10 rules

10 Rules For Reading Greens

Jim (Bones) Mackay

Don't sell your sensory awareness short: Amazing as it might seem, almost everyone will get information from the stand-at-address perspective that you can't gather from reading the green with your eyes.

October 2009

01. First sight is best sight. I've caddied for Phil Mickelson since 1992 and have seen some tremendous golf along the way, but the first nine holes on Sunday of this year's Masters was the most exciting front nine I've ever seen. Phil got it going early, birdieing the second, third and fifth holes, and then hitting it three feet under the hole at the sixth. We grinded on that three-footer for a long time, because we had opposite reads, which is rare. Phil saw it as a left-edge putt, and I saw it right edge. As I looked at it more, I began to get confused. That's the problem with studying a putt for too long; you end up seeing things that aren't there. Fortunately, I snapped out of it and stuck with my first read. Phil drilled the putt dead-center to keep his charge going. When it comes to reading greens, what the old-timers say is true: Your first instinct is best. So trust it.

02. Read with your feet, too. To get a perfect read on one of Phil's putts, I stand over the ball as though I'm going to hit it. I get a great sense of the break not only with my eyes, but with my feet. When I look down at the ball, I can tell immediately whether it's a fraction of an inch higher or lower than my feet. Then I factor that in along with what I see from the other perspectives. Don't sell your sensory awareness short: Amazing as it might seem, almost everyone will get information from the stand-at-address perspective that you can't gather from reading the green with your eyes.

03. Speed doesn't always kill. Phil possesses one of the rarest traits a golfer can have: He doesn't hesitate to negate break on putts by hitting them firmly. This is true even on fast greens, where the consequences of missing are severe, and it's especially true under pressure. His boldness and faith in his ability are what separate him from other players. An example of this came during the 2005 PGA Championship at Baltusrol. I read only a handful of putts for Phil the entire week because he had the greens wired and didn't need my input. But on the final hole, Phil pitched his third shot to within two feet and then out of the blue asked me to look at the putt and confirm his feeling that it might break to the right. As always I did my best to help him. Although it was a short putt, he needed it to win his second major. It only got worse when I looked at the putt, because I didn't see it moving right at all. I told Phil, "I like it straight. If you put a little speed on it and hit it dead center, it won't have time to move." Phil banged in the putt to win. On days when you're putting well, don't be afraid to cut the read on short putts in half and firm them in.

04. Develop an insurance read. One of the toughest reads is the six-footer that has a small but telling amount of break -- half a ball outside the edge, for example. After reading from my customary angles and making a decision, I use a final insurance read that gives me a feeling of certainty. Your insurance read can be any technique you like, but for me it consists of lining up the putt in the standard way -- squatting behind the ball -- and then imagining how the ball would behave if I started it dead center. I'll almost always see the ball peeling off a certain amount left or right, so then I know to aim that far out on the other side. Like I say, the insurance read can be anything, but you should have one.

05. One read for bent, two for Bermuda. On Bermuda greens, which are slower and have more grain than bent-grass greens, I give two reads: a firm-speed read and a dying-speed read. You have options because you can afford to take some of the break out of the putt by hitting it harder, knowing the ball won't roll too far past. On bent-grass greens, however, there really is only one true read: one where the ball will roll a foot and a half by the hole if it doesn't go in.

At Augusta, where the bent-grass greens are free of grain and as fast as they get, the reads are simplified, and Phil and I decide on a line based on our mutual understanding of that one speed. When you're reading greens for a partner, though, make sure you're speaking the same language, and with consideration for the surface you're playing.

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