Giving it your best shot on the greens
PUTTING -- is it an art or a science? Are good putters born and not made? If you decide that's the case and you're not a 'born' or 'natural' putter, are you better off as a handicap golfer just trusting to instinct and giving it a lash in hope rather than certainty?
Personally, I fall into the latter category -- or at least I did until I saw that the appliance of science and technology could open up a new comprehension of performance on the greens.
Shane O'Grady, professional at Black Bush GC near Dunshaughlin, Co Meath, certainly doesn't subscribe to the 'hit and hope' philosophy on the putting green.
In fact, he believes so strongly that putting is a key aspect of golf that he has added a custom-built putting bay to his teaching facilities at Black Bush.
The bay is kitted out with six cameras for visual feedback from different angles and a SAM (Science And Motion) putting lab, which provides full statistical read-outs from exactly what's happening on your putting stroke.
There's also an 'Explanar' putting machine to give the proper feel for the stroke and a loft and lie machine for custom fitting a new putter or adjusting the 'magic wand' that a player is currently using.
It's weather-proof and illustrates precisely to a golfer what they're doing technique-wise.
O'Grady won't get any arguments from any golfer (amateur or professional) about the importance of good performances on the greens.
We all appreciate the maddening but uncompromising truth in golf, that a putt holed from half an inch is the same value as a 350-yard drive -- in other words, one stroke.
It just isn't fair, is it?
You smash a beautiful drive hundreds of yards down the fairway and yet there are no bonus points for this spectacular shot, whereas there's no glory in a tap-in from an inch or two.
Golf ain't fair, though, and given that anything up to half the strokes of your scorecard are due to putting, it would seem appropriate that this aspect of the game should be given serious attention.
The funny thing is that male golfers, in particular, tend not to take putting lessons.
However, when you are shown exactly what you're doing in the putting stroke, it opens the mind in a way that verbal instruction can't achieve.
That's what happened when O'Grady filmed my stroke in his putting bay.
When I watched a slow-motion playback of my putt, it clearly showed the ball to be fractionally -- but definitely -- in the air over the first couple of feet. It was hard to credit.
You make a putt, the ball rolls along the ground, right? Nope, that's not what was happening with my stroke but I'd never have seen that with the naked eye.
"A lot of golfers think that putting is all about luck and maybe 'feel', that putting is not a skill in itself," O'Grady said.
"There's a sense that it's the easiest part of the game and there's a perception that it's a weakness if you take a putting lesson.
"Golfers start out at the game being fascinated with the challenge of hitting the ball a long distance, so they think the easy part is the putting."
He added: "They don't see that, whatever about the rest of your game, if you are putting well, that's the quickest way to score well and to lose shots off your handicap."
O'Grady believes that one method doesn't suit everyone, so he adapts his teaching to the individual, but said: "There are certain basics that work.
"I've never seen a good putter that doesn't get good roll on the ball and I've never seen a good putter that doesn't keep the putter face square at impact.
"When the pressure is on and adrenalin is in your system, if your hands don't understand how to make those two things happen, it won't work for you.
"If you're shaking with nerves and the putter wants to go left, it will go more left, whereas if your method is good and you understand and know what it is you are attempting to do, you can perform better under pressure.
"Every golfer, no matter how good, gets nervous when the pressure is on. Anyone that says different is a liar, so you have to find a way to perform when you need to.
"What I believe is that confidence comes from knowing and understanding what you're doing.
"There's a balance. Too much concentration on mechanics is poor as well. What you have to do is work on your method behind the scenes, like now during the winter to get ready for the spring, and let the stroke execute itself.
"Then you practice on having a good routine so that allows the stroke to happen. That's my belief and through the years, the people I work with have won a lot of championships."
The Ballinasloe-born pro, who honed the phenomenal short-game and putting skills of the Maguire twins, Leona and Lisa, until their arrangement ended earlier this year, is one of the Leinster provincial coaches who are doing sterling work in developing young stars of the future.
"The whole structure is working very well," he added. "I'd say over the next five or six years you're going to see a new batch of talent emerging from Leinster."