See the Spider
by Geoff Mangum
The "fall line" of the green surface at the cup runs straight uphill-downhill thru the center of the cup, and the final path of all putts across the flat-but-tilted surface right around the hole makes a pattern like a spider with the legs all indicating different pathways into the hole. The size and shape of the spider changes from putt to putt, but in a scaled way, and the head of the spider is the SAME AIM SPOT for all putts of the same length. Learning how slope tilt, green speed, and distance of putt make the spider change size and shape a little, so you can accurately visualize the curve or path of the one "leg" of your putt and find the single aim spot or "head" of the spider above the hole on the fall line, is mostly learning how to "see the spider." [supplemented 1-28-03.]
The Disk at the Hole. In reading putts, the only green surface that matters is the surface the ball will roll over from its resting place into the cup. So there is a HUGE difference between "reading the green" and "reading the putt." Reading the green only gets you started on accurately reading the putt. And the most important part of any putt is the last two or three feet, when you know exactly what the speed of the ball ought to be for a successful effort. Fortunately, from the USGA guidelines for pin location, the last two or three feet around the cup is supposed to be reasonably flat and not too tilted. Knowing how to read this area for any putt is a valuable skill.
Typically, the green surface right around the hole is "flat but tilted" like a sheet of plywood oriented at some tilt in space other than horizontal to gravity. A perfectly flat green (that is, flat without any tilt off horizontal so that rain water would tend to pool rather than run off) is clearly the rarest of green surfaces. A better image than a "sheet of plywood," without the suppositions of directionality implied by the usual rectangular image, is a circular plywood "disk" three feet in radius with the hole at the center. Learning how breaking putts from any direction must successfully cross this disk into the hole is mostly knowing how to "see the spider."
Why a Spider? In a word, gravity from the surface tilt. If the "disk" of the green right around the hole were perfectly horizontal (untilted) to gravity, then any and all putts would be straight across this surface. Such a pattern of paths would look like an asterisk with intersecting straight lines converging on the hole, not a spider with curved legs converging on the hole. But as soon as you tilt the "disk" off horizontal, there is one and only one point on the perimeter of the disk (and the lip of the cup) that is higher than any other point on the circumference. The "fall line" of this "disk" of green then runs uphill straight thru the cup's center and this highest point on the lip and the disk. Headed downhill, this same line also passes thru the lowest point on the cup and disk.
The "fall line" is like a spider thread, or like the gutter spout that the Inky Dinky Spider climbs in the nursery rhyme. Starting with the straight-line asterisk pattern on the hole, as you tilt the surface more and more, the straight lines for the putts curl into the shape of spider legs converging on the hole. The more the surface is tilted, the more the spider legs curl.
How to See the Spider. In order to see the spider, you have to be able to visualize what would happen if you putted straight at the hole along the axis of tilt of the disk -- how far below the hole would a putt with good speed curl before it crossed the fall line? The axis of tilt is perpendicular to the fall line, and along the axis of tilt there is no elevation change in the disk of the tilted surface. So, to find the axis of tilt, first find the fall line. (This technique is also described in the Tip The Zero Break Line or ZBL.)
The fall line is defined in two specific ways: 1) the fall line is the line from the center of the cup uphill thru the highest elevation on the lip of the cup; and 2) so long as the surface is "flat but tilted", the axis of tilt runs perpendicular to the fall line and is the line along which the elevation of the green stays constant. Seeing both these cues at once gives you an accurate sense of the true fall line thru the cup.
The technique to see this line accurately is to stand below the cup a few feet and shift your position until it feels like you are looking up the highest point on the lip. This direction may or may not coincide with the general lay of the green as a whole in the surrounding terrain, so don't look for the general fall line of the green -- look for the fall line thru the cup, the only one that matters for making a successful putt. Once you have this general notion of the lip's highest point, check it by assessing whether the perpendicular line thru this sense of the fall line is actually the axis of tilt. That is, check the implied axis to see if it really is a line without elevation change on either side of the hole. The best way I know to do this is to imagine planting your palms to either side of the hole on this axis, with palms flat as if to perform a pushup. (It's probably illegal to actually touch the green here during play.) This allows you to sense whether your palms are the same elevation of whether one hand is lower than the other. Only when your "pushup" read coincides with the "highest point on the lip" read will you have an accurate sense of the fall line's true direction.
Once you have the fall line and the perpendicular axis of tilt both identified, you can sense the location of the aim spot or "head" of the spider. To do this, go away from the hole along the axis of tilt the same length as your real putt. From this distance, imagine putting straight at the hole along the axis with good speed or touch as if the putt were in fact straight and level. The imaginary ball will of course curl down off this line right from the start, and by the time it crosses the fall line on the low side of the hole, it will have reached the maximum break for that speed. However far below the hole the ball crosses the fall line, this "break" is solely accounted for by gravity from the tilt of the "flat but tilted" surface over which the ball rolls. Accordingly, just like an accountant, you locate your aim spot or the head of the spider uphill along the fall line an equal distance. If you placed a tee peg in this aim spot and actually putted from the same distance out along the axis of tilt directly at this uphill peg with the same speed, as if the putt were straight and level, the ball will curl down into the hole.
The path the putt takes is the leg of the spider. The aim spot is the head of the spider. Given the head's location and orientation, you can envision all the other legs, and hence the paths and single aim spot for any putt of the same length. So, from finding the fall line, you find the axis, envision an imaginary putt along the axis to find the maximum break and the aim spot that accounts for the break, and thus you see the spider at the hole, whose head and legs tell you volumes about how to sink putts into that hole. All putts are aimed straight at the head, and sent there with good touch. The ball will drop off this startline and curl down into the hole.
Changes in Spiders from One Hole to Another. The size and shape of the spider will differ from one hole to another, depending upon the degree of tilt, the green speed, and the distance of the putt. The more the green tilts, the more the spider's legs droop in a more pronounced curl. The faster the green speed, the more elongated the spider as a whole, including the head and legs. The longer the putt, the bigger the spider.
Assuming that the surface over which the ball will roll is all flat-but-tilted in the same orientation as the disk at the hole, the "aim spot" for that length of putt is found by imagining how far below the hole a putt of the same length directly at the cup on the axis of tilt would be pulled down by gravity, and then translating this distance uphill from the cup foir the aim spot for any putt that same length. The longer the putt, the higher the aim spot. With the head farther from the cup, but keeping the proportions of the head, body, and legs to scale, the spider is "bigger" on a longer putt and the legs have a larger sweep in the curvature. Even so, once the ball reaches the so-called disk right near the hole, the ball will enter the disk at only one point on the clockface but with perfect terminal or drop speed to fall nicely in the cup. Because of this drop speed consistency, there is always this "last" spider for only the disk area at the hole. If you can see the point on the clockface where the putted ball enters the disk, you will also see the right spider leg pathway into the hole from that point forward.
Because of this "last" of "disk spider", it doesn't matter so much that part of the surface for the putt is tilted or contoured differently than the disk itself. If you can deliver the ball on a roll across whatever surface undulations you face so that the ball's trajectory joins up onto the final pathway over the last three feet, with the right drop-speed energy, the ball will fall. Otherwise, not. End of story.
A putting aid that uses the above ideas is the Palm Caddy Gravitational Visulizer by John Kanelous. This aid is a series of charts in booklet form that maps out the various spiders, depending upon green slope or tilt. There are five charts: 1) green level left-right but sloping up front-back; 2) green level front-back but sloping up left-right; 3) green level front-back but sloping up right-left; 4) green sloping up front-back and sloping up left-right; and 5) green sloping up front-back and sloping up right-left. The precise extent of the slope is not indicated but is meant to be that of a "typical" green, so the slope is probably in the 3% range (3' rise for 100' run). The charts indicate the fall line of the green, all possible ball positions on a clockface surrounding the hole, and the likely break path into the hole.
The charts do not address the effects of green speed, sharper tilts, or length of putt. The above aid could have been better if it required the golfer to actually find the fall line thru the cup instead of basing the charts on the general fall line of the green as a whole, and if the charts were drawn with the fall line running from 6 to 12 o'clock thru the cup. The aid also could have provided a range of tilts of the fall line thru the cup, say, from 0% to 5%. Even so, the aid can help you "see the spider" more accurately.
A simple drill to help you see the spider is to lay down eight balls in a pattern around the hole that starts with a ball at the bottom right leg about three feet out from the hole and then spirals counterclockwise, each ball being placed a foot farther out than the last at the end of the eight spider legs. If the first leg is considered to end at 5 on the clockface, then the other seven legs are located at 4, 2, 1, 11, 10, 8, and 7. The last ball will be located at 7 on the clock 10 feet from the hole. The objective will be to start at the 3-foot putt and sink 8 out of 8. You should be relying upon only one aim spot to start the putts off at (the spider's head), and you should be able to visualize the curve of the break thru the final 3 feet of each putt. This may take a little getting used to at first, as there is a tendency not to believe the putt can be straight at the aim spot. This is a little confused at first since accurately finding the fall line and the aim spot takes a little getting used to. But if you keep at it, all putts will start to look a lot alike!
MAKE THIS PART OF YOUR GAME
Putt reading is all about accurately envisioning the curve of the breaking putt and the changing speed of the ball as it slows near the hole with perfect speed -- especially the last two or three feet. The USGA guidelines for pin placements, if followed by the greenskeeper, simplify putt reading considerably, since they result in a flat-but-tilted area right at the hole that is usually at least 3 feet in radius. Even if the rest of the green over which your ball must roll is not flat or has different slope, the success or failure of the putt still comes down to the last two or three feet. Seeing the putt in reverse, rising up out of the hole and rolling in reverse speed back over that last three feet will indicate to you the leg of the spider for your putt, as well as the head of the spider. Using the method of the side-on imaginary putt to locate the distance uphill for the aim spot is another helpful way to see the spider. This will certainly get you in the ballpark for the putt, but in the final analysis, you have to look at every putt even closer and judge matters carefully with your feelings, heart, and intuition. But seeing the spider helps get you there on a consistent basis.
For more tips and information on putting, including a free 10,000+ database of putting lore and the Web's only newsletter on putting (also free), visit Geoff's website at http://www.puttingzone.com, or email him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.