In 1954 the legendary Henry Longhurst wrote a short article called ‘The Perversity of Putting’ which described his life as a frustrated putter. In essence, he told the universal golfing story of when he was putting well the rest of his game went to pot and when he putted badly the rest of his game went extremely well. A situation I guess many of us are not only familiar with on a daily basis, but come to accept as part of golf.
But why should this be? Is putting so weird and unearthly that success in it influences another aspect of your game? Have you only a finite amount of luck and if you spend it on one aspect of your game, inevitably the other areas of your game will suffer? Well – yes and yes. There is a long list of trite, but basically true, sayings that comment on some of the psychology and mysticism of “the game within a game” –
“Half of golf is fun; the other half is putting.”
“Hitting a golf ball and putting have nothing in common. They’re two different games.”
“A “gimme” can best be defined as an agreement between two golfers, neither of whom can putt very well.”
“The prime requisite for putting? An abounding confidence in one’s ability.”
“The ball doesn’t care how positive you are thinking when you hit it with a putter moving and aimed in the wrong direction.”
Putting truly is as weird and unearthly as all those sayings would have us believe. It is so, so different from any other aspect of golf. Other golf shots have to be accurate enough. They need be good enough. Getting the drive ‘on the fairway’ corresponds to ‘hit the ball accurately to within about 30 feet’. Getting your approach shot ‘on the green’ translates to ‘hitting a target the size of a medium sized swimming pool’.
Putting is not like that. Well, not real putting. i.e. putting from a distance where you can see if there’s anything in the hole whilst standing over your ball. I regard long and medium putts as ‘golf shots’ just like drives, approach shots or pitches. Like bunker shots long putts aren’t really expected to go in the hole and if they do then it’s great, a bit of a fluke, and should be shown on the highlight reel on tv.
Putts you are expected to make are what would be called real putting. It is the one part of the game that needs to be totally accurate. If a plane leaves Los Angeles bound for Cardiff but is just two degrees off course it lands in Anglesey. If your aim is two degrees out on a real putt – you miss – which is possibly even more serious than being in Anglesey, and far more embarrassing. If your aim is a few degrees out on a drive – so what – you’re still on the fairway, or even further out of bounds – it’s practically irrelevant.
So, rule number one for real putting is ‘hit the ball exactly where you are aiming it’. This is very, very difficult. It involves better eye-hand coordination than an open-heart surgeon, the nerve of a nerveless trained assassin, the temperament of the Dalai Lama and the touch of a brilliantly dexterous, concert pianist.
Even then you’re not even halfway there. This isn’t the hard part. To get the ball into the hole involves ‘hitting the ball exactly where you are aiming it’ plus knowing exactly where you should be aiming in the first place. It assumes you have calculated the direction and the speed of the putt. This is based on many, many, many variables – the length of the grass, the wind (strength and direction), the direction the grass grows in, the slope of the green, the moisture level, the air temperature and pressure, the characteristics of your golf ball, the precise gravitational pull of the tides, the earth and the moon. If you’re one percent short on your flight from Los Angeles to Cardiff and you end up in Cork, Ireland. Which is nice, some would argue – nicer. If you’re one percent short with a putt you miss. Which is a total binary fail. You don’t get half marks in golf.
As demonstrated – real putting is tricky. It’s an awful lot trickier than flying that aeroplane to Wales I would imagine. It’s so difficult I feel it verges on the impossible. Like the bumblebee that pseudoscientifically can’t fly, so pseudologically it is impossible for anyone to hole a putt. But the bumblebee does fly, and people, apparently, do hole putts. So, I hear you ask – “How do you account for that?”
“Luck” is my one-word answer. Luck is the defining characteristic of the successful bumblebee and the brilliant putter. It is a known fact that bumblebees are incredibly lucky animals. A Welsh piece of folklore says that it is very lucky if bumblebees set up home in or near your house. They bless it with prosperity – that is true. It is well known that finding a bumblebee on a ship is good luck. There were no bumblebees recorded on the Titanic – point proven. So, it’s no surprise bumblebees can fly. They are incredibly lucky insects.
In a similar vein I think that the best way to improve you putting is to focus more on being luckier. Gary Player once remarked that the more he practiced the luckier he got. For me, I reckon the luckier you are the less you need to practice. That should be motivation for every golfer out there.
Henry Longhurst said, “They say ‘practice makes perfect’. Of course, it doesn’t. For the vast majority of golfers, it merely consolidates imperfection.”
I believe golfers can influence their luck. You know it too. It’s one of the great secrets all humans know, but we have to pretend it can’t luck doesn’t exist and therefore cannot be influenced. Yet all our behaviours demonstrate the opposite. We wish opponents a grudging ‘good luck’. Why would we even say that if we didn’t believe it existed? Or ‘bad luck’ if they miss a putt. Let’s look at even more scientific evidence with five arguments to prove it;
Argument 1: 3.5 billion people, or more, can’t be wrong, can they?
Half the population of the world believe in the ancient Chinese philosophy of Feng Shui which promotes good luck. A number of large Western Organisations are willing to invest a great deal of money respecting their beliefs;
The Disney Corporation shifted the angle of the front gate of Hong Kong’s Disneyland by twelve degrees to align the park for maximum prosperity.
The entrance to the original MGM Grand casino in Las Vegas was inside the mouth of Leo the lion, MGM’s mascot. However, many
Chinese gamblers avoided the casino or entered the casino through the back entrance to avoid the bad luck they believed they would have entering the mouth of the lion. in 1998 the entrance was changed.
Argument 2: Animals can’t be wrong, can they?
Animals shouldn’t believe in luck, should they? In an experiment carried out by B.F. Skinner he proved that animals, in this case pigeons, like golfers, are superstitious at heart and will carry out a set of rituals, or superstitions in order to give themselves the best chance of success. Skinner set up an experiment which meant the pigeon had to peck the correct button from a number of options, to get some food. The pigeons quickly established this and learnt which button to peck. Skinner then changed the system and rewarded the pigeons randomly whichever button they pressed. The pigeons responded by behaving in an unusual way – They developed their own mannerisms; twisting their necks, flapping their wings, pecking close to the buttons in a consistent manner in a bid to reproduce the luck they had previously had achieved by gaining food.
Argument 3: Psychologists can’t be wrong, can they?
An experiment was carried out with people who described themselves as “lucky” and another set who didn’t describe themselves as lucky. A test was given to these two groups of people. Both groups were given newspapers with hidden messages. They were asked to complete a task and during that task they could come across clues and hidden messages giving them instructions on how to win $100. People from the “lucky” group did far better than the other group. The psychologists conducting this experiment concluded that feeling lucky can help you.
It gives you positive vibes and a more optimistic viewpoint. Feeling lucky makes you more likely to see the good side and influence your behaviour.
Argument 4: Psychologists can’t be wrong, can they (part 2)? People can control their luck. Or, more accurately, people behave as if they can control their luck. Ellen Langer, psychologist, describes this as the ‘illusion of control.’ This illusion of control was illustrated in an experiment she carried out based on a lottery. The lottery is an acknowledged game of pure chance with each ticket having as much chance of winning as any other, obviously. One group of people were given lottery tickets with images of famous sportspeople on them. Another group were able to select which lottery ticket sportsperson they choose. Each ticket cost $1. When scientists attempted to buy tickets from these groups, based on the excuse that there were no more lottery tickets left, they found that the people who had been given random tickets negotiated the sale of their tickets for on average, $1.96. Whilst the people in the group who had selected their own tickets sold them for an average of $8.67. Therefore, the second group, who had chosen their own tickets, behaved as though they had more control of their luck than the first group who’s chances of winning was predetermined.
Argument 5: Sports stars can’t be wrong, can they?
Paul Azinger, golfer, always marks the position of his golf ball on the green with a US penny that features Abraham Lincoln. Not only that but he lines the penny up to ensure Lincoln is looking at the hole. Wade Boggs, baseball star, liked to eat chicken before a game at 5.17pm precisely. He then went and hit exactly 150 balls in batting practice. Serena Williams blamed her failure to win the 2007 French Open on herself: “I didn’t tie my laces right and I didn’t bounce the ball five times and I didn’t bring my shower sandals to the court with me.” Ernie Els believes each golf ball only has one birdie in it and will change it after he’s extracted that birdie. Christina Kim refuses to step on the line where the fairway meets the green as she is convinced it will bring her bad luck.
The ‘Illusion of control’ is a great way of summarising the attempt to control your fate. On the one, rational, level it seems absurd. How can changing your golf ball for an identical one possibly affect your chances of winning? However, one of the most important aspects of putting, or any competitive activity really, is feeling comfortable about it and getting yourself in the best frame of mind. If this means wearing red on the last day of a competition like Tiger Woods, or pink like Paula Creamer, so what. You’ve got to do what feels right for you. Therefore, it follows that you can influence your putting ability by dressing in pink.
‘Putting is a Form of Self Torture’ is a Universal Truth and a book available on Amazon.