A couple of things we already know. Putts break towards water or the sea or into a valley. They break more at the end than they do at the beginning and no matter how experienced you might be, there is always an element of guesswork when it comes to reading a green. Surely, there can’t be too many people who would disagree with that synopsis.
Adam Scott doesn’t agree. Hunter Mahan doesn’t agree. Stacey Lewis doesn’t agree and 200 qualified instructors in AimPoint don’t agree either. On top of that, there’s a club pro called Jamie Donaldson (not to be mistaken for a certain Ryder Cup hero) who doesn’t agree either. What’s it got to do with him? Quite a lot actually. Donaldson used to teach the full swing at a driving range near Cambridge, but now, thanks to AimPoint, he’s become a specialist putting coach sought out by some of golf’s biggest names.
And what does he have that they don’t have? The ability to read greens with astonishing accuracy. Donaldson remembers a moment with former US Open champion Michael Campbell discussing the break on a putt and predicting its behaviour. “Cambo popped a tee in the ground where he felt he should aim and looked at me to make my call,” he recalls.
The former driving range pro then set about a unique routine that he himself developed with AimPoint’s founder Mark Sweeney. He stood close to the line to gauge break before walking back behind the ball, holding up his hand and squinting as if someone was dazzling him with a torch.
“No, it’s here,” said Donaldson, doubling the break on the putt. Campbell laughed at him, shook his head, and then set the ball off on Donaldson’s predicted route. It arced and arced and arced and dropped into the hole at the first attempt. “We need to have a chat,” said the former US Open champion, although at that point he wasn’t laughing.
“That’s what I love,” says Donaldson now, “it’s the cynics. They are the best people to work with because it’s like being that magician on the street, Dynamo. Have you seen him? Have you seen the reaction he gets sometimes? There’s nothing better than to meet someone intent on proving you wrong only for them to look incredulous as you make it impossible for them to doubt you.”
Breaking new ground
The AimPoint technique has been developed into what it is now – an express method of reading the break on a putt as you play that you see many pros using today – over five years. Currently only two players have broken the barrier of 100 putts for four rounds of a tournament. AimPoint fully expects that number to grow over the next couple of seasons. As Scott leads a growing army of AimPoint graduates, certain statistics in putting seem set to change.
“The average birdie putt on Tour is 17.5 feet,” says Donaldson. “The world’s best are converting just 16 per cent of those. Move it back to 20 feet and it drops to 14 per cent. That gives us 86 per cent to work on and we are confident we can bring that number down. If we do those pros make more money. We have their attention.” And they have their attention because the AimPoint system gives players confidence that, for the first time, they are aiming in the correct place.
“When I stand over a six-footer I have a game plan,” says Scott. “I know where the putt needs to go and that gives me great confidence. It also means the pressure is less on the long putts because anything inside six feet feels like it’s in my comfort area.”
Misreads are the single most common cause of a missed putt. If you don’t aim in the right place then it’s unlikely, unless you hit a terrible putt, that you’re going to hole it. “You know there is some irony there,” says Donaldson. “We’ve started to realise that even the pros don’t read putts all that accurately. But they hole quite a few because they have manipulations ingrained into their strokes.” Donaldson explains it by saying a robot with a perfect stroke will hole nothing if it aims in the wrong place.
Whereas, give the robot a stroke that is variable and it will sometimes be successful whether it aims in the right place or not. And many golfers, being perfectionists, do hate leaving matters to chance.
Sir Nick Faldo once said something similar when he was discussing playing with Colin Montgomerie in the Ryder Cup. “We used to agree on a line, but then I’d see him aiming in the wrong place, but he’d still hole it. I learned pretty quickly just to let him get on with it.” But Donaldson is keen to promote AimPoint as a system for pros and amateurs alike. It’s very easy to watch players like Adam Scott roll in putts from 12 feet for birdie and just think, ‘Well, he does it for a living, he’s bound to be better than us’.
Amateurs have a habit of under-borrowing and over-hitting, which maybe something to do with their subconscious knowing that they haven’t allowed enough break and, therefore, hit it harder so that it holds its line.
Making putting predictable
“This whole journey started for me when I was asked for some tips on how to read greens,” says Donaldson. “I went home and did some research – books, videos, the internet – and found next to nothing that would help me. I realised that the whole green reading art is something that teachers and coaches have ignored for years.”
What he did find though was AimPoint instructor John Graham, who worked out of New York. “I was always bringing experts in to deliver seminars to my clients, which included a couple of Senior Tour players, a lot of mini tour players and the general public. I call them the golf perverts, regular lesson takers. I sent out a message asking if anyone wanted to attend a green reading class and I had 48 responses within a day.”
A couple of years earlier in 2009, Mark Sweeney, a computer whizz from Texas, was watching golf on TV when it occurred to him how cool it would be if the audience could see the correct line of a putt before the player hit it. He developed a three-dimensional laser scan that could plot every nuance and break on a green so that the television broadcasters could do exactly that. His program was accurate to a 32nd-of-an-inch and delivered a one per cent error rating in eight years on TV.
The success of this project taught Sweeney that putting was predictable. He created a chart that looked like four dart boards, each relating to a percentage of slope, and it had 600 numbers on it. It was possible to calculate using the angle that you’re crossing the slope, plus the distance, what the break would be. When John Graham arrived in Cambridge to meet the ‘golf perverts’, he left an indelible impression. Some could see the merits, while others were baffled with the maths. But Donaldson was mesmerised and excited.
“When I saw this thing, I realised it was complex but it got me very interested, very quickly. At that time, you had to identify green shapes and understand the topography. There were patterns that would happen and you needed to recognise them visually. Once you were able to do that then there was a way of calculating break. It was very technical then.” Two weeks later, Mark Sweeney rescheduled a flight from Bangkok to visit Donaldson in Cambridge. The pair locked themselves in an office and talked. Sweeney explained all his findings and it was a meeting that was to change Donaldson’s life for good.
“I was working with the PGA at the time, teaching club pros how to teach, not what to teach. I was able to apply that to Mark’s system to make it easier to follow. I said to him, ‘This product is incredible but it’s too hard to understand’. We took a very technical system and, in two years, turned it into something we can teach eight-year-olds.”
Donaldson had been climbing the ladder with the PGA, but the higher he got the less he enjoyed it. “You had to fall into line. The better the player was, the less you could be creative with them. I didn’t like that.” This claustrophobic structure meant that he fell out of love with teaching the full swing. “I think that AimPoint is a game changer. We teach the express read so you can cope with any putt you might face. If you look at the significant changes in golf development over the years, from teaching the swing through to new equipment, I’d say helping players get a perfect read every time will be right up there in the game’s history.”
Donaldson says that most of the pros he’s met haven’t enjoyed putting because they have never been certain of what they are doing. There has always been a small element of hit and hope. AimPoint has allowed them to take off the blindfolds and make it fun.
Jamie shows you how to read greens like Adam Scott
Use weight distribution to gauge the slope
Stand a pace behind the ball with your feet slightly apart so you can judge which foot carries most of your weight. Focus on the horizon and feel your weight distribution. Give the amount of slope you feel a grade between one and six – two is about average. Repeat this process halfway towards the hole for greater accuracy on longer putts.
Line up your fingers to find the AimPoint
Return to your spot a pace or so behind the ball to decipher a precise point on the green at which to aim. This is done using the grade of the slope and your fingers. Stretch your arm out in front of you and hold up the number of fingers that corresponds to the grade you gave the slope. Line up the edge of your finger with the hole.
Place a tee peg on your AimPoint in practice
The outside of your finger gives you the precise point where you need to aim in order to hole the putt when hit with the correct speed to go nine inches past the hole. You can place a tee peg in the ground at your AimPoint to help you in practice. Most amateurs under-read putts so you’ll be amazed at the true amount of break.
Start your putt at the AimPoint for success
Set up at the AimPoint and start your putt on line safe in the knowledge that the read is 99% accurate. Confidence in an accurate read will improve your technique because you won’t feel the need to make adjustments or manipulations during your stroke. You can learn to subtly adjust the read for different conditions at an AimPoint class.