Instinct Putting

April 24, 2012 Jon Roy

Part of my goal with this blog will be to offer my reflections on various books related to golf.  For this report, I will look at a book which has spawned numerous training exercises and awareness drills for me – a book which studies the possibility of looking at the target when we putt instead of looking the ball.

Book Report #1Instinct Putting – Eric Alpenfels and Bob Christina.

Summary:  Should we consider putting with our eyes on the hole rather than on the ball?  Why have we always assumed that our eyes should be on the ball when we putt?  And by doing so are we limiting our ability to putt to the best of our abilities?  Is there another possibility for putting which would have us looking at the hole instead of at our putter head or the ball?

The thesis of the book asks us to consider an unorthodox perspective on putting with asks us to focus on where the ball is going rather than the mechanics of the stroke.  Like the free throw in basketball where the athlete looks at the rim and not his hands.  Or even more appropriate, like the concert pianist who looks at his sheet music or a conductor – and not at his hands.

Very appealing concept to me, as a coach who likes to move away from technical/mechanical cues, I always like literature which proposes to look at skills outside of the normal “how to” instructions based on stroke mechanics.  In my opinion, and having used this training method with my students for years, I find that focusing on the hole instead of the ball is an excellent way to rid the mind of conscious control impulses.  The mind tries to control the putting stroke, and by looking at the hole we alleviate this impulse and therefore free up our stroke.  I am a big believer that putting is very easy as a skill, so long as we are free and instinctual.  But when interference creeps in (the mind trying to control and be perfect) then we see crazy breakdowns of an otherwise simple skill.

Chapter 1: Is Instinct Putting for You?
This chapter takes you through the logic of why IP is conceptually appealing.  In particular, the fact that the spatial relationship of ball to player is fixed makes IP a compelling, if unorthodox, option for putting.  The key is that the ball is not moving – the spatial relation to you is fixed – and therefore you need not worry about making clean contact even if you aren’t fixated on the impact with your eyes (as you would in a non-fixed act like hitting a baseball)

Chapter 2: The Evidence
1973 – Hunter Diack – tested out his theory that looking at the hole might be better.  He hit 1000 putts and found that he putted better when he looked at the hole.
1) You are no longer distracted by the movement of the putterhead
2) Practicing in this manner will help you even if you end up putting orthodox when you play
3) It helps to spice up your practice and gives some creative alternatives to conventional practice.

2002 – Alpenfels and Christina – Test out the IP concept again and find the same results – They run a large test on a number of groups of players.  Conclude that long putting is better when you look at the hole, and all putting improves if you train with IP, even if you don’t do IP when you play.
1) Long putts finish closer to the hole when you look at the hole instead of the ball
2) Looking at the hole may be more effective on short putts too
3) IP is easy to learn
4) Improvement is not immediate, but does come quickly

Chapter 3: The Explanation
Observations based on the 2002 investigation into the IP method,
1) IP putters stay very still through the stroke
2) “Deceleration” disapears – fear of “how far should this go” is alleviated.  Shaft speed remains constant
3) Using the continuous flow of Visual Input (rather than memory) to mediate the coordination of mind and body
4) Unlocking the power of athletic intuition – the “feel” of putting

Chapter 4:  Refresher on the Fundamentals
Unfortunately, the book loses steam pretty quickly after this third chapter.  Once you’ve got the basics of the concept – that we could putt well by just looking at the hole and not at our putter or the ball – then the rest of the book left me wanting more substance.  I was surprised that there is a section (chapter 4) reserved for putting fundamentals.  First off, the book talked about unorthodox perspectives that are counter to traditional putting theories, but then there is a chapter outlining very classical fundamentals of putting.  Very out of place.

Chapter 5: The Principles of Effective Practice
The rest of the book outlines how to train IP putting and lists off a number of interesting drills.
This chapter outlines principles of effective practice – basically you need to practice with purpose and with feedback, and you need to be focused when you train.  nothing really new here, however my radar went off a few times as the authors talked about making sure your mechanics are sound when you train.  I just feel that they talk about leaving traditional mechancically grounded advice, but that they fall into the web of technical instructions too often in their book.

The authors borrow from Peter Sanders and his Shotbyshot data to conclude that most amateur players will bridge the gap with the pros if they:
1) One putt more often from 4-10 feet
2) Two putt more often from 21-50 feet.
Most people are poor putters because they 2 putt inside 10 feet and 3 putt outside of 20 feet.
Interestingly – the authors suggest that no time should be spent on 11-20 footers as there is no significant gap between pros and amateurs in this range.
Lastly – good lag putts should aim to be 12-18 inches beyond the hole in most cases.

While the book starts off great – outlining a new and intriguing way of looking at putting – the excitement grinds to a quick halt as we move beyond the opening chapters.  The authors succeed in presenting a compelling argument that we shouldn’t lock ourselves into the belief that we must look at the ball when putting.  Furthermore, they show compelling arguments for why looking at the ball might be detrimental to our putting as it causes us to try to control the putter head and gets our mind away from the target.  But beyond those key points made in the opening chapters the book offers little more to the reader  – this research would make a great article but makes for a pretty soft book.

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