If you’ve ever played or watched golf, you’ve likely heard that putts break toward the nearest body of water, or away from the mountains.
Myth or fact?
Well, it depends. That’s the consensus we arrived at after talking with putting savant Brad Faxon, Senior PGA Champion Rocco Mediate, and Ryder Cup Captains Davis Love III and Jim Furyk, all guys who know how to get it done with the flat stick.
Here’s how they read the greens and, who knows, maybe it’ll even help you roll in more putts the next time you play.
“The ball definitely does break toward water or away from the mountains … but sometimes it doesn’t,” Mediate said. “Sounds stupid, right? Good luck. It’s so weird.”
That doesn’t really help.
“You hear these statements that sound like someone is telling you, ‘It only happens here,’” said Faxon, an eight-time PGA Tour winner and regarded by many as the best putter in world. “But there’s a reason for it.”
That reason, it would seem, is common sense. If you place a golf ball on the floor of a bathtub – the side opposite the drain – it’s going to funnel toward the drain. If you have a closely-mown hill in your back yard and place a soccer ball at the top of the hill, is it going to roll further up the hill, or is it going to roll down the hill?
It seems like pretty basic stuff, folks. But, just when you start thinking it’s basic, that’s when it gets really, really complicated.
Kind of like the game of golf.
In a recent pro-member outing at Emerald Dunes in south Florida, Mediate said he felt like his eyes were deceiving him. He would see the grain in the green going to the right – in the same direction as the low point -- and figured, understandably, it meant the putt would break to the right.
But the ball often would break left, which meant many of Mediate’s putts were missing on the left side of the hole.
“The greens are like 2 years old, they redid them, but you can see the grain,” he explained. “It’s so strong -- at least it looks that way. But, man, it’s not.
“That’s how hard putting is. I’d seriously rather have a 3-iron into the green than have a 20-footer with grain going everywhere. You have to respect the way the grain is going. But sometimes it’ll bite you in the butt.”
Furyk, a 17-time PGA Tour winner and 2018 Ryder Cup USA Captain, said that the exception to the rule that balls break toward water and away from mountains is generally encountered on newer courses.
“There are a lot of modern courses out there today that push a lot of dirt around,” said Furyk, the 2003 U.S. Open Champion. “There’s a lot of manmade lakes, or water features, what have you. In that case, the rule of thumb might be overblown -- it won’t always hold true because things have been manipulated. It’s not ‘natural.’”
Playing a round near mountainous terrain makes it a little easier to follow the theory … maybe.
“With the mountains up there and the water down there, there’s definitely influence,” Mediate said. “Riviera Country Club is a prime example. Everything breaks to below the sixth green. You have to respect that or you’re going to get beat. Now, if they rip the greens up and do them over again? You can’t respect it anymore. All bets are off. That’s why it’s so hard. You have to respect it, but a lot of times it doesn’t happen the way you think it’s going to happen.”
On older courses, Furyk said, you can feel fairly comfortable with the idea that putts will break toward the low point of the course or away from the high points.
“As a general rule of thumb, I do think it’s a good idea to pay attention to where the low area of the course is -- usually water -- or in the mountains, paying attention to what direction you’re putting in relation to the mountains,” he said. “It’s especially helpful on an older golf course, where the course was cut into the land. Or they used the natural property.
“A lot of times when you’re playing next to a mountain, what looks flat, or what looks cut back into the mountain really isn’t. Everything kind of drains downhill. Think of an old golf course along the ocean, or on a river, or even on a natural pond. Everything will kind of funnel or drain toward that pond. That’s why it’s full of water. I think the idea that the ball is pulling that way is just because the land may be gently sloping that way.”
Love, a 21-time PGA Tour winner, a PGA Champion and a two-time Ryder Cup USA Captain, knows a thing or two about putting.
Here’s where he stands on the issue:
“For a long time I thought Johnny Miller was overanalyzing grain when he talked about bent-grass greens having grain like the Bermuda-grass I grew up playing on,” Love said. “But after years on Tour, I realized that while Bermuda is the strongest grain, most all greens of any type grass that are slow-to-medium speed have a little grain.
“Extremely fast green like at the Masters have most of the grass and grain cut off. That lessens the effect. But most grain grows downhill, to the setting sun and with the flow of water -- downhill, obviously. So if the green slopes towards water, then grain and slope will take it there. If it's an almost flat green, imagine where the water is going off the green when it rains, and there’s the grain and slope. On Bermuda and flat bent-grass greens, the setting sun has a huge effect on grain and therefore where putts break. So if it's downhill a little, to the setting sun, at Pebble Beach where sun sets in the west over the ocean, it's really fast! And slow going the other way.
“Long story short: I don't think just toward the water can be used as a general rule.”
Faxon, given his history on greens around the world, would seem as qualified as anyone to put this debate in perspective.
“There’s always these mystical things about putts that break toward water, or away from mountains, or toward the setting sun,” Faxon said. “In Palm Springs, they say everything goes toward Indio. What it means to me is this: Putts break down hills. Gravity and laws of physics have proven that. Water is the lowest point on the course -- Rae’s Creek at Augusta. The truth is putts break that way because water is typically the lowest point on the course. If a green is below water, it won’t break up the hill because it’s not going uphill. Putts away from mountains are not going uphill. The nap of the green -- people say -- follows the sun. There’s no science that would prove a putt can break going toward a hill.”
So much conviction.
But are you ready to have your mind blown?
Faxon reached back 27 years to share the story of when he momentarily had to question everything he believed regarding how putts break.
During a practice round for the 1994 Open Championship at Turnberry, Faxon played a practice round with Love, Corey Pavin and Ben Crenshaw. They had a match where if a player in the group played the entire round without a bogey, the other three had to pay the bogey-free man $1,000 – “huge money back then,” Faxon said.
As Faxon recalls, Love and Crenshaw were out early. By about the 11th hole, Pavin made a bogey and he was out.
That left Faxon with a chance to collect $3,000 from his buddies. At the 16th hole, a par 4, Faxon struck a 30-foot birdie putt that rolled 4 feet past the hole. In his words, it was a fairly easy uphill putt for par, but he was nervous with all the money riding on it.
His playing partners were nervous too, since they didn’t want to pay the money out.
“Crenshaw was the nicest in the group to me when it came to the needling,” Faxon said. “He hadn’t needled me all day. Then, right before I set up to hit the putt, he said, ‘Watch out for the Electric Brae.’ I was so nervous and wondering, ‘What the heck is the Electric Brae?’”
So Faxon asked.
Crenshaw explained that “Electric Brae” is a hill in Ayrshire, Scotland (Turnberry is in South Ayrshire). At Electric Brae, if a car is left in neutral, it will appear to be drawn uphill by some mysterious pull. Simply put, if you leave your car in neutral, it will roll uphill instead of downhill.
“It’s just an optical illusion,” Faxon said. “But it certainly had me thinking before I stepped over that putt. I reminded Ben about that story when I saw him last week. He laughs whenever I bring it up.”
Faxon blocked out Crenshaw’s “advice” and managed to make the par putt.
“And, yes, I won the $1,000,” he laughed. “What was funny was that after that par on 16, No. 17 was an easy par 5 and I asked if they wanted to buy me out for $950. They said no. After a good drive on 18, I asked if they wanted to buy me out for $975. They said no again. On 18, I hit my approach to the same spot Tom Watson did when he had a chance to win at 59 years old in 2009, but mine held the green. I made my par and took all the money.”
I asked Love if he remembered that practice round and that moment Faxon had with Crenshaw at the 16th green. He did.
Love also remembered what was going through his head as Faxon closed out the hefty bet amongst the four players: “What was I thinking making a bet like that with three of the best putters in the world?”
Which, it turns out, is more than we’ll ever be able to say about all this “how putts break” stuff.