The Case of the Dangling Putter
Putting is such a difficult art and costs the golfer so many strokes that it is not surprising that all sorts of aids, devices and techniques are applied to pop the ball into the hole. It is said that Joe Davis, the World Snooker champion for many years, had a cue tip fitted to the shaft of his putter and proceded to pot the ball from a prone position on the green. Needless to say, this was deemed to be illegal. More recently, the long shafted putter, anchored to the chest or chin was also outlawed.
Every aspect of this part of the game has been analysed to death. But there is one factor, the methods used to assess the amount of borrow in a putt, which have caused me some puzzlement. Many people stand with a putter hanging in front of them, close one eye, stare at the ball on the green with the other and take a putt with some confidence. I have asked dozens of golfers, mostly in our club, but many others beside exactly what they are looking for and how it helps them putt. Almost all say something similar. They claim to stand behind their ball with the vertical putter shaft hanging at arms length in front of them and they line up the shaft with the ball. If the hole then appears to the right of the shaft then they know that the putt will roll off to the right and therefore they aim to the left.
This is where doubts creep in. It is easily possible to move just a little to left or right and the hole will appear correspondingly to the left or right. Try it and see. But adherents to the method are not to be moved. They say that if you do that you are no longer standing directly on the hole/ball line. But how are you to know where the hole/ball line is? The putter danglers have got it back to front. A vertical putter can always be made to line up with the hole and the ball and when that happens then you are directly behind the ball. And this is the crux of the matter. Since a perfect lining up is always possible and this only happens when the eye is on a vertical plane through the hole, the ball and the putter shaft, there is no variation to be seen. The dangling putter will always indicate a straight putt.
Even more puzzling to me is my almost universal failure to persuade any dangler to accept that dangling is useless. Even carefully made models brought into the clubhouse have been met with derision and a casual rejection with the words, "Well, it works for me". I will make one last attempt, however, and ask golfers who use the plumb bob technique to imagine a simplified model of a green which has a perfectly flat surface and where the information from the dangle is useless. Think of a snooker table. The bed of the table represents the green and is perfectly flat and level. Imagine that the table is supported not by legs but by a shaft that runs along the line of the black, pink, blue and brown spots. On the black spot is your ball and the hole is where the brown spot is. So, to take a sighting, stand behind the black spot, hang the putter and surely ball, hole and putter will all line up on the common vertical plane. Clearly it is a straight putt and the ball will roll perfectly down the middle of the table.Now allow the table to rotate a little about the axis running through the black and brown spots as just described. Let us say that the left hand side goes down and the right hand side goes up. Keep everything else as it is. The putter is still dangling, the ball is still on the black spot and the brown spot is still the target. Because the ball is on the line of rotation, it hasn’t moved. Neither has the hole for the same reason. The putter which also hasn't moved will be perfectly lined up as before. How could it not be? So the putt is straight down the middle? Of course not. You would have to aim slightly to the right. The method fails in this most simple and perfect of conditions. In practice, out on the course, anything can happen to the green between the ball and the hole but the plumb bob takes no account of this. It uses only the ball, the hole and a vertical.
Putting guru Dave Pelz in his book Dave Pelz's Putting Bible begins a section on page 172 headed Plumb Bobs Don't Work. His efforts to get this point across are a little different from mine and are well worth reading. He shows Ben Crenshaw and Hale Irwin with putters held aloft and wonders what they are doing. More recently I have spotted such luminaries of golf as J B Holmes, Ricky Fowler and Les Hopewell following suit. Surely there must be something in it you might say? I can only presume that the golfer has "read" the green subconsciously and somehow holds the putter in a position to confirm that reading. Incidentally, I tried hard to find a lady golfer plumb bobbing in the interests of equality but failed. But it wasn't a complete waste of time.
I did quiz a golfer visiting our club about this use of a putter and his answer was the best I have received. He said he was not attempting to divine the path of the putt, he had already done that by other traditional methods. He lined up the plumb bob with the direction the ball would start and looked for some mark on the green about four feet or so into its run so that when he was in position over the ball he had something to aim at. I think Jack Nicklaus did the same but without dangling his putter. I suggest we follow Jack.