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.

VB in NV

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

Dave Brooks

Then there's the toxic stench it spreads throughout the office when the microwave is opened ...


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.


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.


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...

Eric M. Jones.

Sorry...and this has to do with Economics how?....


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

Joshua Northey

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.

robyn ann goldstein

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

robyn ann goldstein

2) here is one idea. Replace false debt ceiling with real and realistic spending cap/limit. do not cut medicare benefits to needy. Do not cut social security to unemployed, retired and needy. Do allow those who do not need these benefits to benefit from not taking social security or medicare benefits when they can. As far as unwanted, unnecessary tests. There will always be differences of opinion on that one. I have a doctor who tests regularly. He wants his patients to be ahead of the curve. I pay for him out of my own pocket. When I could not afford him, I went to see him less frequently. That was a mistake for which I am paying. . He allows me to pay him back and I should have continued to see him. I just did not want to owe so much. Insurance has paid for most tests. I don't think that there is any way to deal with or get around the problem of injustice other than to acknowledge relative justice is about the best that is realistically obtainable. Better trained and intuitive doctors (risk managers) might mean that more testing will be done. However, it is also true that if I had known (was better informed as to) the consequences of not taking certain medications that I should have, I would be better off today. At least, I know now.



Wow, this really comes across as Levitt shilling for this guy. Couple of free lessons, maybe?

Andrew Collins

I am also an economist with a single digit handicap, although I have another 15 years before I will become eligible for the champions tour.

I am very impressed Steve that you have been able to get to a 6 handicap without being at least a decent putter.

If you are ever in Newfoundland hit me up for a skins game... just now that you learned how to putt I'll be expecting a few strokes.


Hey at least you only need 5,000 more hours and then you'll be great at it? Rory McIlroy who?


Yet you don't tell us the method... useless...


The method is walking across the green, around the path of your putt. When steep enough, it doesn't take much, you can feel the slope. Most people don't want to walk across where the ball will travel in fear of ruining a pristine line, but reality is that people are walking all over the green, even right before you putt.

If you have a hard time judging how severe the ball will break, walking the slope gives you a better idea.


Sounds interesting, but I suppose you have to take the course to learn the lesson? I'm curious how you can use your feet to figure out the lie without trampling the green.

Wired actually had an article on Robert Grober's method.


Think of a tilted clock with the hole in the center. The point is to find a "zero line". This is the point at 12/6 where a putt goes straight into the hole (downhill or uphill) without break.

If you start walking an arc beneath the hole, your feet should be able to tell you when you start going back uphill.

You don't trample your line (or anyone elses).

It looks like the main idea of this reading strategy is that if you know stimp/slope, and you know where on the clock face you are, a mathematical equation can tell you how far outside the hole to putt assuming proper speed. And, of course, which way it will break (if you're at 4:00, it breaks left. If you're at 7:00 it breaks right.)


"My Sonicare toothbrush is a hundred times better than a regular toothbrush. "

In what way? None of the studies I have read support that. The benefits are at best marginal.


I agree that you read the putt thru the soles of your feet. I always walk off the distance between ball and hole, always on the low side so as to not walk on the line. Of course, given your description of how poorly you read the green you may have trouble discerning the low side! This process, gives you the distance, and your feet tell you intuitively what adjustment you need to make for slope. Most people call it gut instinct, but all it is, is your brain doing some calculating that you just can't put into words. Of course, speed of the greens you gauge by hitting practice putts before your round. Using that, you visualize your line, pick your target spot to roll your ball over, about 3 to 5 feet in front of your ball and stroke it.


You want physics? Here's physics: