Putting Lesson of a Lifetime

Dick Grout was one of my father’s older brothers. As a golf professional, he was both a respected teacher and a fine player. In 1926, at twenty-two years-old, he received an introduction into the “big leagues” when he played in the 9th PGA Championship held at Salisbury Golf Links, Westbury Long Island, New York.

After making it through the thirty-six-hole stroke-play qualifying round, Uncle Dick managed a satisfying victory in the first round of match-play. Only problem was a fellow by the name of Walter Hagen awaited him in the second round. Unfortunately, during next day’s 36-hole match, my uncle did not play his best, and defending champion Hagen dispatched him from the tournament.

After that match, “The Haig” had lunch and drinks with Uncle Dick, then took him to the practice green for a putting lesson. Evidently, Hagen had no qualms with my uncle’s scientific approach to putting. He even complimented him on his sound technique.

  • A steady head
  • Hold the club in a comfortable, light grip of your preference
  • Set up with your eyes directly over the ball-target line
  • Keep the putter head low going back
  • Accelerate through the ball

However, the “master putter” did find fault with my uncle’s apparent inability to read the greens. According to Hagen, Dick needed to get in touch with his artistic side and develop a “sixth sense” of how the ball will roll. His tutor added that, it’s a skill that comes after hitting enough putts over enough different types of terrain and grass. In other words, it’s a skill that comes with experience.

Here is a synopsis of what Walter Hagen told Dick Grout back in 1926:

As you walk on-to a green, whether you realize it or not, you take in all sorts of subtle information. This data runs through your mind before you even mark your ball.

  • Even if you don’t look closely at the surrounding terrain, you are aware of any major slope in the land.
  • Without having to tell yourself, you know where the low side of the green is and where the high side is.
  • If the putting surface is hard and crusty under foot, you receive one message; if it’s soft and spongy you get another.
  • If the green is situated on an elevated section of the course and, you feel a breeze as you step on-to it, you sense that the putt will be fast.
  • If, the grass appears light, you’re putting against the grain; if it’s dark you’re putting with the grain.

The most subtle aspect of green reading has to do with the grain. Grain refers to the direction in which the blades of grass grow. The light/dark appearance is one way to read it. Another method you can use is to take your putter blade and scrape it across a patch of fringe. If the blades of grass brush up, you’re scraping against the grain. If they mat down, you’re scraping with it. (Incidentally, be sure to do this scraping on the fringe. If, it’s done on the greens, it’s a violation of Rule 35.)

A third method is to take a look at the cup. Often, the blades of grass will grow over the edge of the cup in the direction in which the grain moves. Grain usually grows toward water and, especially toward the ocean. In the West, it’s apt to lean toward the mountains. If, you’re not near any such topography, figure on the grain-growing in the direction of the setting sun.

Grain is strongest on Bermuda grass, where short, crew-cut-like blades tend to push the ball strongly. As a general rule, you can figure on stroking the ball about 20 percent firmer than usual on a putt that’s into the grain and about 20 percent easier on a putt that’s with the grain.

These effects are less noticeable on long-stemmed bent grass and other strains of grass, but they are present nonetheless. The break of your putt will also be affected by the firmness of a green, the wetness/dryness, the amount of wind you’re facing, and even the time of day. In general, any time you have to hit the putt firmly, you should play for fewer breaks.

Another way of reading the break on a green is to observe the putt of another player. Hagen told my uncle that he favored “going to school,” but with one stipulation: Allow for any difference between your own playing style and those of your fellow players. If, for instance, your friend is an “aggressive” putter and you’re a “lag” putter, allow for more break than he does.

Hagen wrapped up his coaching session with Uncle Dick by explaining matters like this. And, I quote: “Did you ever notice a flower when the sun first hits it? It leans toward the sun’s rays. Well, the same thing happens to grass on a green when the sun first touches it. When the rays of the sun touch the grass from the left side, the grass leans that way. If, the sun reaches the grass from the right side, the rays pull it in that direction. In other words, just like a flower, the grass leans toward the sun.”

“Putting well is no accident,” Hagen declared. “It’s not simply a matter of stroking the ball in the general direction of the cup and hoping that it drops. You must read the green as best you can. You have to study the line and roll to the pin, form a definite plan of attack, then go ahead and execute it. The grass in relation to the sun’s rays figures in your firm plan of attack.”

“The direction in which the grass is leaning will have an effect on the roll and break of the ball as it heads toward the hole. If, you have a break to the left and the grass is leaning in the same direction, you must anticipate that the ball will break more sharply and compensate for this when lining up your putt. If, the grass leans the other way, the ball will make a slower break toward the hole.”

In conclusion, Hagen emphasized that “Good putting is never an accident. It always requires careful thought and preparation.” FYI – Several days later, Walter Hagen went on to win that PGA Championship. In fact, he won it a record-tying five times (1921, 1924-1927).

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