How I shaved 8 strokes in a month without leaving my house
TL;DR: Nothing novel here. Practice your putting if you want to score better. It's the fastest, easiest, and most affordable way to cut strokes off your handicap. My experience below, as well as some learnings and a product recommendation.
I am a golf addict. Pre-COVID, I would play about 1-2 full rounds a week and go to the driving range at least 2-3 times a week. My practice routine at the range would generally consist of hitting 80-150 balls (not just mindlessly bashing balls, but usually doing drills and playing simulated holes/courses in my head), and then putting for about 10-15 minutes on the practice green before going home. I know people say you should practice putting more than anything, but I just didn't because the practice green at my range is awful and I genuinely believe practicing on it makes me worse since it's in such bad condition that it's not representative of what greens on real courses are like. Anyways, with that routine, I became a good driver of the ball, and a decent but not great iron player (you'd think I'd be better with my irons and wedges from consistently hitting that many balls, but hitting off mats really doesn't translate that well to the course I find). That said, my putting was atrocious. I track all my shots with golf apps and in my last 6 rounds before COVID, I averaged 40.4 putts per round...in other words, 2.25 putts per hole. Yikes.
Then COVID happened. I live in San Francisco, where shelter in place went into effect in mid-March, and golf was no longer an option. I was bummed that I wouldn't be able to play for awhile, or even go to the driving range to practice. And on top of that, because I live in a San Francisco condo, we don't really have much outdoor space so I couldn't set up a nice backyard practice area or anything like that. But I was determined to practice somehow, so I bought a Putt-Out putting trainer and matching 6 foot putting mat. I set them up the first week of quarantine and started rolling at least 100 putts each day at varying distances from 1 - 6 feet. I would usually do this in sets of 20 while counting how many of the 20 I made. But I also did a fair bit of just playing around and trying different grips, different stances, etc. Over time, I settled into a grip and stance that works well for me and I started grooving that. As one would expect, over a month of this, I became quite good at these short putts on the putting mat. Now I can routinely make about 19/20 from 4 feet or closer and I'd say I'm about 16/20 from 6 feet on average. Now these aren't challenging putts considering they're short and on a perfectly flat surface, but still, doing weeks of that practice gave me loads of confidence that when I line up a short putt, I know it will at least come off the putter face straight and on line with where i want to hit it. And it's become my expectation that if I'm within 6-foot range, I'm going to make it. That mindset is completely different from where I was before COVID when I would stand over a 5 or 6-foot putt and feel like it was a coin flip (at best) whether or not I would sink it.
So, when golf courses reopened a couple weeks ago, I was excited to get out there and try out my new putting stroke. Delightfully, everything I had practiced translated to the course. In my first round back, I only took 30 putts! That's 1.67 putts per hole and probably the best I've ever putted in my life. Beyond that, it's continued. I've played another 5 rounds since then and in these first 6 rounds since COVID, I've averaged 32.7 putts per round. To remind you, in my last 6 rounds before COVID, I averaged 40.4 putts per round. So I've been 7.7 putts per round better since COVID happened.
I'm ecstatic about this, but honestly, the best part isn't even the scoring, it's been the shift in mindset. The confidence I've developed in my living room has stuck with me on the course. Before, when I would walk up to see I have a 5-foot putt left to save par, I would get anxious and start hoping that I would make it. Now, when I walk up to a 5-footer, I'm practically thinking "piece of cake, that's a gimme". And 3-footers are effectively automatic, at least in my mind. That shift has given me loads of confidence on the course. Now I'm telling myself, just get on the green in regulation and you've got a decent shot at birdie, and almost assuredly walking off with a par. Whereas before, there was the challenge of getting the GIR but then also the challenge of converting the two-putt just to get a par. So much less stress now.
I know that was long, and all to basically say something everyone already knows - practice your putting if you want to score better - but I wanted to share because 1) I'm stoked lol, and 2) I had a handful of learnings from this that might be novel/helpful to others:
- Lag putting is great and important to practice but even just getting really good and confident at short, simple putts is tremendously helpful. As described above, I resisted practicing my putting for a long time because the practice green at my driving range is terrible. But beyond that, when I did practice, I would mostly practice lag putting since I figured if I could get myself closer on second putts, then I would have fewer three-putts. Well obviously with my 6 foot putting mat, lag putting hasn't been an option for me. But just practicing these short ones has helped me learn how to make sure the ball is coming off the putter straight, and there is just something about seeing the ball go in the hole over and over that builds tremendous confidence. Not giving away strokes from within 1 - 6 feet has been a really empowering feeling on the course. So get comfortable and confident with those short ones and actually getting the ball in the hole!
- Don't be afraid to give it some speed. Before COVID, since I had so little confidence in my putting, I was always afraid that if I hit a 6 footer too hard, I might send it 3 feet past the hole and have another short one to fret over. So I would try to get the speed just right and more often than not, end up either leaving it a little short, or the ball would get to the cup moving so slowly that any break in the green would get amplified and the ball would turn too far left or right and miss on the side. By developing confidence within the 3-5 foot range over the last month, now I'm not afraid of sending the ball a few feet past the hole since I know (or at least think) I will make that putt coming back. So I started hitting them with a bit more speed and that makes sure the ball gets to the hole with a chance to go in and also takes more break out of the green. Those things combined result in many more putts going in. So get confident from close and then hit the **** ball.
- "Swing your swing" even applies to putting. In other words, I don't believe there is a "correct" grip or stance. For years, I've tried to use what many people would probably describe as a proper or traditional grip and stance with the putter. At the end of the day, I was not a good putter though. By having lots of time to do nothing but putt this last month, I experimented with everything. I tried narrowing my feet, widening them, opening my stance, closing it, interlocking my fingers, separating my hands, etc. and just played around with what felt good and what let me hit the ball straight as often as possible. After a week or two of that, I settled on a grip and stance that is nothing like what I had been doing before COVID, but you know what, I'm confident with it and at the end of the day it is working for me! So don't be afraid to experiment and find what works well for you.
- I highly recommend the Putt Out trainer. It is exceptionally good for developing the speed I talked about above. For anyone who's not familiar with it, it's a cup-sized target that rolls the ball back towards you the same distance that it would have gone past the hole if you missed. So if I putt it up that thing and it rolls back 1-2 feet, then I know that speed would have sent the ball 1-2 feet past the hole if I had missed. This helps me understand how hard I can hit a putt without having fear of it going too far past the hole. Great for developing speed control and confidence IMO!
- Putting is the most convenient, affordable, and efficient way to improve. While it can be challenging to find the time (or money) to go to the driving range or play rounds of golf, putting can be practiced from home with minimal time and money. That putt-out trainer can be bought for $25 and you can get cheap putting mats anywhere (the one I bought and linked to above goes well with the putt out trainer, but it's more expensive than what you need). Then just roll some putts whenever you have the time. It is so quick. I can usually sink 50 four-footers while my morning coffee is brewing...do that alone for a month and you'll be a better putter than you are today, I guarantee it like George Zimmer.
That's all I got. Hope this helps make someone happier with their golfing, like it has for me :)