Reading a green

You've no doubt watched the pros do it. They pace around the green, surveying the curves and slopes from every angle.

Published May 31, 2007

You've no doubt watched the pros do it. They pace around the green, surveying the curves and slopes from every angle. They crouch behind their ball, peering at the grass they are about to navigate. They consult with their caddies, take another peek, then attempt to putt the ball into the hole. What is the deal with all that reconnaissance work? It is called "reading the green, " and it is a very important part of making putts. A ball perfectly stroked will rarely find the bottom of the cup if the green is misread. Sure, you can get lucky and the ball might sneak into the cup. But generally speaking, figuring out how a putt breaks and making sure the corresponding speed is just right can be as important as a steady stroke. Learning how to read greens takes practice and experience. Here are some tips:

Running water

Whether walking or riding, start looking at the contour of the green from the fairway or the side of the green. Look to see if it is pitched back to front, left to right. "Your eyes should always go to the highest elevation point and work off of that, " said Ned Hall, the teaching pro at Clearwater Country Club.

Once on the green, Hall recommends seeking the highest point, then imagine dumping a bucket of water.

"I try to get my students to visualize running water, " he said. "If I had a bucket of water and threw it on the green, where would the water run to? It's going to seek the lowest level. It's the same with a golf ball. There is something about the visual of the water versus a rolling ball that people tend to understand better."


Florida factor

Most greens in Florida have Bermuda grass, a warm-weather turf that grows well in the heat. It can be thick, however, and how those blades of grass lean can have a big impact on a golf ball.

It is called grain. Typically, the grass "lays down" in the direction the sun shines. Balls that roll in that direction travel faster and often break more. Putts that are into the grain are slower and tend to break less. If you see golfers looking into the cup, they are often trying to figure out the grain.

"If you look at the grass and it's shiny and laying away from you, it's faster. That means it is down grain, " said Matt Mitchell, who teaches at the Downs Practice Facility in Oldsmar. "On the opposite side of that putt, the grass is a darker green, the blades are growing against you. All of this can affect the speed and the line. And that's why you'll get a putt that goes the opposite direction of the way it appears to break. It's because of the grain, and there are numerous examples of that."


The feel putter

Ben Crenshaw, 55, has long been regarded as one of the game's best putters. He visualizes how the putt will travel, then tries to apply the proper pace, another big part of green reading.

"Most people can get a line, " he said. "They can see a line. But then when you put pace with it ... pace is vital. That has as much to do with reading greens and feeling their ups and downs and knowing what a putt might give you.

"Good putters are always just around that hole somewhere. You never see one really charging by. I'm a believer that we miss putts because of speed. If you average all of your putts out - not the short putts so much - but on the average, if your pace is not good, you are going to suffer."

Crenshaw said after he determines the line, he often looks for something along that line to aim at.

"I putt my best, no question, when I can see something, " he said. "Sometimes I spot putt, try to putt it over something on the way to the hole. Nothing complex. I'm just rolling the ball over that spot at a certain speed. If you're searching for your speed, then you're going to struggle. I try to putt the ball as high as I can, because I think that's the safest way to putt."



Stand behind the ball and in line with the hole. Looking through your dominant eye (the other eye is closed), hold the putter steady, with the shaft hanging vertically in line with the ball. If the hole appears to be on one side of the shaft, the putt breaks in that direction.

"I usually plumb-bob some putts to confirm my first impression, " PGA Tour player Justin Leonard said. "I don't plumb-bob putts with two breaks or in windy conditions or if I'm already sure of the break."

Keep in mind

Watch other players in your group putt to determine the speed and breaks of the greens. And if you miss a putt, make sure you watch it going past the hole. "Don't close your eyes in disgust, " Hall said. "Watch what it does, because it is going to break the opposite way on the way back."

Hall also said to be careful with short putts. Those are the ones that are over-read.

"(Ben) Hogan always said all 3-footers are straight if the speed is right, " Hall said.


The scientist

Dave Pelz is a short-game guru who has worked with numerous players over the years, Phil Mickelson among them. A former NASA scientist, Pelz has studied putting for years and has gone so far as to apply math in his teaching. For example, Pelz believes that players make more putts if they visualize the cup being 3 feet beyond where it is. The idea is to get the ball to the hole.

When it comes to reading greens, Pelz - like Crenshaw - believes that most amateurs are guilty of under-reading. In other words, they don't play enough break.

In his book, Dave Pelz's Putting Bible, Pelz said that, on average, players read about a third of the actual break in a putt. Then they unconsciously compensate by lining up to give them about two-thirds of the actual break - then typically push the putt to make up for some of the remaining third.

But they still leave themselves about 10 percent short of the amount of break they should play. So a putt that breaks 40 inches, for example, they play 36 inches of break. And that is why most players miss below the hole or on "the amateur side."

Pelz has a suggestion: Keep track of whether you miss your putts above or below the hole by placing A's and B's on your scorecard. If you consistently have more B's than A's, then you know you are not reading enough break in your putts. So start aiming higher.

Pelz has a simple way to do so. After imagining the path of the ball, triple the visible break and aim there. The trick is to actually putt the ball along that line.