Sidehill Putts Go Low
by Geoff Mangum
All sidehill putts tend to get lost to the downhill side, and you need to conform your setup to the surface, not to gravity, if you want to avoid losing the putt to the amateur side.
THE BASIC PRINCIPLE
The Usual Setup Posture Doesn't Cut It. The principle of how to play sidehill lies with irons is well understood, but never applied in the context of putting. Unless you conform your setup posture to the sidehill surface, you have a strong likelihood of losing the shot to the downhill side. When the ball is above your feet, you tend to lose the shot downhill to the left (right-handers) and so your setup posture leans away from the ball with the slope and you aim more to the right. When the ball is below your feet, you tend to lose the shot downhill to the right (right-handers) and so your setup posture leans towards the ball with the slope and you aim more to the left.
Putting greens are absolutley FULL of sidehill lies. For a right handed golfer, a putt that breaks right-to-left typically presents the ball at setup above the feet. Similarly, a right-handed golfer facing a left-to-right putt usually finds the ball below his feet. A better, neutral-handed terminology is to describe putts as breaking towards your feet (ball above the feet) or breaking away from your feet (ball below the feet). Just as with sidehill iron shots, putts in sidehill lies have a built-in tendency to lose the putt to the downhill, low, or amateur side.
WHY BREAKING PUTTS ARE LOST DOWNHILL
Assuming you aimed far enough uphill to start with, you can still lose the putt downhill if your setup does not conform to the slope. Why is that? When you setup to gravity and not the slope, you alter the relationship between the putterhead (sole, face, heel, and toe) and the surface of the green.
(Images from Tilt-a-Tee, available at Golf Around the World.)
Ball Above the Feet. Specifically, when the ball is above the feet, the normal setup to gravity positions the heel off the surface, digs the toe into the hillside of the green, orients the sole so it is not flush, and makes the loft on the face hit the ball like a wedge aimed a little downhill. The subconscious tendency is to realize that the toe in the thrustroke really can't go straight without risking digging and stubbing, so the golfer tends to make a stroke that turns slightly downhill going thru impact to ensure the putter toe doesn't stub into the hill. Combining a pull path with an angled face that sends the ball downhill is a sure recipe for missing on the low side.
Ball below the Feet. When the ball is below the feet, the normal setup to gravity positions the toe up, digs the heel into the hillside of the green, orients the sole so it is not flush, and makes the loft on the face hit the ball like a wedge aimed a little downhill. The subconscious tendency is to realize that the heel in the thrustroke really can't go straight without risking digging and stubbing, so the golfer tends to make a stroke that turns slightly downhill going thru impact to ensure the putter heel doesn't stub into the hill. Combining a push path with an angled face that sends the ball downhill is a sure recipe for missing on the low side. Very symmetrical problem!
WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT
To avoid the problem on breaking putts, just conform your body posture to the slope, even if it puts you slightly at odds with gravity. In general, this means you should lean farther back from a ball above your feet so that the putter sole gets flush to the surface, and that you should lean closer when the ball is below your feet. The RULE then: "To avoid losing the ball downhill, lean more DOWNHILL for any breaking putt."
You can lean your whole body from the ankles up, or simply the upper torso from the waist up. Experiment to see what is best for you.
UPHILL / DOWNHILL LIES
Whereas sidehill lies have both feet on ground at the same elevation, uphill and downhill lies make one foot higher than the other. In the lingo of anatomy, this cants the body in the "frontal" plane, so that all joint pairs have different elevations, just like the feet. For a right-handed golfer on an uphill lie, the left foot, ankle, knee, hip, shoulder, elbow, and wrist are all higher in some measure than the corresponding joints on the low side. The usual advice for iron play is to conform the shoulders to the slope of the lie. The same goes for putting. This can be done either by conforming the whole body from the ankles on up (so all joint pairs parallel the slope) or simply by conforming the upper torso and shoulders to the slope, whichever you like.
Pure sidehill lies without any element of running uphill or downhill are very rare. The usual lie has a combination of sidehill and uphill / downhill. In all cases, the end result needs to be that the shoulders run parallel with the slope and the sole of the putter is flush with the minimum degree of alteration in your normal setup posture. Conforming the posture to a slope rather than to gravity will feel a bit odd, because our bodies and our brains are carefully trained to maintain a very intimate and stable relationship with gravity, and challenging this relationship generates a slight discomfort or awkwardness. This is just the body insisting that you get back to the usual posture. Ignore it and focus on the putter sole and its relation to the surface.
MAKE THIS PART OF YOUR GAME
The next time you're on a practice green, find some significant slope and practice different postures -- especially one with the ball below the feet and a putt breaking away from your feet. Pretend you're in the weightlessness of space where there is no up or down, no leaning, and all you see is your normal setup on a flat and level green. Ignore any sense of gravity and make pure strokes that stay headed uphill right where you aimed them.
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.