There are any number of ways to improve the putting stroke. At the end of the day, there’s only one thing that really matters.
Getting the ball in the hole.
That’s what the Brian Jacobs Golf Academy at Mill Creek Golf Club spends the majority of the time teaching. Lead instructor Brian Jacobs tries to persuade students away from getting caught up in things like the grip or ball position.
“Lots of times, people are really based in technical,” Jacobs says. “Technical and technique is great, but it’s a small part of really playing the game.”
Playing the game is the way Jacobs teaches large parts of golf, including putting. One of his best drills is the 9-ball game. No, this isn’t billiards, but it does involve the same amount of balls.
The game is fairly simple. Place nine balls around a hole on a practice green at varying lengths. The longest putt is usually what the normal expected distance from the hole a player would have with an approach shot from a 7-iron. The number varies based on handicap. Shotbyshot.com is the leader among apps and websites that determine what the number is, but Jacobs says a 10-handicap would hit a 7-iron to about 31 feet.
The majority of putts are from shorter distances. Set the game up with a couple 6-footers, a couple 8-footers, 2 or 3 from 10-15 feet and the rest from 20 to a max distance. The goal of the game is to sink all nine balls in 15 putts or less.
Jacobs sets 15 putts as the bar for his students per every nine holes. Hitting six greens in regulation and 15 putts in a nine-hole round should leave a player with a score around par.
Most amateurs will practice putting by dropping three balls in a spot and repeating the same putt. There’s certainly value in doing that, but it’s not really practicing the way a golfer will play.
“When someone gets into hitting putts from the same spot all the time, it’s called block practice. Block isn’t golf,” Jacobs says. “Random variable is golf. Anytime we can put a player into a game time situation, they just do better. We want to really get them off technique and get them on to scoring.”
Jacobs tells a story about a student of his who was learning this drill and wondered how many touring pros use it in practice. Jacobs answered, “All of them.”
The nine-ball game is intended to, best as possible, re-create the putts a player will see in a given round of golf. Not only are the putts from randomly varied group of lengths, but they also represent the likely shots from the spectrum of approach clubs in the bag. The putts from inside ten feet are probably from wedges. The 15-footers are a nine or an eight iron and so on.
There’s no limit to the way this game can be played. A better player may want to include a few 40-50 foot putts that represent an eagle try or limit the putts to 10 feet or less as part of a scrambling drill.
Even though it’s not ‘practicing’ the traditional way, the nine-ball game is a great way to practice distance control. The player will learn the feel of how far to take the hands back appropriately to match the length of their putt. They can even adjust from club to club. If the greens are slower than what you normally might use for practice, give every putt a little extra for that round away from home.
“The more you perceive putts, the more you know the speed. You feel it in your hands and your brain knows it. All of a sudden, you start making more,” Jacobs says.
This is one facet of the data driven style Jacobs uses in all disciplines of the game. If a player takes 35 or 40 putts in a round, the issue may not be putting. When too many birdie or first putts come from 50 feet out, the culprit is iron play instead of the flat stick.
Most players don’t really know how long a putt is just by looking at it. Without that knowledge, it becomes very difficult to adequately control the speed of putts. The nine-ball game will help drill into a player the importance of pacing off their putts. It’s something they can take onto the golf course.
“Pace your putts (during a round),” Jacobs says. “Feel the slope with your feet. Understand where things are going. It’s going to work your distance control so much better.”
Jacobs expects a player to show improvement nearly immediately. It might take only three or four tries (your humble writer took 18 putts on his first try and trimmed the total to 15 and 16 on the next two).
Players can work technique until they’re blue in the face, but Jacobs believes in the axiom that golf doesn’t start until you’ve hit the first foul ball. At that point, it’s less a test of hand position and swing plane. It’s the mental test that must be passed.
“We want to change players from the logical, left brain to the right brain,” Jacobs says. “So that they’re not technical. They’re (working on) their human skills. Get them off technique and get them on to scoring.”
Finding a way to get the ball in the hole.