Travelers Championship

TPC River Highlands

10 Rules For Reading Greens

September 10, 2009

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.

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.

06. Your partner must love the read. I've found an effective way of handling the times when I don't see the same line that Phil does. You might try it when your partner wants your opinion on a read. When Phil asks for my read, I'll make my case as convincingly as I can. But I make that argument only once. If Phil is not persuaded, I immediately back off and do all I can to give him confidence that his read is the correct one.

Don't be persistent and oversell your read, because if you wear your partner down to the point where he grudgingly goes along with you, he'll have only a half-hearted belief you're right. That sliver of doubt can lead to a bad stroke. But if you give your partner confidence that he has the right line, he'll usually make a decisive stroke, and then you've won half the battle. It's crucial that your partner love the read, even if you don't.

07. The best look: behind the hole. Before I began caddieing for Phil, I spent two years working for Larry Mize. Larry was and is a fantastic putter, and the best part of his putting was his green-reading. What I took from Larry was his habit of reading putts from behind the hole, looking up the line back toward the ball. Today that's the first read I make, and the most important one. It provides the most accurate perspective of all because you get a closer look at the last few feet of the ball's route to the hole. The area around the hole is critical: If there's any slope at all, the ball will react to it because it's rolling so slowly.


08. Be wary of plumb-bobbing. If you watch golf on TV, you'll notice that fewer players plumb-bob putts today than 20 years ago. Everybody used to do it, but the fact that the trend has quieted down tells me it's either too complicated to learn or doesn't work. I realize there are players who swear by it, but Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson never relied on plumb-bobbing, and who's putted better than they have? So if you don't plumb-bob already, don't start.

09. Know the local topography. During the Bob Hope, you'll hear a lot of remarks on how "everything breaks toward Indio." All that means is that Indio is the lowest part of the topography in the Palm Springs area, and that putts will pull slightly in that direction as if by a magnet. There are phenomena like that all over the country.

At the 1994 Las Vegas Invitational at TPC Summerlin, Phil shot a 63 the final day by taking into account that every putt breaks toward the Strip. When we play the Masters, we know that putts move toward the 12th green. When we play Riviera, it's a given that putts go toward No. 6. On mountain courses, balls tend to move away from the highest peak in the vicinity. On courses with no such landmarks, smaller features such as water hazards and creeks take over, because that's where water drains. If you ignore the local topography, you might be scratching your head all day long.

10. Respect the comebacker. There are occasions when you have to consider what will happen if you miss. At Pebble Beach this year, Phil's partner was his friend Charles Schwab. Playing the final hole of the third round, Phil was roughly in 50th place individually, but the Mickelson-Schwab team was doing great and on the verge of making the 25-team cut for the final day. By my calculation a birdie on the par-5 18th would get them in.

After a big drive, Phil slung a 5-iron out over the ocean and drew it back onto the green, about eight feet from the hole. Reading his putt for eagle, I noticed there were a huge number of spike marks and all kinds of footprints around the hole, which happens at Pebble late in the day. A 2½-footer in these conditions is no gimme, and I found myself saying something to Phil I had never said in all my years with him: "You have got to lag this close." Phil looked at me like I was from Mars, but after I whispered the situation he wasn't as aggressive as he might have been and knocked it up close for a tap-in birdie.

As it turned out, they needed the eagle to make the cut, and Phil has teased me a lot about my miscalculation. But my fear of a nasty comebacker was well-founded. If you're putting greens that are very fast or bumpy, you definitely want to be careful about being too aggressive.