Conversation: Putter Lines

December 2, 2011

LG and I have debated this subject before, but it’s time for us to have one of our famous on-line debates.

This time, we’re talking about putter lines. Not just a line on a putter, but all the different ways lines can influence putting. From sight dots to cavity lines to naked look putters all the way to lines on a golf ball, players have preferences on how they sight up their putts.

Putting, although the simplest physical task in golf, can be one of the most frustrating mental tasks. A golf ball is 1.680 inches in diameter. A cup is 4.25 inches in diameter. If we assume that a typical “makeable” putting range is up to fifteen feet, understanding the difficulty of putting becomes clear. If we say the “object” to be shot is a golf ball, a person putting a golf ball must attempt to hit a target roughly two and a half times larger than the object from distances ranging up to 110 times the size of the object. Moreover, there is no one single way to do this. The pace at which a golf ball is putt greatly affects how much break it will take between the starting point and the hole–a softly hit putt taking more break than a firmly hit putt. Moreover, there are numerous variations on putter head shapes (blade, Anser-style, mallet, cavity, heel shafted, centershafted, plumber’s neck, flow neck, face milling, etc.), and even the putting stroke can vary (swinging gate, straight-back-straight-through, inside and then down-the-line). As such, we understand no one method will work for everyone, which is why want to show our own views on how lines affect putts.

JK’s View:

For years, I had a putter that was an Anser-II style. It had a squared look and a line on the flange, a plumber’s neck, and offset, much like the photo below. The putter was a beautiful specimen, one that I really treasured. I was proud of it and took great care of it. The putter felt great, and the ball coming off the face was like butter. There was just one problem.

I couldn’t putt for crap.

I broke down in 2004 and bought an Anser-style putter with no sight aid of any kind. The putter had flowing lines instead of a squared look. See the photo below of the Newport Beach, which was my gamer for many years. My putting improved, but I was never a truly great putter.

Although I loved the feeling of my Newport Beach, I didn’t realize how out-of-whack my putting stroke was until LG showed me how to putt with a line on the golf ball. I’ve always known that I was a swinging-gate stroke putter, but I didn’t realize how much I was cutting across the ball until LG showed me the ball with the line. On every putt I made, the line would flip over and skew. I had to work very hard to get the ball to roll end-over-end.

Eventually, I did learn how to roll the ball end-over-end. It turns out, this is all I really needed to become a decent putter. I have been around the game long enough to be able to read greens. My putting was suffering not from poor alignment or poor understanding of pace and line but rather from an inconsistent contact with the ball that could not have been detected without the aid of the line on the ball. I still use the line today, and I putt on average around 30.5 putts per round, which I’m very happy with.

When I got my custom putter made (see, I got it without a sight line. Why, you may ask, would I get a putter without a sight line if a line helped my stroke so much? The answer is a little counterintuitive.

Although a line on the ball helped me, a line on the putter does not. The line on the putter distracts me from the ball, which is the true focus of my attention in the stroke. I start thinking about what the line is doing. If the line is ever not pointed at the hole, for some reason I get nervous. So, when I’m swinging, I actually tend to manipulate my hands subconsciously to get the line “correct.” It leads to inconsistent contact with the ball because, in my view, the hands should not move at all in the putting stroke.

More importantly, however, I reasoned with myself that a line on the putter does not help me, flat out. No club in my bag has a line on it. From driver down to PW, nothing has a line on it. Yet, somehow, I am able to line up the ball with a target hundreds of yards away and, more often then not, hit it pretty close to that target. Why, then, would I need a line on my club to aim a target a few feet away?

I understand that putting is largely mental, and I have had many friends and fellow-golfers tell me that there is no way they can line up their putts without a line on the putter. I understand that sentiment, but few of these people are what I would call good putters. To me, the game is easiest when it is made simplest by the player. In the golf swing, instead of thinking about rotation and placement of the hands in the backswing and plane angle, it is best if the player looks at the ball, lines himself up, and trusts that his stroke will work. Instead of picking a line on the golf course that requires a high draw to a tight fairway, pick the place that it doesn’t matter what flight you get and hit it confidently at that spot. It just makes sense that way to me. Thus, when viewing a putter, the one with the simplest setup that does not distract me from what I am trying to do is the best.

Moreover, some recent research by Bruce Rearick at the United States Golf Academy shows how lines affect the average golfer:

At the United States Golf Academy we have measured over 30,000 putting strokes – about 2000 players on our PuttLab system.

92% perform better with their eyes closed during the stroke. (Elimination of visual interference)

Less than 40% can aim the putter within 2 degrees of their chosen target with an alignment aid on the putter. (Putt missed at 12 feet) This improves to 70% without the visual references on the putter.

Only 60% can match the line on the putter to a line on the ball (within one degree). It is much worse when the sight line is in the cavity behind the face. The number improves to over 90% when there is a line on the ball no line on the putter and they square the face to the line (again within 1 degree).

If 90% of people can line up one way, to me, that is the easiest way to go. That also happens to be the way that I use lines when putting. And, lately, I have become a “good” putter.

What say you, LG?

LG’s Response:

Actually, JK and I are not that far off from one another.  At the end of the day for both of us, putting is all about confidence and making a good stroke.  We both believe (JK because I proved it to him) that a line on the ball is the best diagnostic tool for learning about an individual putting stroke.  We both believe that the only way the ball has a chance of going in the hole is if the person striking it believes it will go in the hole.  In fact, I’d argue we both believe that, whether there’s a line on the putter or not, a person will putt best with whatever putter he or she thinks will make the putt.  However, this would not be much of a debate if I did not engage JK on this point.  Before I do that though, here’s my putting background:

I consider myself to be a good putter (at least when my head is on straight), and I think JK would agree that I probably putt better than the usual 9 handicap.  From my first 33″ Studio Style to my beloved 35″ Monterey to my most recent 35″ spider ghost, each and every putter has an alignment line.  This may have been a product of circumstance because every putter I had ever tried before buying my first one had a line on it.  I simply felt more comfortable looking down and seeing a line on the putter.  JK’s own story about why he got rid of the line suggests that he got rid of his because he lacked confidence in his putting and thought a change would benefit him.  Conversely, I always focused on getting good, end-over-end roll with my lined putter and lined ball, and was able to do so very quickly because I had ample time to practice in law school.  As a result, I developed confidence with a lined putter because I saw that it produced the roll that I desired.  Now, onto the argument.

I think the statistics JK cites are misleading.  As an initial matter, we don’t know how these tests were conducted. All we know is that some people missed 12 foot putts.  Were these straight? breaking?  Moreover, were people told that the test was to determine whether a line on the back of the putter helps?  I think this might have people focusing on the wrong things, and as you so adequately put it: “Putting, although the simplest physical task in golf, can be one of the most frustrating mental tasks.”

Anyway, Let’s take each in turn:

92% perform better with their eyes closed during the stroke. (Elimination of visual interference)

“perform better”?? What does this even mean?  They holed more putts? They got better roll? They had better alignment? They could read a break better?  Does this mean I should be putting with my eyes closed, JK?

Let’s assume that “perform better” actually means something. The fact that their eyes were closed does not go to show that the line was the problem, or that the lack of a line helped them putt any better.  Did this person line the putt up with the putter, close their eyes, then putt?  If so, that person probably made a freer stroke and was less attached to the outcome of the putt because “my eyes are closed, I should miss this.”  It seems more likely to me that this person had a clearer mind because of the lack of visual interference than better alignment due to a putter he or she could not see.  I would also argue that the putter without a line is just as much of a visual distraction as a putter with a line because putters have lines on them even if they are not alignment lines.  The brain subconsciously aligns these to the target even if the conscious brain does not try to line up a particular line with the target.

Less than 40% can aim the putter within 2 degrees of their chosen target with an alignment aid on the putter. (Putt missed at 12 feet) This improves to 70% without the visual references on the putter.

Even the way this one is written suggests an improper test.  So people were given a lined putter, missed a putt, then were given a putter with no line and made the same putt?  I don’t know about you JK, but if I get two cracks at a putt, the second one is almost always better than the first one.  Even if the test was in reverse or with different putts for each putter, the aim at the target line is not what’s important.  It is the confidence that the aim inspires to make a good stroke that matters.  I don’t really think it matters whether I can’t set the putter down within 1 degree of my intended line; what’s important is that the stroke that I make be on my target line.  I’m also wondering how “aim within 2 degrees” is measured when there is no line on the putter?  Are they using the angle normal to the face?  Are they doing this at impact?  Are they measuring how far from the center of the hole the ball ends up and drawing the triangle back to the point where it started?  This seems less than scientific without some context.

Only 60% can match the line on the putter to a line on the ball (within one degree). It is much worse when the sight line is in the cavity behind the face. The number improves to over 90% when there is a line on the ball no line on the putter and they square the face to the line (again within 1 degree).

I think this statistic misses the point.  Again, the point is what the line looks like at impact, not what it looks like at address.  If that same putter pulls the line dead on at impact, they are making a good stroke.  You need look no farther than Billy Mayfair for an example of a putting stroke that starts off line and pulls straight through to impact.

Additionally, as a general question to test the validity of what these statistics show, if any of these things mattered to getting the ball in the hole, why when I go to Golfsmith or in the bags of my playing partners on any given weekend do I find that the vast majority of putters have some kind of alignment mechanism on them?  If it were true that the ability to line up the putter to the target improved 90% without the use of such alignment aides, and that actually impacts whether the putt will go in the hole, then why aren’t the vast majority of putters sold ones that have no alignment aides?

Finally, I think this debate sort of misses the point.  We have talked a lot about the proper mechanics of putting, the psychological aspect, and our views on the way equipment should look, but at the end of the day, the best putter is the one that gets the ball in the hole.   My question above demonstrates, I think, the fact that as long as the putt can be made consistently, things we have talked about really don’t matter.  It doesn’t matter if it goes in with the line on the ball spinning skew or end-over-end.   All that matters is that the ball went in.  There are no pictures on a scorecard, and certainly no birdies for perfectly struck putts that roll end over end that burn the lip and slide 3 feet passed the hole.

Any reply, counselor?  (local rules limit you to one paragraph).

JK’s Reply:

Your point is, of course, well-taken. The ultimate point of this discussion is to give readers an idea of different things to think about with respect to putting lines. When that person finds what works for him or her, they should definitely stick with it. And I see your point on the statistics as well. Statistics are certainly dependent on the testing method, and there is no way to verify that a particular test matches your own definition of a correct measurement unless you do it yourself.

However, I think the overall point of the test is clear, regardless of whether it meets your definition of a correct measurement. The point made is that visual interference with a putting stroke can (not necessarily does, but can) have the effect of distracting the golfer from what is important in the putting stroke–i.e., getting the ball rolling on the correct line. That visual interference can take the form of a line on a putter. To me, a stroke like Billy Mayfair’s illustrates my point about lines rather than yours. If Billy Mayfair were trying to focus on lining up the flange line of a putter with the intended line of the ball, he would invariably fail to get the ball going on the intended line. His “cut stroke” relies on timing, and the line on the putter would take his focus away from that timing.

Below is illustrated a D-plane stroke for which a line would be terrible.

See also, a discussion of putting stroke and a reference to Mayfair: And, a discussion of the “Cut Stroke” Mayfair used:

Moreover, I would think someone as intelligent as you would know that the argument about the omnipresence of putting lines is not a valid one. Just because everyone in the world is using one method does not make it the best way. Many golfers have the latest drivers in their bags because they think longer drives mean lower scores, but the average male handicap hasn’t changed in 30 years. Many golfers now use game improvement irons, but it’s not helping them hit the ball more accurately. Most golfers have a putter that they picked up at a Golfsmith or a PGA Tour Superstore. Their putter was one of a few options on the wall that they thought was a decent price for what they got. Few–if any–of the average weekend golfers go above and beyond to figure out what else is out there–they simply choose an option from what is presented to them. However, if you go into one of those stores, you would be hard pressed to find even one putter on the rack that doesn’t have a line on it somewhere (I know because I’m always looking). It’s pure statistics: what the putter manufacturers make overwhelmingly has a line on it, therefore, what people buy is more likely to have a line on it because few people are informed enough to choose a putter without a line. If there’s anything I’ve learned over the past few years of researching golf and blogging, it’s that the OEM companies make whatever they think the public will buy, not necessarily what is the best product. The vast majority of people who own a driver have the “Taylormade R9 Shaft” or the “Made for Titleist VooDoo.” Does that mean that those are the best shafts you can get or what those people should be using? Of course not. Those shafts are crap; you and I know it, and the ignorance of those people doesn’t change that. Most people think chicken soup helps you during a cold; it’s been scientifically proven that it doesn’t. The majority of people thinking chicken soup is beneficial doesn’t make it so.

We always advocate that golfers use whatever is best for them. What I advocate is that those golfers think about what a line on the putter means, try to understand their own putting strokes, and then make a conscious effort to try out various putter styles and figure out what really does work best for them. I think Wilson 8802-style putters are beautiful, but I can’t hit the broad side of a barn putting with one. LG, you just tried a putter that looks like the Starship Enterprise, but you were willing to use it if it got the ball in the hole. That is what I am hoping golfers will do–think critically about what is best and try things that seem unorthodox just in case they like it.

Wilson 8802:

LG’s Project Putter:

USS Enterprise: