By Ted Johnson
Dave Stockton, Sr. has a reputation as a wizard on the greens. As seen in his two PGA Championship wins, but even more so in his stellar play during the early 1990s on the Champions Tour, Stockton’s magic with the putter stood above just about all of his contemporaries.
To fellow competitors, Stockton hardly seemed imposing. He wasn’t all that long or straight off the tee, and “short and crooked” isn’t usually a formula for success. But he more than made up for it on and around the greens, where Stockton employed a unique routine.
One example of this routine: he wouldn’t take a practice stroke next to the ball. Also, he rarely walked around the putt to get a 360-degree view of the green’s terrain. Instead, he usually viewed the putt from behind the ball, his eyes on the target, his putter moving back and forth.
Now retired from competition, Stockton travels the country giving putting clinics to corporate clients (that is, when he’s not counseling Phil Mickelson on the PGA Tour). He also has a series of DVDs explaining his theories on putting, as seen at davestockton.com. It’s because of these accomplishments, as well as his many on Tour, that he was inducted into the fourth class of the SCGA Hall of Fame in October 2010.
When it comes to putting, Stockton goes outside the game to convey his theories.
“Get a piece of paper and write out your signature. Now, right below it, try to duplicate it, but slowly,” Stockton says. “You’ll find that you can’t get a good copy. Nothing close. Why? When you do it without thinking, your instincts take over.”
Taking this idea further, Stockton points out that billiards players don’t go to the side of the cue ball to prepare for the next shot. Rather, they will look over the shot from behind while casually practicing their stroke.
“Golf and pool, they’re both hand-eye coordination events,” Stockton says. “I always took a practice swing next to the ball on a full shot. I wanted to find out how heavy the rough was, or how to maintain my balance. But not on a putt. Like in billiards, the stroke is only 6 to 10 inches long. On the green, what does a practice stroke do for you? You’re not looking at the target, so you lose sight of the hole.”
Adding to the confusion, Stockton believes, those practice putting strokes allow mechanical analysis to get in the way of what the brain already has figured out. In any athletic event, learning fundamentals is important, to be sure. But once fundamentals are established, the accomplished golfer can become an elite putter through a mindset based on trust.
“Basically, the underlying principle is that to be an elite athlete in any sport, you have to learn how to do what you do,” Stockton points out. “But what elevates some into an elite athlete is that they learn to trust that they know how to do it, and they just do it.”
If these insights sound a little otherworldly, consider that Stockton doesn’t hit a putt. He “rolls” a putt. A player is not going to try a putt — he’s going to “feel” a putt. This outlook fits into his simple but direct routine:
1. Walk to the lower side of the putting line to judge slope.
2. Break the putt into three parts, with the most critical being the last third, where the ball is at its slowest and thus more likely to “break,” meaning change direction the most.
3. Stand behind the putt, both eyes on the line, then link the three parts to deliver the ball to the area that would bring the ball to the hole. This is done by practicing the needed stroke while looking at the hole — not the putter.
After that, it is just a matter of addressing the ball to ensure that the direction is correct, and then letting the mind take control of the putting stroke.
“It’s not rocket science,” Stockton notes. “You just find the routine that allows you to see the line that makes the ball go into the hole. If the ball is going to fall into the hole at the 3-o’clock position, you have to see it.”
And to see it, you have to think less mechanics and more magic. In other words, mechanics are out and intuition is in.
“Trust your instincts and let it go,” Stockton says. “You have to not care. You want to be in an unconscious state. If you think that you have to make the putt, that this putt means something, you won’t make it. You have to be comfortable and see the line. When I look over a putt, I say I have an idea. But that’s it. For me to spend an inordinate amount of time to make sure that I got it right, I have no chance.
“My routine hasn’t changed in 45 years,” he continues. “But it’s all about first signature. All about subconscious. I’m not saying that it’s easy, but it’s easier than most people think it is.”