One of my all-time favorite golf movies, like many of my generation, is Caddyshack. Now there are a host of obvious reasons why I think most of us golfers born before about 1975 love this movie so much (the legendary cast, the iconic cast of characters, the golf course jargon it spawned, the fact that there were very few golf movies period at the time, etc, etc. etc.), and while those are all incredibly strong arguments for it being a classic of American Cinema, for me it was Ty Webb that sealed the deal.
Ty Webb made being a good golfer look like the coolest thing in the world at a time in my life when being cool seemed all important. And it was the blind-folded shot scene, along with the trick shot Putting scene with Ty and his caddie Danny Noonan, that are possibly most near and dear to my heart. And in truth, while those scenes may have inspired me to spend more time practicing trick shots than actual golf shots when I was young (o.k., maybe Webb wasn’t exactly the best role model), the biggest reason it stays with me today is because it was those scenes, along with the story Webb was telling during the putting scene about his college roommate Mitch Cumstein being expelled for Night Putting, that inspired me to create a series of putting drills that I still use almost every day in my own teaching and often demonstrate in many group clinics.
Now let me first start by saying that I originally developed most of these drills to help people get out a bad putting rut, or over the yips if they were actually brave enough to admit they had them. The yips, not unlike the shanks, are a word most golfers hesitate to even speak aloud, let alone admit to having. It’s as if their mere mention or an actual admission might cause them to spread like an infectious disease or become permanent. And so while I designed these drills initially to give people a new way of looking (or not looking) at things in their battle to move beyond a stretch of poor putting, over the years I’ve been using them I’ve come to recognize that each has individual benefits that go beyond just developing the new neural pathways and new-found confidence that is necessary in getting over a case of the yips.
And so in honor of Mr. Webb, Danny Noonan, Carl Spackler, The Gopher, and all the rest of our Caddyshack friends I began calling these my Night Putting Drills. I did this, not just to be cute or funny, but because the similarities among them are that in none of them are you actually even looking at the ball, or at least focused on the ball in what is likely your typical way. And while you can, if you prefer, do them at night if you have access to a putting green after sundown, it’s really not necessary and I definitely don’t recommend doing them with the son or daughter of the Dean of any higher learning institution you may be currently enrolled in if you wish to actually graduate…
Thankfully, God gave you eye-lids since most of you don’t carry a blind-fold or have access to your favorite putting green after dark. First grab a sleeve of your favorite balls and pick a hole about 20 to 30 feet away. Address the first one and just prior to making the stroke close your eyes. Hit the putt and then guess whether you are short or long. Open your eyes and see if your guess was correct. This is not only a great way to develop feel, but an especially good way to get an idea of the green speed if you are playing a particular course for the first time. Do this for 9 holes at least, varying the distances of the putt each time, and you will not only develop a better feel for controlling the distance the Ball rolls by the end, your sense of how far it rolls, and the speed of the greens, but your focus will shift to the feel of length, pace, and rhythm of you putting stroke.
Added bonus; having your eyes closed eliminates much of the anticipatory reaction to the moment of impact. Did you ever wonder why, after totally mis-judging a longer putt and ending up either way short or long, it is so easy to drop a second ball and almost hole it? That’s because the instant feedback of what you did is still present in your brain. Practicing putting with your eyes closed makes you more in tune with the feel of your stroke. And while you don’t necessarily want that feel to be your focus during a putt (that is for another installment), it is a great thing to focus on during those two or three rehearsal (read practice) strokes you make just prior to rolling the putt.
I have loved this drill for more than 20 years, ever since being shown it by a fellow professional (who will remain unnamed) that suffered from a horrible case of the yips. Even so, up until the last couple of years I had a bit of a harder time selling people on its efficacy for anything but very short putts. Then along comes Jordan Spieth and now everyone is looking at the hole. OK, maybe not everyone, but the acceptance of this method as not only a training drill, but even as a way of playing is at an all-time high so let me invite you all to jump aboard the bandwagon before it goes the way of the belly putter. Most target oriented sports and past-times (basketball, darts, horseshoes, pitching in baseball, etc.) have you looking at the target, rather than the ball or thing you are trying to send to the target, but golf is different. The size of the ball, the fact that it is separate from us (rather than being held), and the balance and precision it takes to actually make contact with the ball in golf makes looking at it (at least on full swings) an obviously necessary aspect if you want to pull it off with any degree of regular success. The simplicity of putting, however, is one area that easily allows for most of us to finally take our eyes off that devious little pill and put them where they should actually be: on the target.
It’s ironic that, due to the actual very real fear of missing the ball, many aren’t initially comfortable doing this on anything more than fairly short putts (read inside five feet), but the fact is, being focused on the hole really helps when it comes to distance control more than anything. It also, like Night Putting, removes a bit of the anticipatory reaction to impact and gets your focus off the ball. So don’t worry, you won’t miss it.
Now I categorize spot putting in two different ways. Many who are familiar with the concept associate it with picking a spot about a foot or two in front of you that is on your line that you can line up to on very long putts. It is effective for this in case that you have trouble lining up on longer putts, but in this instance I am talking about picking a spot immediately in front of the ball (on the target side) and placing your focus there instead of on the actual ball.
Dave Stockton, the Champions Tour Player and resident putting Guru on the PGA TOUR these days is a big proponent of this one and recommends it to all his students, and claims that your spot should be no more than two inches in front of the ball. Stockton feels you should essentially envision each putt as a two-inch putt or a tap-in. His idea is to turn the putting stroke over to your unconscious mind, which is important. And while I know from experience that this simple tip won’t accomplish that for everyone, for many people it does again allow you to delay any anticipatory reaction to impact just enough to keep the putter moving online and square to the target a little longer and for those who have a fear of not being able to make solid contact on longer putts while being Hole Focused it can be a nice happy medium.
Now I want to give credit where credit is due here, because I only added this one to my Night Putting Drills arsenal about a half-dozen years ago or so after reading about it in Fred Shoemaker’s Book: Extraordinary Putting, but I have had some good success with it with students and some who claim it was really beneficial and eye-opening. What you do for this one is to soften your gaze and let your eyes go a little blurry while actually looking at the ball. There are a host of studies that tie relaxing the muscles to releasing anxiety and when you incorporate the muscles of the eyes into that routine it brings a component into the mix with a proven track record in anxiety relief treatments. It’s not exactly like closing your eyes or taking them off the ball altogether, but if you’ve tried exercises 1 through 3 and are still looking for something that can help you take it from the practice green to the course with a new perspective then this might be the ticket.
Now, as I said earlier, I think all of these Night Putting Drills can pay dividends in ways that go beyond just helping you find some new strategies for developing new neural pathways and getting over the yips. That is why I recommend trying them out even if you don’t have the yips because one or another may hold the key to making you an even better putter if you already consider yourself to be pretty decent. The ultimate point of them, and what you can take from these exercises to use in other sports, or elsewhere in life is that sometimes, in order to move past old problems, and start making headway we need to shift our focus. In golf that could mean we’re too focused on the ball, the score, or the good opinions of others. In life worrying too much about the good opinions of others can be problematic too, but it could just as easily be long-standing goals that we need to revisit because they are no longer in line with our values or something else. And if that’s the case maybe it’s time to try a little Night Putting. Start by just closing your eyes, and when you open them again you just might be opening them to a whole new point of view.
Cover Photo via Caddyshack