Somewhere there’s music,
How faint the tune.
Somewhere there’s heaven,
How high the Moon.
—“How High The Moon”
(b/w “Walkin’ and Whistlin’ Blues”)
Les Paul & Mary Ford.
Capitol Records, 1951.
Spring, in another stunning March upset, has beaten the Masters to Chicago this year. But in most years the Masters opens the golf season, and I watch with a golf-nut friend who’s crazy-jealous I’ve walked the hallowed greens. Usually I retell the story of once standing on the 8th green with a veteran caddie, who asked me how I thought a putt would break. I said I thought it would move a foot right-to-left; actually, it broke four feet the other way. This kills my friend and (often) any other golfers around, because green-reading is one of those peculiar-to-golf skills; a soccer field (or pitch) is for instance always level, or should be―Pele didn’t have to ask his coach where to hit the ball. But golf’s surfaces are never level, so one of the questions golfers often ask me is about putting, or more specifically about reading greens. It’s difficult to answer the question politely, because most of what golfers think about putting and green-reading is flat-out wrong.
The best thing I’ve ever heard on the subject is oddly from Phil Mickelson, who’s probably better known for missing short putts than making long ones. “The true apex of the putt’s roll,” Phil said not long ago, “occurs at the moment you strike it; it always rolls downhill from there.” It’s an owlish quote, which mimics the subject: most amateurs have at least an intuitive sense that there’s something deeply strange about reading greens; some seem to have a kind of superstitious fear about it. There is something deeply uncanny about making a long putt on a bumpy green: sometimes it can appear that the ball is moving on its own, governed by supernatural forces. (Compare any number of Tiger’s putts over the years.)
Putting is also magical because it can have such an effect on scoring: pro golf is largely a matter of who’s putting good that week, and there isn’t a golfer alive who hasn’t had a ball find the hole from some ridiculous distance. Putts have the spark of the divine in them. I’ve done enough green-reading to know I’m pretty good at it, even on greens I haven’t seen before, and there’s little satisfaction better for a looper than your player saying “Man, I never would have hit it there!” after making some improbable snake. Some people therefore regard me as some kind of magician; others regard green-reading as akin to dowsing or psychic surgery―just hit it at the hole is their attitude. These people are wrong, but often they’re less wrong than the medicine-man people.
Most people fall between the two, and often ask about just how I read greens. The question presupposes some method or checklist, but mostly I don’t follow any standardized procedure exactly. I just look at where the ball is and where the cup is, and then I can “see” the line a putt has to take. This is difficult for certain kinds of minds to understand―they tend to be of the “hit it at the hole” school―but what I think is that my mind has just compressed a lot of experience into various subroutines my conscious mind doesn’t pay much attention to any more.
Some of these “subroutines” are the idiot stuff the golf magazines always go on about: finding the highest point on the green (very important), finding a drainage point or a nearby creek or pond (slightly less important), or where the sun sets (not very important). And of course knowing what sort of grass the green is―northern bent grass rolls truer than southern Bermuda, for instance. Or finding out if there’s some terrain feature that subtly influences things: in Palm Springs, all putts want to go to Indio at the east end of the valley, while at Riviera all putts try to find the Pacific at the low end of the canyon. For the most part though these tricks are only minimally helpful.
On the Nationwide Tour I once had a pro who wanted to know what “o’clock” a putt needed to fall. What he meant by that was he envisioned the hole like the face of a clock, with twelve o’clock representing the precise opposite side of the hole from his ball. A putt that broke a lot right-to-left might cause the ball to fall in the hole at the three o’clock position; one that didn’t break as much might fall at the five o’clock position. If he knew the clock position he could trace the line back to his ball and find where he needed to start the putt. This is actually pretty close to how I work, though I tend to see the whole path and not just the point of entry.
A word about what I mean by “see”: it’s a phenomena I don’t understand precisely, but the nearest analogy I can draw is the way a wet green will show the path a putt has followed on it. The ball picks up water as it travels, so it will leave a track through a wet green clearly showing how it went. Similarly, I tend to “see”―I mean this literally―the path a ball must follow in its entirety, start to finish. Communicating that vision can be difficult, so I tend to use discolorations in the green to show my players, or on longer ones pick out a tree or other landmark beyond the green as a target, but I use those targets as communication tools, not to find the line itself. On my best reads I see the whole thing, all at once.
Now, that’s the sort of thing that makes green reading sound like voodoo, and there is something to that because for a long time I found only certain players, generally very skilled ones, could understand what I meant. For the most part I avoid trying to describe what green-reading really is to people who don’t get it because mostly it’s a waste of time―they don’t have the experiences that can translate what you mean to them. However, some time ago I discovered a golf instructor who “gets” what it is that I do, and so now I tend to refer to him whenever I get into a discussion with someone who really wants to know and isn’t just passing time. His name is Dave Pelz, the short-game wizard now used by Phil Mickelson.
What drew me to Pelz is that he says that almost everyone―amateurs and pros alike―underreads greens. Pelz is a former NASA scientist―yes, rocket scientist―and he has statistics to back his claims up. In my experience, he’s right―witness the Ian Poulter experience I described in an earlier post, for instance. Nobody ever plays for enough break, or curve, on their putts. I am continually having conversations like this one:
Golfer: It can’t be that high! You can’t be serious!
But what Pelz does, as I’ve never been quite able to do, is explain just why that is. His point is expressed, though cryptically, in the quote from his student Mr. Mickelson I quoted above.
Pelz is attacking a common misconception about putting, one that even PGA Tour players have. Pelz puts the misconception this way in a recent Golf magazine article, citing an instructional video that advised students to “visualize the high point of the putt’s roll on its way to the hole, then aim at that high point.” Sounds pretty good right? Actually, as Pelz demonstrates―and I would concur after several decades of looking at putts good and bad―this is about as stupid as it’s possible to get without just stopping at the nearest bridge and jumping off.
It isn’t an entirely unapt metaphor, because what Pelz is arguing―this is maybe where the rocket science comes in―is that the above instruction completely discounts the role of gravity. Here’s where we can return to Phil’s words, specifically the part about the “true apex.” What Phil is trying to say here is that if you did as the instructional video mentioned above said, your putt will inevitably fall off before reaching that point―unless you hit it so hard that the ball never breaks at all, one reason why the “point and shoot” crowd is slightly less mentally challenged. In order to hit the “high point,” in other words, you actually have to aim above it. Forces are at work to slow a putt right after impact, which is why so many good-looking putts climb right up to the hole and then break right across it, ending up on the low or “amateur” side.
The point is that, in putting, there are in effect three different targets. There’s the hole, sure. But there’s also the point at which you aim your putter and then the point where you actually expect your putt to go. Your aim point in short is higher than your actual target―where you really expect the putt to go―which in turn is above the hole. So very often when I’m telling a guy where to hit his putt he’ll ask if it’s a “cup outside” or something and I will explain that in fact he must aim at a point that might be several feet outside. Hence sometimes-comical, sometimes-rude conversations like the one I reproduced above.
It may have occurred to some of you that the idea of aiming at a metaphorical-Mars-in-order-to-hit-the-Moon may not be accidentally the work of someone from NASA. Nor that the idea may be applicable in other arenas in life. JFK’s call for a literal moonshot resulted in a lot of things that maybe wouldn’t have gotten done had we aimed just at them, and not all of them are new dry-freeze techniques or handheld calculators. Unfortunately the people who tend to adopt slogans like “Aim High” (a slogan of the Air Force) are exactly the sort of people who misunderstand why it makes sense to read putts that way―because they aren’t really paying attention to how putts work. Next time you are playing with someone, here’s an easy intelligence test: ask him about what he thinks about “goals.” (It’s super-easy to lead that conversation.) Next, just observe what happens on the green. When he misses on the low side―they all do―just ask if he was aiming high enough. Nine times out of ten, nobody makes the connection.
Aiming high is valuable, sure, but it is not an end to itself. I was originally reminded of all of this putting business last week when seeing Irish singer Imelda May at Martyrs’, the Chicago venue that witnessed her first visit to the United States last September. Her audience has grown in the meantime―she performed the tribute to Les Paul at this year’s Grammy Awards by singing his best-known song (with Jeff Beck, btw) and she’s getting better known by the day it seems. Searching out the lyrics for the song to use for this week’s entry, I discovered that the song was originally written for the 1940 Broadway revue Two for the Show, which was set in London. As it happens, that has rather something to do with Dave Pelz’ original profession at NASA, an agency constructed from the remains of the Nazi V-2 program. The question at the heart of the song—“How High The Moon?”—is not really about setting high goals or the usual sort of Corporate America pablum. “How High The Moon?” was a serious moment in an otherwise-comic musical: at the end of the song, everyone looks up at the sky and cowers, terrified.
Because a clear night, during the Blitz, meant a “bombers’ moon”—a high road to Picccadilly for the Luftwaffe.