you will tend to strike the ball with an out-to-in motion, sending it left, and if you stand too far away you will usually strike the ball from in to out, sending it right. Based on height, arm length, posture and video analysis, Shannon can identify the right distance from the ball for a player to stand. Contrary to traditional doctrine, he found that the best position for most players is not with their eyes directly over the aiming line.

His study of the Tour pros discredited other bits of standard dogma, too. For instance, he found that lining up square to the target line is not necessary; open or closed stances work just fine if a player feels most comfortable addressing the ball that way. He also found no reason to prefer one type of grip over another, provided the hands are not rotated too far to the right or left in relationship to the putter face.

But one thing Shannon does insist on, which may be foreign to many amateurs, is that the upper arms maintain contact with the torso. "What all the best putters have in common," said Shannon, "is that they draw their upper arms into the torso. With no separation between the upper body and the arms, their strokes tend to be shorter, tighter, more anchored and more precise. The putter has less opportunity to veer off line, and they develop a tremendous amount of control over distance and direction."

The final piece of mechanics Shannon teaches is the "triangle stroke". With only minor variations, this is the stroke used by almost all of the top-seventy putters on Tour. "Since 1996, 90 percent of Tour wins have been by players in this group," he said. "If you're going to learn a putting stroke, it should be this one."

Mechanics, however, are only the "doorway" to better putting, in Shannon's view. "Unfortunately, most players never go through that doorway," he said. "One of the biggest mistakes players make is to blame bad mechanics when they miss a putt, when in fact their mechanics are pretty good and the reason they miss has to do with something else." The second and third levels of Shannon's system go beyond mechanics to deal with reading greens and controlling the pace and rhythm of putts—areas where the really great putters excel.

In some ways the most interesting part of Shannon's whole putting philosophy is his distinction between linear and nonlinear putters. Linear putters, including Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman and Nick Faldo, tend to be analytic, right-brain types who in general feel comfortable with structure and routine. On the green, they visualize in straight lines and, in reading a putt, will pick out a spot to roll the ball over and seek to start their putt out in a straight line over that spot. Nonlinear putters, such as Tiger Woods, Fred Couples and Phil Mickelson, are less structured in their routines (they respond more to how they are feeling at the moment). When they read a putt, they see it as a curved line finishing in the cup and trust their touch and feel to get the ball rolling on the right line.

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