The Physics of Putting

I always love it when I’ve been doing something one way my whole life, and then someone explains to me there is a better way to do that same thing, and the new way is so simple I can immediately switch and see benefits.

Usually it is a new technology that unlocks the magic. For instance, XM Radio, iTunes and Pandora all fundamentally changed the way I listen to music. My Sonicare toothbrush is a hundred times better than a regular toothbrush. After the creation of seedless watermelons, I would never again intentionally buy one that had seeds. Microwave popcorn is another example.

What is even neater, I think, than a new technology changing things, is when someone just comes up with a better way of thinking about a problem. I’ve done a little bit of reading on the origins of randomized experimentation, and it is fascinating to see how that new and powerful idea emerged.

Photo: eMaringolo

On a much smaller scale, I’ve recently had that sort of change in my thinking about another issue: how to read putts on the green when playing golf.

I’ve always had bad eyesight and poor spatial abilities. Forget judging how much a putt will break, I have a hard time even saying whether it will curve to the left or the right.

That was until I met Mark Sweeney, the founder of Aimpoint Technologies, who just may be at the forefront of a revolution in golf. Essentially, Sweeney applies the principles of physics to reading putts. If you watch golf on television, you will know Sweeney indirectly; he is responsible for the graphics that get superimposed on the green showing in advance how a golfer’s putt will break.

How much a given putt will break depends mostly on four factors: the speed of the green, the slope of the terrain, the length of the putt, and the angle between the ball, the hole, and the fall line of the green. It’s all pretty straightforward when Sweeney (or one of his trained instructors) explains it, but it is totally different from any advice I’ve ever heard before on reading greens. One of the keys to the method – and this is something I never would have guessed – is that our feet are better than our eyes at sensing slopes. Once one knows the method, reading a putt becomes formulaic. Not that I always read the putts correctly (although in the time I was with Mark Sweeney, he did read every putt correctly), but at least now I have a fighting chance.

For reasons that are hard to fathom, I’ve invested 5,000 hours in golf over my life. Those two hours with Mark Sweeney may be the most valuable two hours I’ve ever had.

Sweeney’s approach did create a different problem, however.  Before, I never knew where I should putt the ball, so it didn’t matter very much whether I could hit it on line. Now, I need to learn how to putt the ball where I want it to go.  And that, unfortunately, will probably cost me about 500 hours.

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  1. VB in NV says:

    Come on Steven–microwave popcorn. Some of the nastiest stuff on the planet.

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    • Dave Brooks says:

      Then there’s the toxic stench it spreads throughout the office when the microwave is opened …

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      • Julian says:

        If you think the smell of (properly) microwaved popcorn is bad, try working in an office when somebody accidentally lets it microwave for too long and it gets burnt. It lingers EVERYWHERE for hours!

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  2. jonathan says:

    Look up Yale professor Robert Grober. He put sensors inside a golf club and generated graphs that show how the swing actually works. You can buy one of these clubs and have it play your swing to you, so you learn the proper rhythm.

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    • Garry says:

      OK, I took your advice and went to Robert Grober’s website for his training aid. Kind of surprised that he features Hank Haney helping Charles Barkley as his main testimonial. Hank was unable to fit CB’s hitch. CB recently said that the only way he can eliminate the hitch is to hit the ball with his eyes closed.

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  3. jordan says:

    I think I was doing this without knowing it. I’m not a great putter, but I always thought of it as “visualizing” what the ball will do. Next time I golf (probably later today), I’ll give this a shot… an untrained shot…

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  4. Eric M. Jones. says:

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  5. Sully says:

    Never send an economist to solve a physics problem. Fore!

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  6. Joshua Northey says:

    I have always been a much better putter than anything else in golf, often 1 putting. It really allows me to keep up with people much better than me. Lucky me.

    As for microwave popcorn, it is horrible compared to doing a good job of making it in a pan yourself, though cleaning the pan is a little annoying. I cannot imagine choosing microwave popcorn though if you have had both.

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  7. robyn ann goldstein says:

    So I guess it’s true, relatively great minds think alike.

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  8. robyn ann goldstein says:

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