HOW TO PUTT (1): GRIP
I came to my first Masters Tournament in 1995 thinking I could putt. Proud of my hat representing Stanford, where I was completing my freshman year, I was full of confidence. Like a lot of 20-year-olds, I had never seen a putt I didn’t like. As a junior and college player, I could go deep when my putter got hot. I’d had 21 putts for 18 holes several times, and under pressure it seemed like I never missed. The length of the putt was irrelevant; I would just get up there and bang the ball hard into the hole. I was aggressive, confident and had the touch to back it up.
But I was in for a pretty rude awakening that Thursday Augusta National. On the first hole first day, I stood over a 20-feeter for birdie that I just knew I was going to make. It was raining and misty, the kind of conditions that tend to slow the greens down. A little voice told me to give the putt a little extra nudge; the practice green had been a touch slow by Masters standards, and I was determined to play aggressively. So I put a nice smooth stroke on the ball, accelerating the putter a bit faster through impact.
The ball rolled nicely and slowed as it near the hole. But it didn’t stop. It trickled three feet past the hole, paused for a moment, then kept going, gathering speed as it went along. Next thing I knew, the ball had rolled completely off the green. Even then, it didn’t stop. Suddenly the gallery was parting to give the ball room to roam. By the time the ball stopped, I was farther from the hole than when I started and facing a very difficult recovery shot. It was a pretty startling moment. Even my playing partner, defending champion Jose Maria Olazabal, looked surprised. Though I was a bit shaken, I was determined to recover. I chipped the ball to 15 feet, and make that putt for a bogey. But right then I knew I had a lot to learn.
The more I examine putting, the more fascinating it become. I’m at least as captivated by putting as I am by the full swing. That’s why I practice putting so much. I enjoy the process of altering my stroke a little when it gets out of kilter. I like the challenge of improving my touch, and the feeling I sometimes get when I know I can lag a fast, double-breaking 40-footer to with a foot of the hole—or else hole it. There is, and always will be, room for improvement. I guess that deep inside, I’m still 20 years old and feel I can make every putt I look at. The goal, even if it isn’t a realistic one, is to putt my very best every day.
I see so many types of putting grips on the pro tours these days, it gives the impression there is no “right” way to hold the putter. Maybe there isn’t. The main thing in putting, whether it’s with your grip, posture, stance or ball position, is to be comfortable. The putting stroke is not a very complicated action. My hands move only a foot at most in either direction during the stroke. My arms move less than that, my body less still and my head not at all. So the biggest priority in gripping the club is to establish a feeling of sensitivity, comfort and relaxation.
My putting grip is conventional in almost every way. If you look the long history of the game and its greatest players, most of them have held the club very similar to the way I do. I’m glad I had them as models when I was young.
*** The back of my right hand is parallel to my left hand. I don’t want my hands fighting each other during the stroke. By placing both hands square to the target, it’s much easier to keep the face of the putter square during the stroke, at impact especially.
*** My right thumb extends down the shaft to a point just below my right forefinger. Any farther and my right hand and wrist tighten a bit and don’t hinge freely. Any shorter and I sacrifice control.
*** A bracelet I used to wear, given to me by a Buddhist monk.
*** The back of my left hand faces the garget. This “weak” position discourages the hand from rotating excessively during the stroke.
*** The reverse-overlap grip, with the left forefinger laid across the fingers of the right hand, provides a sense of unity. It doesn’t lock the hands together in any way, but it does prevent either hand from becoming too dominant during the stroke.
*** I position both thumbs directly down the top of the handle. The thumbs are as sensitive as the finger and provide the greatest amount of feedback as I swing the putter back and through the ball.
The handle of the putter runs under the butt of my left hand. Most players like the handle running straight up the palm so the club-shaft is parallel to the left forearm. My grip is unique this way, but I believe it gives me a little extra feel and gives me freedom in my wrists when I need it.
I was on the practice green with Butch Harmon one day in 1998 when Butch noticed something. “If you hold that putter any tighter, you’re going to twist the grip right off it,” he said with a laugh. I always listen to Butch and sure enough, I was holding the putter so firmly that I was squeezing the blood out of the tips of my fingers at address. I tried to hold the putter more lightly, but I didn’t seem to have the same amount of control. And even then Butch said my grip pressure was much too intense.
A few days later, Butch showed up with a device he attached to the grip of the putter. He fooled with the setting for a minute, then challenge me to hit some putts without making the device emit a loud “beep.” It went off the minute I addressed the ball. I lightened my grip pressure to quiet the thing, but when I actually went to hit a putt it went off again. Man, that thing drove me crazy. But eventually, I was able to hit putts without activating the beeper. Surprisingly, I putted pretty well with that new, light grip pressure.
Still, I wanted some reassurance that holding the club lightly was the way to go. Early in 1999, at the Byron Nelson Classic, I ran into Ben Crenshaw, who may be the greatest putter of all time. I asked him how tightly he held the putter. Ben said he gripped his putter so lightly it almost fell form his hands. “The lighter you hold it the better you will able to feel the weight of the putter head at the other end of the shaft,” he said.
Hearing that from Ben did it for me. I committed myself to easing my grip pressure, and it really paid off. I shot 63-64 over the weekend and won the tournament.
I’d say that on a scale of 1 to 10, my grip pressure is about a 5. That may be tighter than Ben holds his putter, but it’s pretty light for me and I do have an increased sense of feel.
If you’re having trouble on lag putts, or if your speed isn’t right on shorter, breaking putts, or if you feel you’re manipulating the putter, check your grip pressure. No doubt about it, light is light.