Whether it’s a junior golf tournament or a casual round, scores are made or broken by putting ability; when it comes to tournaments for younger players, the question is really who can 3-putt the least. Your junior golfer needs distance control – mastering the skill of lag putting so that, at worst, they can 2-putt every hole.
I’ve found that Henry often has an intuitive feel for how hard to hit something. The problem is that this “feel” tends to be sporadic or doesn’t adjust well to changes in conditions. If he isn’t thinking about it, and has adjusted to the green somewhat, his lag putting tends to be pretty good. When you add the pressure of wanting to shoot a low score, or add additional layers to the process (like marking his ball) that ability can quickly disappear.
So how do you train your junior golfer to feel distances effectively and consistently? How do you make that feel durable and portable so that they can take it to a competition?
Train your unconscious mind
Thinking too much about the mechanics of putting tend to result in a degradation of feel. Junior golfers in a pressure situation – especially those who have had coaching – may start to think about all the putting feedback they’ve received: “shorter backswing”, “eyes over the ball”, etc. These conscious thoughts tend to get in the way of the unconscious mind – the part of them that intuitively understands how hard to hit the ball.
Allowing your unconscious mind to feel the distance is only part of the equation however – your junior golfer must also learn to calibrate it through thoughtful practice that engages their senses. So how do we unlock their unconscious mind? How do we train it to be good at putting?
Because we don’t really talk about unconscious vs. conscious mind to our junior golfers (I don’t anyway), I build this sort of training into our practice in several ways.
Training your feet
During putting practice – especially from specific distances – try having your junior golfer putt one ball at a time. After each putt, have them either retrieve the ball or push it aside – walking to the ball they just hit. As they walk back to prepare for the next putt, have them look back at the hole.
Although this practice tends to take more time (sometimes lots more time), it does a terrific job of engaging their entire body and senses in understanding both how far something is and how their body should react when putting a ball to a similar length. This extra effort is more palatable if you tell your junior golfer that you are “training their feet”. It may sound silly to them, but in a way that is exactly what you are doing.
For this drill to translate to the golf course, you need to get them in a habit of marking their ball, walking to the other side of the cup, and walking back to their ball (while also occasionally looking back at the cup). This “wakes up” their subconscious mind and allows them to tap into their past experiences.
Practicing practice putts
You read that right! During putting practice, have your junior golfer take a practice putt before hitting the ball. Ask them if that putting stroke was too soft, just right, or too hard; ask them where that ball would end up? Then, have them adjust their practice swing until it’s just right before hitting their putt.
This might sound a bit like overkill, but this drill is helpful since it temporarily takes the ball out of the equation and allows your junior golfer to feel the swing on its own – then test whether or not their idea of feel was correct. These skills directly translate to the golf course if you can get them into the habit of taking practice swings before each putt. By the time they hit the putt that actually counts, they’ll have rehearsed their feeling for distance several times.
Practice as if it is “real”
When you practice putting, build in time to replicate some of the conditions and circumstances that they will encounter on the course. Use some friendly competition (if they will tolerate it) and have them mark their ball after their turn. Have them read the green like their putt will matter – taking the time to walk to the hole and back. While this sort of practice isn’t necessary all the time, the idea is to do enough of it so that when your junior golfer is in a pressure situation, that they’ve gone through the motions enough times that their actions feel natural.
This sort of practice also gives your junior golfer the opportunity to build up a memory bank of positive associations with some of the things they usually only do in tournament play. If they have hundreds of positive memories of draining the putt after they mark the ball, then some of the fear out of hitting that putt goes away. Contrast this with a golfer who never marks their ball outside tournament play and misses several putts.
Training for distance control doesn’t happen overnight, it takes a lot of practice to dial in the feel for how hard to hit it. Hopefully, with these drills, your junior golfer will get more out of putting practice and be able to take what they’ve learned out on the course.