January 21, 2005
The way golf connects to other parts of life can be pretty surprising.
For example, this week I read David Brooks’ highly complimentary review of Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (Little, Brown; $25.95 SRP) in the January 16 edition of the Sunday New York Times.
Here’s how Brooks set out the primary thesis of this likely bestseller:
There is in all of our brains, Gladwell argues, a mighty backstage process, which works its will subconsciously. Through this process we have the capacity to sift huge amounts of information, blend data, isolate telling details and come to astonishingly rapid conclusions, even in the first two seconds of seeing something. ” ‘Blink’ is a book about those first two seconds,” Gladwell writes.
As soon as I read this passage, I thought I should read this new book to see if or how Gladwell discusses this trait as it affects putting.
Many folks think that to be good putters, they must emulate what they see PGA and LPGA Tour pros do—gather views from the front, back, and at least one side, complete with plumb-bobbing and earnestly whispered conversations with their caddies.
A cynically-minded person might suggest that this much effort is fine–for increasing face-time on TV. It also gives the television cameras a chance to focus on the logos adorning the pros’ caps and shirtsleeves, matching the advertisers’ fondest hopes.
For the non-cynics among us, however, these golfers (and the amateurs who copy them) would be far better off if they simply trusted their first instincts.
Really good putters often handle this part of their game in a very different fashion.
They take a look at the ball and the hole as they step onto the green; they crouch behind the ball and visualize a start line for it to begin rolling; they take their stance, and make perhaps one practice swing; and they putt.
It only takes a couple seconds to make that first, usually correct impression about the best direction to putt. Any subsequent efforts are often a muddled mass of second- and third-guessing, which rarely helps.
Don’t just take my word for it.
Here’s what Bob Rotella and Bob Cullen wrote in their most recent collaboration, The Golfer’s Mind: Play to Play Great (Free Press, $23.00):
[P]rofessionals are geniuses at reading greens…when they trust their first impression. Unfortunately, in competition, too many players think they have to work harder at reading greens. They feel guilty if they don’t ponder the problem for as long as the rules allow, and from as many angles as they can imagine. Two things tend to happen as a result. They overread the putts, seeing breaks that aren’t there. In overreading and changing their minds, they undermine their trust in what they see. If it was wrong the first time, why can’t it be wrong the second and third times?
It’s always best to trust your first impression. You can take in all of the necessary information, about slope, grain, and speed in a short time. Once you’ve done that, stop reading the green.
It’s all true. The best Cape Region putters I know take the least amount of time to read the green, pick a line, and putt. The worst putters I know are often the slowest.
I’m interested to learn if Gladwell provides any explanation for this phenomenon. Trusting one’s first instincts in visualizing a target makes a lot of sense when thinking about other athletic activities, such as catching a fly ball. It fits our genetic heritage as hunters.
On the other hand, it’s not so intuitively obvious that coming to a speedy aiming solution is the best option when thinking about a light touch on a small, stationary ball on tightly mown turf.
It just is.
Pete Oakley, Delaware’s standout senior golfer on the Champions Tour, is scheduled to begin his 2005 season this weekend with his first appearance at the Mastercard Championship at Hualalai Resort Golf Club, Hawaii. We’ll be following his progress on the Senior Tour throughout the year.