School of Rock: The irritating art of learning how to be a good putter

July 11, 2019

Until I walked into Jon Tattersall’s Fusion ATL instruction facility six months ago, I had swung a golf club maybe 10 or 20 times in my entire life, mostly at imaginary home invaders and the occasional housefly. But I had putted thousands of times. Who hasn’t putted thousands of times? In my small hometown, the only place you ever took a date was to mini-golf. Over the years, I’ve taken loads of pride in my resistance to golf, but I’ve always loved putting. I guess I just never considered putting … golf.

To my surprise, coach Tattersall agrees. “Golfing and putting are so different from each other that they’re hardly even the same sport,” he says. “Frankly, most of the best golfers I know legitimately hate putting.” Ben Hogan once actually argued that putts should count less than a full stroke. The greatest drivers in the pro game have been felled by putting, which is less a science than an irritating art that can never be fully mastered. You can hit the ball harder than anyone who has ever lived and, on the greens, lose all the advantage that length gives you. Conversely, if you’re the best putter in the world but can’t go deep with your drives, you’ll never stand a chance. This makes putting a perpetual gnat in the golfer’s ear. Putting will never win you anything. But it can lose you everything.

What’s fascinating to me, as Tattersall hands me a putter, is that the techniques he’s been teaching me to help my full swing don’t matter one bit on the greens. So much of my swing is about balance and acceleration: I want to maximize the speed of my swing at the point of impact, keeping all my body parts from flailing, to produce one concise explosion of power. But putting’s not only not about power; it’s not even about acceleration. Tattersall compares it to driving a car, where your swing involves you speeding up to try to beat a red light. Putting? Putting is about coasting, about reaching your ideal speed and then staying exactly there. Most sports — and driving, in golf — are about maximum velocity. Putting is about figuring out how to set your internal cruise control. Again, putting just isn’t golf at all. “I’ve been trying to teach you French,” Tattersall tells me. “But with putting, it’s not about learning a slightly different dialect of French. Now you have to learn German.” That’s the bad news. The good news is that putting is not hard.

Well, it’s hard — obviously. But it’s not difficult to improve through practice. Your golf swing is subject to thousands of variables: odd and unforeseeable inconsistencies that make a linear learning process essentially impossible. You’ll never, ever come up with a perfect swing. Every day is a new battle, a new search. But putting? Sheesh. There are no hips flying out, no violent shifting of power, no dozens of moving parts that can change everything with one millimeter of alteration. You find your fulcrum, you attach your putter to it, you move it back, you coast it toward your ball, and off it goes.

“It can take multiple lessons just to take a tiny step forward with your swing, and you can lose all your progress in one bad day,” Tattersall says. “But once you know the basics of putting, it’s just a matter of honing it.” It’s a skill, like juggling or whittling. Why do you think all those dudes have putters in their offices? It’s a golf thing that you can actually get better without being near a golf course at all. No wonder I’ve always liked putting so much: Even idiots like me can do it.

Of course, that I understand putting in a way I’m sure I’ll never understand golf is precisely why so many golfers hate it. With only a bit of repetition and study, I can probably become almost as good as your basic weekend golfer at rolling the rock — while still only wielding my driver to take out houseflies. A weekend golfer’s afternoon on the course can be ruined by an activity that I, rightly or wrongly, think I’ve picked up rather handily. It’s no wonder Ben Hogan disliked putting so much: Greens took Hogan and turned him — in some deranged parallel universe of competence — into me? That would make anyone hate putting. Putting sort of equalizes us all. And, really, who wants to be equal?

Will Leitch is a columnist for GOLF, a contributing editor for New York Magazine, and the founder of Deadspin