Thursday, February 28, 2008

What makes Tiger Such a Good Putter?

Why is Tiger Woods Such a Good Putter?

Let's get a handle on Tiger's putting performance so far for the start of the 2008 season. Here are some Tiger stats:

* Total putts 9th with 27.75 per round after 4 rounds and 111 putts (Tour average 29.37);
* Putts per GIR 1st with 1.638 putts/GIR with 95 putts on 58 greens hit in regulation;
* Birdie conversion of 39.66% (1st) or 33 birdies out of 58 GIRs in 10 rounds;
* GIRs 80.56% 1st (Tour average 64.89%);
* Scoring average 66.12 (1st), 3 strokes better per round than #2 and 5.18 strokes better than Tour average;
* Proximity to the Hole: average distance from the hole 35'4" (T57th) in 54 GIRs (Tour best 27'5", average 36'11");
* Average distance of putts made 108'10" (1st);
* 3-putt avoidance 1.39% (16th).

These are obviously very strong stats, but then again it's early in the year. Most of these stats are derived from just a small handful of rounds. My experience is that stats don't mean much until about May. Even so, comparing the start of 2008 with the end of 2007 tends to indicate that Tiger had a great putting year in 2007 and is right on track to equal or better that in 2008.

2007 final stats:

Total putts: 28.93 (48th)
Putts per GIR: 1.733 (4th)
GIRs: 71.02% (1st)
Scoring Average: 67.79 (1st)
Birdie Conversion: 31.98% (8th)
Proximity to Hole: 32'2" (3rd)
Average Distance of Putts Made: 80'7" (7th)
3-putt Avoidance: 1.85% (5th)

2008 early stats:

Total putts: 27.75 (9th)
Putts per GIR: 1.638 (1st)
GIRs: 80.56% (1st)
Scoring Average: 66.12 (1st)
Birdie Conversion: 39.66% (1st)
Proximity to Hole: 35'4"" (T57th)
Average Distance of Putts Made: 108'10" (1st)
3-putt Avoidance: 1.39% (16th)

The comparison that strikes me is Tiger is hitting more greens this year and putting from farther away but sinking more for a higher birdie conversion rate. This means he has gotten a better handle on distance control and on sinking putts in the 12-20' range. That's a pretty frightening development!

Steve Williams has told Tiger that according to detailed stats, the most important stat for Tiger is 3-putt avoidance, since the stats show that if Tiger can avoid a 3-putt for all 4 rounds of an event he has an 85% chance of beating every golfer in the field of 150+ golfers, and all other golfers taken together have no better than 15% of besting Tiger (which is 6 chances of 7 for Tiger and only 1 chance in 7 for everyone else collectively).

Technically, Woods' stroke is "okay" and gets the job done of rolling his ball where he aims it. Now he has added better pace control on a consistent basis. But probably more than that, he reads putts very well in the range of 12' and out and then marries the read to his touch and his commitment to start line. It may not seem too dramatic, but apparently doing this consistently takes a lot of guts that other players just don't have.

Here is the post-WGC assessment by Stewart Cink and Tiger Woods about the inner game:

"I think he just has such a strong sense of belief in himself that he's just never out of it," Cink said. "He's never going to mess up. He's just always in control. He never loses his composure.
"He gets mad; that's not what I'm referring to. But he never loses his composure. He always stays very poised, and he doesn't very often throw away a shot."
Woods sees things more simply, though.
"I love winning and I hate losing," he said. "My father was the same way. Anyone in here who knows my mom -- my mom is probably more fiery than my dad. That's kind of the household I grew up in.
"We were always competitive. You never backed down to anybody. And that's the fun part about competing; it's the fun thing about playing sports. My dad, in his former occupation, you back down, you die. So you can't have that mentality." PGA Tour News.

The composure does not automatically accompany determination -- that's a learned combination. In other words, Tiger is composed because he has learned that composure helps him reach his determined goal of succeeding with each shot and of winning the event or match. The only way you remain composed under the so-called "pressure" of the PGA Tour is to convert the pressure into fuel for composure -- like it, want it, thrive on it, and convert it to composure.

The instincts really don't like fear when it comes to precision. The instincts are just fine when it comes to "getting the heck out of Dodge the quickest and shortest way possible", but that's not what sort of instincts are needed for precision-based success in putting. For that, the instincts want a base of mental and physical relaxation or composure. Then the well-bucket comes up brimming full from the depths of the well, whereas under stress the bucket has cracks and holes in it and you have to haul it up as fast as possible to minimize the spillage.

So why doesn't "determination" result in stress? The usual way we think of determination is "gritting the teeth" and "bearing down". This sort of "tightening up" determination is not really what Tiger has going on. For Tiger, I believe, his determination drives him to "playing the game with his best skills". He really, really LIKES when his skills succeed, whether it is an approach shot or a putt. Over time, this "liking" has addicted him to enjoying himself when he plays golf even at the highest level. That's why Tiger most intensely enjoys the really competitive matches: against Bob May, against Jim Furyk, against Mark O'Meara, against Aaron Baddeley. The intensity of competition requires him to resort to this addictive enjoyment of successful execution of skills. So he just relaxes and has fun, and this composure lets the instincts make their valuable contribution to the precision of the shot or the putt. Does anyone recall the next-day playoff against Tom Lehman Tiger had very early in his pro career: Tiger stepped up and nailed a shot to inches and polished the contest off with the first blow.

Perhaps another key to all this is Earl Woods' "calm, nice demeanor". That's primarily what his father was known for when he was a young athlete, the first non-white baseball player on the Kansas State Wildcats team in the racism-filled 1950s. Earl was quiet, never ruffled, and always nice. Tiger was Raised by a Wildcat, Tulsa World, Aug. 3, 2007.

If you re-read Tiger's comments above, there is a curious combination of "life and death competition" with "the fun of sports". He talks about the military warrior's absolute necessity to "never back down" or else the warrior dies, and then he associates this with the reason why sports are "fun". Some people might consider thinking that way about a game was a little less than sane and healthy. Never backing down in sports is the equivalent of embracing life and avoiding a violent death in combat. I imagine that Jung would see a very high energy level in this mental configuration. In the language of the archetype, Tiger is on a "quest" to fulfill his "heroic destiny", albeit in the social-historical confines of a "game". One wonders how well Tiger would have held up on Iwo Jima or under repeated assault in Sergeant Ernie Savage's "lost platoon" on the knoll in the Ia Drang valley of November 1965. Battle of Ia Drang.

Earl Woods (Pops) joined the Army after graduating from KSU and became an officer. He was in Vietnam before 1963, trained as a Green Beret at Ft Bragg NC in 1963, and returned to a second full tour of Vietnam in 1970. He rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. he was nearly killed any number of times, as could be expected. The pressure of combat seems to have combined with his natural personality and the military discipline of the officer corp for responsibility of the life or death of others to result in "focus and concentration" on the reality at hand and getting the job done right. All of the "mental toughness" training that Earl used in raising Tiger as a golfer stems from this experience.

So, for Tiger, a golf tournament is a battle with life and death consequences, and he enters the field with this sort of focus and concentration. As a kid, Earl was the father UNTIL it became tournament time, and then Tiger became the father and told Earl when they had to leave the house, when the tee-time would be, how long he had to practice after his round, and when they could head home.

Earl Woods: "'The idea of me as a controlling father is 180 degrees from the truth,' he says. 'It was never a question of me forcing Tiger to play golf. Everything came from him. We transcended the father-son thing when he was five. We became best friends, equals. The normal way of things is that the father is always in command. That wasn't the case with us because when we went to a golf tournament I would be the father until we signed in, then Tiger took over as the father and I was the son. He would tell me what time we had to get there, when his tee-time was; he learnt to compute travel time and warm-up time and practice time. After the tournament was finished he would always practise. He would tell me when it was time to go home, and then as we were checking out of the hotel or going to the airport, our roles were reversed back again. I became the father again." Old Father Shrine, London Guardian, Observer Sports Monthly, Apr. 7, 2002. At tournament time, Tiger takes over command.

But what about the "courage" part? It's one thing to have mental toughness and to enter the field of battle, but it's quite another to surmount the paralyzing fear that comes with real war. During the first day's battle at Ia Drang, the North Vietnamese forces swarmed into Alpha Company at Landing Zone X-Ray, in the river valley at the base of the enemy's Iron Triangle stronghold of the Central Highlands plateau of Chu Pong Mountain. The Alpha Company was defended mainly by two M-60 machine gun positions:

"Covering the critical left flank from being rolled up by the North Vietnamese were two of Alpha's machine gun crews positioned 75 yards southwest of the company's main position. Specialist Theron Ladner (with his assistant gunner Private First Class Rodriguez Rivera) and Specialist 4 Russell Adams (with a-gunner Specialist 4 Bill Beck) had positioned their guns 10 yards apart from one another and proceeded to pour heavy fire into the Viet Cong forces attempting to cut into the perimeter between Charlie and Alpha companies. Moore later credited the two gun teams with single-handedly preventing the PAVN from rolling up Alpha Company and driving a wedge into the battalion between Alpha and Charlie.
Adams and Rivera were severely wounded in the onslaught. After the two were carried to the battalion's collection point at Moore's command post to await evacuation by air, Beck, Ladner, and Private First Class Edward Dougherty (an ammo-bearer) continued their close range suppression of the Viet Cong advance.
Beck later said of the battle:
"When Doc Nall was there with me, working on Russell, fear, real fear, hit me. Fear like I had never known before. Fear comes, and once you recognize it and accept it, it passes just as fast as it comes, and you don't really think about it anymore. You just do what you have to do, but you learn the real meaning of fear and life and death. For the next two hours I was alone on that gun, shooting at the enemy." Battle of Ia Drang.

Combat "bravery" apparently means accepting that you cannot avoid the overwhelming fear and yet still must function or die. There certainly is some of that spirit or attitude that comes thru Earl's training of Tiger. Tiger was named after the Vietnamese officer Vuong Dang Phong, who saved Earl's life more than once. Earl nicknamed him Tiger, and later named his son Tiger in the hope that his son would be as courageous as his friend in combat. Matt Doeden, Tiger Woods, p 5.

I think the bottom line is probably something about WHY Tiger is able to view golf with this "life and death" potency, when everyone knows it's really just a game. I suspect it is Tiger's way of honoring his father's dignity, by which he was enabled to embrace life despite a world with racism and the horror of war.

Earl Woods on Scotland, the Home of Golf: "That place sucks. It's for white people. People had better be glad that the Scots lived there instead of the soul brothers or golf would never have been invented. We wouldn't have been stupid enough to go out in that weather and play a silly-ass game and freeze to death. We would have stayed inside, listening to jazz, laughing and joking and drinking rum." Old Father Shrine, London Guardian, Observer Sports Monthly, Apr. 7, 2002.

Quite right. And so Earl played jazz for Tiger when Tiger was only five days old. Tiger's father Earl Woods dies at 74, USA Today, May 4, 2006. And Tiger fixing Pop a Jack Daniels and ginger one Thanksgiving visit home from Stanford:

Earl Woods: "He didn't drink before he went to Stanford, but this time he came home for Thanksgiving and I was lying on my bed having a drink and he says "What are you drinking Pop?" and I said a Pepsi and he said, "Give me that." He went and fixed me a drink in the kitchen - a Jack Daniels and ginger - and then he comes back in the room and says "Come on Pop, let's have our first drink together". We walked down to the little park down the street and we sat down and reminisced about his school, what he was doing and how wonderful it was to sit there and have our first drink together. That's the one Jack Daniels and ginger I will always remember." Old Father Shrine, London Guardian.

And so, golf is war.

Ear Woods: Playing golf with Tiger
"It's a war, but it is also an exquisite pleasure. The last time we played together was two Christmases ago, at Big Canyon Country Club in Newport Beach. The thing I remember most about the day is that Tiger made a hole in one and then I almost put one right on top of it and the only thing he said was "good shot"." Old Father Shrine, London Guardian.


Geoff Mangum
Putting Coach and Theorist

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Saturday, February 23, 2008

Review of "Success on the Green"

Tour Pro Tips and Tricks, February 23, 2008: a review of "Success on the Green: PGA Tour Pros' Secrets for Putting Your Best", by Steve Hosid, with Lee Janzen, Jim Furyk, Rocco Mediate, and Dave Stockton Jr. (Shady Oak Press, 2008).

This just-released book about putting features four tour pros (Lee Janzen, Jim Furyk, Rocco Mediate from the PGA Tour, and Dave Stockton Jr. from the Champions Tour) offering their pro tips and tricks "for putting your best." The whole is organized according to writer/photographer Steve Hosid, a resident of Bay Hill and a friend of Martin Hall. For many of the tips and tricks, Martin Hall offers drills and training aids to consolidate the notions offered by the pros.

For each aspect of putting, there are photos of each pro illustrating his personal take on the issue (e.g., backstroke path, grip, setup, etc.). Naturally, the overarching theme is expressed by Hosid: "There's no one technique that fits all. The important thing is to find a style with which you are comfortable. Each of our professionals has a different technique and, in some cases, a different length putter. All are successful. While their individual styles may not suit you, much can be learned from their advice, drills and practice lessons."

This approach means that true fundamentals for reading, aiming, stroking, and controlling pace or distance will not be tackled, and instead a standard variety of the magazine "slice and dice" approach is offered with the imprimatur of "successful" tour pros. The book is heavily weighted on stroke mechanics and technique and equipment, and has next to nothing of substance for reading putts, controlling distance, or aiming the putter. As usual, unfortunately.

Even so, it's fun to see what this particular collection of pros has to offer. There are some oddities of lore floating around here like positioning your dominant eye above the ball and reliance upon the so-called "eye line" to avoid beside-the-ball misperceptions of the line (with no appreciation for how the gaze direction of eyeball aim out of the face really determines the perceptual accuracy), but there is also a surprising degree of agreement on certain setup and stroke dynamics.

For example, the pros all agree that the shoulders should be set parallel to the target line and that the stroke should REMAIN square thru impact for a small distance at a minimum. That is a true fundamental.

But there is little else. When it comes to "reading" the line, one pro offers the idea that the he aims at the apex, which is obviously incorrect and always too low as an aim spot to set the start line of the putt. Other pros offer the usual notions that the ball can enter the hole along different paths, that the eyes need to get low to see surface contour better than when the eyes are high in the air, that different speeds require different breaking paths or curves, that putts break most when the ball nears the hole, and that visualizing how water runs off helps see the break. The problem is that none of this tells a golfer how he can accurately perceive the breaking curve. That requires knowing how surface perceptions of contour integrate with green speed and ball rolling speed given the golfer's touch. There is no discussion along these lines at all.

The same goes for touch. Controlling the distance or pace of the putt is agreed to be the most important skill for putting. But again, as usual, there is nothing insightful offered by the pros about how touch works or is learned or used. All the suggestions and drills skip the relationship between targeting and stroke timing, with the result that the golfer is left with practice "tasks" or "games" to accomplish (sinking putts from 3, 6, and 9 feet; rolling the ball into a configuration of clubs laying on the green; having your breaking putts end up being long enough and coming in from the high side; etc.). These practice approaches to touch teach the golfer nothing fundamental about touch. The apparent hope is that years of practice will result in touch growing on the golfer like a fungus grows on a foot.

Aiming the putter face and assessing the accuracy of its aim is simply not discussed.

Even so, the vast majority of golfers are used to this "slice and dice" approach to putting that stays with setup and stroke mechanics while giving vague indications of the much superior "promised land" of "touch and feel" putting just over the next range of mountains somewhere. This being the case, most golfers will enjoy this book. And because the vast majority of golfers aren't especially knowledgeable about setup and stroke, most golfers will also "benefit" in some measure by engaging with this book, as the technical offerings are not pointedly incorrect or hurtful in any significant sense -- they are mostly conventional when in agreement and not too important when in disagreement. The main thing is getting it direct from the horse's mouth how Jim Furyk and Dave Stockton Jr. think about putting.

That alone is well worth the price. Physically, this is a large-format paperback book with color photography throughout on glossy paper stock, printed in China. So it's a nice object for a retail price of only $14.95. You can't beat that price.

Geoff Mangum
Putting Coach and Theorist
The PuttingZone
author of Optimal Putting: Brain Science, Instincts, and the Four Skills of Putting (2008).