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Problematic head motion during the putting stroke

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As we all know, putting requires a solid stroke, a stable body and very controlled motor motions in order to be consistent from day to day. It is with this thought in mind that most players focus on keeping a steady head in order to keep their stroke in check when things go wrong. Within this putting study we will examine the most common problems that excessive head motion causes and how to ensure that a controllable center of gravity (CG) and a steady head becomes one of your strongest putting attributes.

In my putting academy, I use several high tech tools in order to study the putting stroke. In this article I will feature two of my systems:

  1. Advanced Motion Measurement’s 3D Motion Analysis System
  2. The SAM PuttLab created by Science & Motion Sports.

AMM’s 3D Motion Analysis System for Putting

The SAM shows over 28 different factors of the putter’s motions during the stroke

If you think about how your body moves during the putting stroke you will find that in order to maintain stability it is necessary to control your head as well as your CG.  Whenever the head moves excessively during the putting stroke you will find that your stroke path, your directional control, and the ball’s impact point on the putterface will be compromised. When your body senses these actions it will subconsciously try and manipulate your hands, the putterhead, your body’s CG and/or the ball’s position in order to try to get your putting back on track quickly.

The reason why you subconsciously adjust for poor balance is because your body has homeostatic mechanisms that keep you upright and from falling down. These actions are present within your life every second of the day. This automated response helps us while walking, sitting, or playing golf — the more complex the motor skill, the more important this reaction becomes.

Homeostasis is controlled by the information given to your brain by your vision and the fluid filled canals within each of your ears. These balance centers allow your body to counter balance itself when things happen to alter your CG, such as excessive head motion. To give you an example, if I pushed your head and upper torso quickly to the right, your spine would shift your hips to the left in order to counter-balance your body so you would not fall down. This is homeostasis and it applies to your golf swing, short game and putting stroke equally.

As we all know, putting is one of the most precise actions in the game of golf. If your head is bouncing around, it makes it almost impossible to maintain your CG control and this throws a monkey wrench in your game. Whenever you call upon your homeostasis to help you control excessive motion while trying to make putts, I will assure you that rolling in that 4 footer will be your body’s last priority.

There are four head motions that plague most golfers today.

From the Frontal View:

Head Sway: The side-to-side motion of the head (lateral)

Head Rotation: The turning of the head from side to side (rotational)

From the Down the Line View:

Head Lift: The up and down motion of the head (top to bottom)

Head Thrust: The front to back motion of the head

Head Sway

Excessive side-to-side motion of the head is the most common balance issue for the beginning golfer. Beginners have not learned that a slight “rocking” of the shoulders during the putting stroke will thrust the arms effectively enough to easily power the putting stroke. These players usually try to “rotate” the shoulders in order to move the arms, hands and putter and the head moves as a result.

When the upper body over-rotates into the backswing, the head tends to move laterally as well. In beginners, this shows up on putts of any length. With better players, it only tends to happen on super-long putts. On the 50-foot putt shown above, the shoulders have rotated 25 degrees while the head has moved 1.4 inches laterally to the right. This causes many issues; however, most often it causes an exaggerated arcing motion of the putter.

For the lower handicap player:

When the shoulders work “normally” but the head moves laterally, the weight will move too deep into your rear foot on the backswing. When this happens the weight will hang back and the putter will move “up” thorough impact, making the impact point too low on the putter face. This action will give you an unsolid feeling, putts will tend to come up short.

During this putting study the player above was asked to hit the same flat 15-foot putt over and over. As you can see, the impact point is not only on the bottom portion of the putter, but there was a variant from side to side as well.  Whenever your head moves laterally too much, you will find that hitting the sweetspot consistently on a horizontal and vertical plane is virtually impossible!

Head Lift

The lifting of your head through impact is described as a “pull up or peek” by the majority of players. It happens mainly on putts from 15 feet and in and most often to players while they are facing what they perceive as a “makeable” putt.  You will find that this happens to you even more when you are nervous or are unsure of the overall putt direction in general. This flaw is comparable to “looking up” during the full swing.  Whenever you “peek,” you will find that the putter head does not want to close naturally through impact.

Click here for more discussion in the “Instruction & Academy” forum. 

If you look at this player’s putter head rotation, you will see that as this player “lifts” their head during the forward swing you can see that the putter is opening more and more as the putter moves from the transition, through impact and into the finish position. At the peak of the backstroke the putter is closed 1.6 degrees, at impact it is 0.4 degrees open, and at the finish it is 0.7 degrees open! So remember when you “lift” you head through impact the putter does not “close” through the impact zone and missed putts to the right are a result more often than not.

The gentle “rocking” of the shoulders up and down during the putting stroke that we described earlier must be taken with a grain of salt, as you can interrupt the natural motions of the clubhead on the way through the ball. Keeping your head from lifting keeps the left shoulder in check and allows your left forearm to naturally rotate, closing the putter face through impact without a conscious manipulation or release.

When the head lifts (upward 2 inches in the above model) and/or forward, the  shoulder pulls-up the lead forearm and it will not be allowed to rotate naturally. The lead wrist will break down and the putter will stay open through impact as a result.

Note for the better player:

If you are a career “head-lifter,” you might want to consider a full toe-hang putter like a Ping Zing. The extra weight in the toe of the putter will allow the putter to close through impact slightly quicker than a face-balanced putter, like a Taylor Made Monza Mallet.

Head Thrust

Very seldom do we see players who “fall forward” during their putting strokes; however, you will see this happen for one of three basic reasons:

  1. When the player’s putter does not fit it will cause the player to bend over too much from the waist placing the hands too low at address and rocking the CG toward the toes
  2. On very windy days, when the player has placed their CG too close to their toes in general, it makes it very easy for the wind to push them out of balance
  3. When the overall tempo of the backstroke is too jerky and too much on an inside track

This player is bent from the waist almost 47 degrees, slightly more than we’d like for him. In order to get his eyes over the ball without being too bent over he would need a differently fit putter!

As you look at the CG shot above you will see that even though the red dot (the player’s real-time CG location) shows that the weight is currently balanced from toe to heel at basically 50/50, the yellow line marks where the CG was a few milliseconds earlier.  Notice that there is a substantial amount of yellow above the red dot.  This helps us to identify that this player tends to be slightly toe-heavy during their address position.  This is all it takes for the wind to knock you out of balance during your stroke. This is precisely the reason why you will see players with wider stances and more knee flex when the wind blows.

The Tour average backswing speed is 650 milliseconds, and as you can see this player is slightly jerky off the start which could move the putter too much to the inside on the backswing and knock him off-balance if he is not careful!

Head Rotation

Excessive head rotation during the putting stroke seems to only happen within three instances for most players:

  1. Whenever you are left eye dominant and your head is too “centered” at address
  2. Whenever the chin is too low (tucked too close to the chest) at address
  3. Whenever you become “stroke” focused and begin to follow your backswing path with your eyes in order to audit where it is moving.

Click here for more discussion in the “Instruction & Academy” forum. 

An excerpt from “The Putting Zone” by Geoff Mangum

“The brain only sights accurately with the dominant eye. Eye dominance is not dissimilar to hand or foot dominance. The brain favors only one of the two eyes to define the body’s relation to the target in terms of direction and habitually uses only that eye to target objects and locations in space in terms of direction.

Over time, the vision yielded by the other eye is ignored by the brain, so effectively when we sight targets; we use only our dominant eye. Trying to target only with the non-dominant eye is a little like trying to sign your name with the wrong hand: it can be done, but not gracefully.

Try holding both hands out at arm’s length, thumbs up side by side like a gun sight. Use the sight to target a distant object, with both eyes open. Close the right eye. If the object jumps to the left, you are right-eye dominant. Confirm this by opening eyes, re-sighting, and then closing the left eye. The object will remain in the sight. You are left-eye dominant if when you close the right eye the object remains sighted, and when you use only the right eye, the object jumps to the right of the sight.”

If your head is too centered during the address position and you are a left eye dominant player (use the test above), your head will tend to rotate to the right during the backswing so that you can “focus” on the ball and sight your target more effectively. The normal amount of head rotation at address is between five to ten degrees in order to sight the ball with your dominant eye.

The second way excessive head rotation creeps into your putting stroke is when your chin is too low and tucked into your chest at address. As your putting stroke occurs the shoulders rock and slightly rotate “running into” your chin, and as a result, you lift your head to accommodate this motion.

This player has the optimum amount of head bend at address (45 degrees) placing his chin in a position where the shoulders can move freely back and forth without danger of running into the chin.  If a golfer’s head moves to 47 or more degrees, then he or she is looking out past the ball. If the head bend is below 40 degrees, then the golfer will not be able to move with freedom and excessive head rotation will occur.

A note for players who wear prescription glasses:  Tucking your chin too low is a very normal occurrence for golfers who wear bifocals — you will “bury” your chin in order to see over the top of the lower part of the lens that is designed for close up vision. Speak to your eye doctor and get “golf specific lenses” sooner rather than later.

The third and final way to have too much head rotation within your putting stroke is when you become too “stroke” focused and begin to monitor the putter head during the backswing in order to make sure it is on the correct path.

First, you must understand that your stroke path ONLY accounts for 18 percent of the ball’s directional error, so focusing on the backswing path is a total waste of time. Secondly, there is little you can do to consistently alter the putter while it is in motion, so it’s a total waste of time. When players have trouble with their backstrokes, usually you will find that the problem is with a set-up position that causes the putter path to be off-track, such as poor torso alignment.

If you are having trouble with your putter path on the way back and cannot stop “watching,” first make sure your alignments and “flow-lines” are correct (as shown above). From there, practice putting while closing your eyes in order to feel a more natural putting stroke that can happen much easier if you have positive alignments.

Conclusion

Putting is an accuracy endeavor, thus if you have excessive motion within your body you will have to make physical manipulations in order to make up for the deficiencies that your imbalance causes. For most people, the thought of maintaining a steady head is the key to staying still while putting, for others, just focusing on your CG and its position between your feet is the key.

Regardless of the methodology you use to control your head motion, torso actions and CG, remember that balance is the key to your putting success. You will not see any player on Tour who is a good putter violate one of the four head motion or the CG rules laid out above, so:

  1. Control your Head Sway
  2. Control your Head Rotation
  3. Control your Head Lift
  4. Control your Head Thrust

-Or-

  1. Control your CG from Toe to Heel
  2. 2. Control your CG from Right to Left

Click here for more discussion in the “Instruction & Academy” forum. 

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Tom F. Stickney II is the Director of Instruction at Combine Performance in Scottsdale, Arizona. He is a Golf Magazine Top 100 Teacher, and has been honored as a Golf Digest Best Teacher and a Golf Tips Top-25 Instructor. Tom is also a Trackman University Master/Partner, a distinction held by less than 60 people in the world.

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3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Hugo Mader

    Jun 24, 2015 at 3:14 pm

    Great article! And just a correction: on the heading “Head Lift”, its said that “At the peak of the backstroke the putter is closed 1.6 degrees”, you actually mean OPENED 1.6 degrees? And, what the hell are “golf prescription lenses”?!?

  2. Ben Alberstadt

    Jan 5, 2013 at 7:52 pm

    Many thanks for this quality assessment and advice, Mr. Stickney!

  3. pablo

    Jan 3, 2013 at 5:53 pm

    good article. i like the CG ‘checks’ at the end.

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Instruction

Functional Golf vs. Optimal Golf

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Optimize this, optimize that. We hear so much about “optimal” golf these days. It’s great that we now have the technology to seemingly optimize every aspect of the golfer, the golf swing, and the golf club, but we have to be realistic in terms of our goals. Ask yourself this question: If I can’t do this optimally, is there a way I can still do it better?

And… how do we define better? That’s easy. More solid impact.

Yes, optimal golf is what we’d all like and perhaps that is the concern of highly skilled players. But for the vast majority of golfers, functional golf might be more realistic. John Jacobs, the best teacher ever, called his approach “practical.” I’m using the term functional in a similar, albeit more specific way. And many of my regular readers know by now that I credit Jacobs for whatever success I’ve had as an instructor.

During a recent lesson, I pointed out a particular swing flaw to a student while we were reviewing his swing on video. He stopped me and said: “See that, what you’re showing me right there? I have done that my whole life. I’ve taken a number of lessons and they all mentioned that very move, and I CANNOT change it. Why is that?”

I thought, man, if I had a few bucks for every time I’ve heard that I’d be, uh,  pretty comfortable.

There are certain habits some golfers simply cannot break no matter how hard they try. For one reason or another, they’re physically incapable of changing. I have observed this for more than 30 years over thousands and thousands of lessons. Does this mean you can’t change the problems these moves may cause? No, absolutely not. There’s a long list of major champions with so called  “flaws” in their swings, from Nicklaus’ flying elbow to Furyk and his quirky move. But what these greats did is find a move that they CAN make, one that’s compatible with their core move.

If you have a move that, for whatever reason, is embedded in the fabric of your golfing DNA, it is probably best you do not beat your head against a wall trying to  change that move, however flawed it may seem. Rather, let’s see if we can find something that blends with that move that you CAN execute.

The golfer I was teaching suffered from fat shots and blocks due to an early release. He simply never learned “lag” or a later hit. So the bottom of the swing arc ended up behind the golf ball more often than not. This golfer has done this for some 20 years, so instead of trying to reinvent the wheel I took a different approach. I asked him to address the golf ball with more weight on his left side. Things got a little better. More weight on the left side, even better, and so on. In other words, we started his motion from a different place, one that was more functional for him.

To help this golfer create a more functional golf swing, I had to move his center of mass forward. It wasn’t optimal perhaps, but his real problem (fat shots) had to be addressed within his current skill set. “If I could just stop drop kicking every shot, I’d be happy,” he said. In other words, we worked out a compromise, a way he could hit the ball more cleanly and enjoy golf more.

As an instructor, that’s pretty much what I do every day. I’m always looking for a compatible motion that balances golf swing equations. “If that is a band aid, you better buy a whole box,” Jacobs would say.

I teach in a community of largely senior golfers. Senior but serious, I call them. They are looking for a way to put the club on the ball more often, which means a better impact position. There is no “in the long run” for seniors. I don’t say, “Let’s make a plan for later” because some are fearful of buying green bananas, let alone working hard on a long-term plan. There is also no “new” when your old move has been around most of your golfing life. Senior golfers, myself included, are on the back nine, much closer to the 18th green than the 1st tee. And most golfers are not going back and starting their round over… believe me. But this doesn’t mean they can’t play better. And they do. Every day.

This lesson likely applies to you even if you are younger and more physically capable. Some things just don’t change, and perhaps the learning psychologists or biomechanists can better tell you why. That’s why I encourage all serious golfers to work with an instructor to identify what moves in their swing simply will not change. Then they should learn to work around them, not try to fix them. That’s the way to better golf.

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A Jedi Mind Trick For Improved Target Awareness

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I think all golfers, at some point in their life playing the game of golf, has gotten stuck, or become frozen over the golf ball. Why?  They’re trying to remember which of the 23 different swing thoughts they used for the day performed the best.

The disheartening reality: none of us are going to perform well on a consistent basis with our thoughts being so internally driven. Swing thoughts force our awareness inward. Is the shaft in the correct position? Am I making a proper pressure shift? Was that a reverse pivot? Close that club face! Regardless of the technique you are trying to manage or modify, these kinds of questions make you acquire sensations internally.

To complicate things further, we are taught to look at the golf ball, not the target, while hitting our golf shot. And yet instinctively, in almost all other skills of making a ball or object finish towards a target (throwing a ball or frisbee, kicking a soccer ball, skipping a rock across water, shooting a basket ball) our awareness is not on the ball or the motion itself, but rather the ultimate target.

So, can we develop a skill that allows us to still keep our eye on the ball, like the game of golf encourages, but have awareness of our target, like so many other target sports demand?  Yes, the answer is (third rate Yoda Speak), and the skill can easily be yours.

Here’s where this gets fun. You already have learned this skill set, but under different conditions. Perhaps this example resonates with you. Did you ever play hide-and-seek as a child? Remember how you used to close your eyes and count to 10? During those 10 seconds of having your eyes closed, weren’t you using all of your senses externally, trying to track where your friends were going to hide? Weren’t you, just like a bloodhound, able to go directly to a few of the less skillful hiders’ hiding places and locate them?

Or how about this example. When you are driving down your own local multilane highway, aren’t you aware of all the cars around you while keeping your eyes firmly on the road in front of you? Reconnecting, recognizing and/or developing these skills that all of us already use is the first step in knowing you’re not too far away from doing this with your golf game.

Here’s what I want you to do. Grab a putter and place your golf ball 3 feet away from the hole on a straight putt. Aim your putter, and then look at the hole. As you bring your eyes back to the golf ball, maintain part of your awareness back at the hole. Each successive time your eyes leave your golf ball and head back to the hole, your eyes will be able to confirm your target. It hasn’t moved; it’s still in the same location; your confidence builds.

When you know for certain that your external awareness of the target is locked in while still looking at your golf ball, step up and execute your putt.

The wonderful beauty of this skill set is that you now have the best of both worlds. You are still looking at the golf ball, which gives you a better chance of striking the golf ball solidly… AND you are now target aware just like you are when you are throwing an object at a target.

As always, acquire this skill set from a close target with a slower, smaller motion. If you don’t execute properly, you have a better chance of making the proper corrective assessment from a slower, smaller motion and closer target. As you become more proficient with this skill, allow the target to get farther away and try to add more speed with a larger range of motion.

So give learning this skill set a go. I don’t think there is anything more valuable in playing the game of golf than keeping your “athlete” attached to the target. Become proficient at developing this awareness and you can tell all your friends that the primary reason your scores are getting lower and you’re getting deeper into their wallets is because of Jedi Mind tricks. Good luck!

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6 things to consider before aiming at the flagstick

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One of the most impactful improvements you can make for your game is to hit more greens; you’ll have more birdie opportunities and will avoid bogeys more often. In fact, hitting more greens is the key to golfing success, in my opinion… more so than anything else.

However, there is a misconception among players when it comes to hitting approach shots. When people think “greens,” they tend to only think about the flagstick, when the pin may be the last thing you should be looking at. Obviously, we’d like to stick it on every shot, but shooting at the pin at the wrong time can cost you more pain than gain.

So I’d like to give you a few rules for hitting greens and aiming at the flagstick.

1) Avoid Sucker Pins

I want you to think about Hole No. 12 at Augusta and when the pin is on the far right side of the green… you know, the Sunday pin. Where do the pros try and aim? The center of the green! That’s because the right pin is by all means a sucker pin. If they miss the shot just a touch, they’re in the water, in the bunker, or left with an impossible up-and-down.

Sucker pins are the ones at the extreme sides of the green complex, and especially the ones that go against your normal shot pattern.

So go back to No. 12 with a far right pin, and say your natural shot shape is right-to-left. Would you really aim out over the water and move it towards the pin? That would be a terrible idea! It’s a center of the green shot all day, even for those who work it left-to-right. Learn to recognize sucker pins, and you won’t short side yourself ever again.

2) Are You a Good Bunker Player?

A “sucker pin,” or just a difficult hole location, is often tucked behind a bunker. Therefore, you should ask yourself, “am I a good bunker player?” Because if you are not, then you should never aim at a pin stuck behind one. If I wanted to shoot at pins all day, I’d make sure I was the best lob wedge player around. If you are not a short-game wizard, then you will have a serious problem attacking pins all round.

For those who lack confidence in their short game, or simply are not skilled on all the shots, it’s a good idea to hit to the fat part of the green most of the time. You must find ways to work around your weaknesses, and hitting “away” from the pin isn’t a bad thing, it’s a smart thing for your game.

3) Hitting the Correct Shelf

I want you to imagine a pin placed on top of a shelf. What things would you consider in order to attack this type of pin? You should answer: shot trajectory, type of golf ball, your landing angle with the club you’re hitting, the green conditions, and the consequences of your miss. This is where people really struggle as they forget to take into account these factors.

If you don’t consider what you can and cannot do with the shot at hand, you will miss greens, especially when aiming at a pin on a shelf. Sometimes, you will simply have to aim at the wrong level of the green in order to not bring the big number into play. Remember, if you aim for a top shelf and miss, you will leave yourself with an even more difficult pitch shot back onto that same shelf you just missed.

4) Know your Carry Distances

In my opinion, there is no excuse these days to not know your carry distances down to the last yard. Back when I was growing up, I had to go to a flat hole and chart these distances as best I could by the ball marks on the green. Now, I just spend an hour on Trackman.

My question to you is if you don’t know how far you carry the ball, how could you possibly shoot at a pin with any type of confidence? If you cannot determine what specific number you carry the ball, and how the ball will react on the green, then you should hit the ball in the center of the green. However, if the conditions are soft and you know your yardages, then the green becomes a dart board. My advice: spend some time this off-season getting to know your distances, and you’ll have more “green lights” come Spring.

5) When do you have the Green Light?

Do you really know when it’s OK to aim at the pin? Here are some questions to ask yourself that will help:

  • How are you hitting the ball that day?
  • How is your yardage control?
  • What is the slope of the green doing to help or hinder your ball on the green?
  • Do you have a backstop behind the pin?

It’s thoughts such as these that will help you to determine if you should hit at the pin or not. Remember, hitting at the pin (for amateurs) does not happen too often per nine holes of golf. You must leave your ego in the car and make the best decisions based on what information you have at that time. Simple mistakes on your approach shot can easily lead to bogeys and doubles.

6) When is Any Part of the Green Considered a Success?

There are some times when you have a terrible angle, or you’re in the rough/a fairway bunker. These are times when you must accept “anywhere on the green.”

Left in these situations, some players immediatly think to try and pull off the “miracle” shot, and wonder why they compound mistakes during a round. Learn to recognize if you should be happy with anywhere on the green, or the best place to miss the ball for the easiest up and down.

Think of Ben Hogan at Augusta on No. 11; he said that if you see him on that green in regulation then you know he missed the shot. He decided that short right was better than even trying to hit the green… sometimes you must do this too. But for now analyze your situation and make the best choice possible. When in doubt, eliminate the big numbers!

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