From his official bio, Pat O’Brien has been the Teaching Professional at Lakewood Country Club in Dallas, Texas since 2007. He is the coach for several accomplished amateurs, including the 2007, 2008 and 2010 Texas Amateur Champions. He has also been 2007 Masters Champion Zach Johnson’s coach since 2002. Pat works with several PGA Tour players, including Vaughn Taylor, KJ Choi, John Rollins, John Senden and 2009 British Open Champion Stewart Cink. Pat is passionate about teaching anyone who has a genuine desire to improve. He can be reached through his website, www.patobriengolf.com. It was our pleasure to pose nine questions and have Pat answer them. If you’re not a better putter after this interview, don’t look Pat’s way (unless it’s for a personal lesson.)
1. The obligatory “how did you get into golf” opener. Some folks have unique stories while others don’t. What’s yours?
I started playing golf when I was 12 or 13 through watching my dad play. When I was 17, I caddied for Harry Crosby, Bing’s son, at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro Am. His partner that year was Payne Stewart. I had a front row seat to his disappointing loss to Johnny Miller.
I later followed Payne at US Open at Olympic Club, my home course, and met his mom in the gallery. What started as a star struck kid getting to spend time around his golf idol ultimately turned into a friendship until his passing in 1999. I got to drive Payne and my dear friend Mike Hicks, his caddy, to Mike’s house for a block party celebration the night he won at Pinehurst. Being at that tournament and drinking out of the Trophy was certainly surreal.
Through my friendship with Payne and Mike, I met Jim Weeks, the inventor of the SeeMore putter that Payne so famously used. I had of course started using one and I told Jim I thought the two whites lines and the red dot concept was brilliant and explained why. He immediately hired me to be the Buy.com Tour Rep.
That year, in 2000, I met two rookies named Vaughn Taylor and Zach Johnson. I started correcting Vaughn’s aim and setup and he immediately made progress. I briefly explained the concept to Zach and gave him a putter. Our relationship would not start to develop until the following year.
The three of us essentially grew up together in the game. I started formally coaching them in 2003 and the better they played, the smarter I looked. Going to Ireland to help them prepare for the Ryder Cup in 2006 was certainly a highlight. Helping Zach win the Masters further elevated my stature and got me my dream job at Lakewood CC in Dallas.
2. Talk a bit about your competitive experience, from junior golf through adult competition, amateur and professional. Do you still compete or is your time dedicated principally to instruction?
I was an inconsistent ball striker as a kid, with a world class short game. Getting to watch Payne practice through the years no doubt influenced me. I fancied myself a scratch golfer, but was probably a strong 3. I was good in high school, not good enough for college and played some amateur events around California and won a couple.
I could not overcome my long game to justify playing professionally. My ballstriking has improved, but I am limited to money games around the club or with my players due to my dedication to teaching.
3. Golf people often talk about children and an innate fearlessness when it comes to putting. Do you agree with that line of thinking? If so, is there a way to project that fearlessness through instruction?
“Putt like a kid again” is a definitely a phrase I use. They see the picture and they let it go. They don’t get bogged down in how to do it.
My instruction is based on getting you into a neutral setup, so your hands, arms and chest can move the way they are designed. When the putter is controlled without tension, it can swing the way it is designed.
I believe sport psychology only works if there is an inherent belief the club or putter is going to return to square. John Jacobs called it a correct, repetitive impact. Of course there is more than one way to do it. I believe getting square and neutral is the most efficient way, requiring no manipulation and less practice time. You are free to putt like a kid again when you master a setup.
4. Are there good and bad putters, or are there good short-distance putters, good medium-distance putters and good lag putters?
There are good putters and bad putters, and it is all relative. I think the PGA Tour statistics have shown that players can be good at certain distances and poor at others.
My feeling is that when you have only one variable in your stroke, which is the length of your backswing, then you will be consistent with your speed. Again it comes down to fundamentals. When your contact is good and your rhythm is good, you can practice your speed effectively. This should make you a good lag putter.
In addition to solid fundamentals, what makes you good at short and medium distance putts is not trying to make them or putting pressure on yourself to make them. Focus on your process and staying calm and allow the results to come. There is no try in golf as it introduces effort and tension.
5. Let’s talk about putting equipment for a moment. Do you connect mallet or blade putters with any specific aspects of the putting stroke, body types, rhythm, etc.?
Generally speaking, as there are always exceptions to the rule, a right handed player who is right eye dominant will prefer to look at a blade and a left eye dominant person will prefer to look at a mallet. A right eye dominant person tends to look at the front of the putter and a left eye dominant one looks at the back of a putter. Consciously or subconsciously, a right eye dominant person aims square shapes better and a left eye dominant person aims circle shapes better.
There are of course so many variables to consider when choosing a putter. I generally ask about eye dominance as a starting point. Then there is the placement or absence of an aiming line, as well as the material and insert. A putter has to look good and feel good, so the choice is purely subjective. All I care about is whether the person can aim it effectively or not.
I prefer my players to use toe hang putters because we stand to the side of the ball, so there is a natural arc to a stroke. Face balanced putters were made for people who putt straight back and straight through, which to me is not a natural motion. Often face balanced putters are marketed with a high Moment of Inertia in case you mishit it. When your stroke is not natural, your chances of mishits increase significantly. When you let your hands, arms and chest move naturally, mishits become pretty rare, so you don’t need a high MOI.
The two things I love about SeeMore putters are the Riflescope Technology to help your alignment, and that they make mallets that are toe hang putters as well.
6. Back to the stroke for a question or two. Can you discuss the different grips (reverse overlap, cross-hand, et al.) good putters use and what benefits might be derived from each?
The grip is the most important fundamental as it is your connection to the club or putter. There can be no tension that stops the flow of movement. Here is some food for thought.
The old paradigm is that you should grip the putter in your palms or lifelines. This came about when greens were grainy and slow and everyone had to use a wristy, pop stroke to get the ball moving. Agronomy has improved, but the same principles are still being taught. In my opinion, the grip should evolve into the fingers.
If you tried to hit a shot by gripping the club in your palms, you would probably hurt yourself because you would have no leverage over the golf club. You would also have a tremendous amount of tension in your forearms. I feel like it is the same for putting. With a lack of leverage in the left hand, the right hand tends to overpower the left. This leads people to try cross-hand, the claw or a Super Stroke grip. Anything to make the hands more passive. These methods can be effective, especially when too many bad memories exist with a conventional grip.
When you grip the putter in the fingers, this problem goes away. A putter is basically a weight on a stick. That weight should swing up on the backswing, where gravity can then bring it down and through. The easiest way to have this happen is to free up your wrist joints, located at the top of your thumb pads.
When the putter is in the fingers, the left heel pad rests slightly on top of the grip, like a regular club. The thumb pad is no longer needed to stabilize the putter, so tension is absent. The right heel pad is touching the left middle and ring fingernails, so no part of the right palm is on the club. The hands are now balanced and tension free. The putter can swing the way it is designed. ( I will include pictures of this, Ron.)
If you are really struggling with your old grip, you may want to try a new one. I appreciate the difficulty in learning a new grip by reading and looking at pictures. I will have a cool training aid coming out soon that will assist with this. Stay tuned! In another shameless plug, you can buy a DVD I did a few years back on seemore.com that will better explain the grip.
7. What do golfers need to do (that they don’t do) in order to assess a putting green as they approach it, as they walk around it, etc.?
I teach my players to read a putt on two planes. The first one is of course from the ball to the hole. Is it uphill, flat or downhill? For the other plane, I have them stand even with the hole, perpendicular to a straight line between the ball and the hole. They can now see which side is higher and which is lower. When you stand on the low side, you get a feel for the amount of pitch to the slope.
Most of the movement of the putt occurs as the ball loses speed, so focusing on the slope’s grade around the hole gives you a better feel. I tend to avoid looking at a putt from behind the hole as it often confuses me, especially if my feet are feeling an unrelated slope.
Putting to me is an art, not a science, so I teach people to observe the slopes but not to verbalize them. Your instincts already know how downhill or uphill a putt is. It is all being calculated subconsciously based on past experiences. The ultimate is to stay out of the way and trust those instincts. See it and feel it. Visualize the break and the speed and let your body reproduce it. Like a kid would!
??8. How can golfers become better putters by watching the pros and top amateurs? What should we look for?
I believe the best putters, like Luke Donald, Zach Johnson and Aaron Baddeley, to name a few, really allow the putter to swing freely. The rhythm of your stroke will match your personality. Both Zach and Brandt Snedeker have quicker strokes, while Luke’s is slower. The key is to keep it even on both sides.
It takes tension to accelerate or decelerate a stroke. When you let it swing, gravity or natural momentum will bring it down and through, no matter what the tempo is. To allow this rhythm to come out, let the putter swing within a second after your last look at the target. This will prevent static tension over the ball, which destroys your flow.
9. What are the biggest misconceptions about the putting stroke?
The two things you often hear are to keep the putter low in your stroke and have your eyes over the ball. These are the genesis of the yips and should be avoided at all costs. Here is why:
Remember, “keep” is a bad word like “try,” as they both are synonomous with effort and tension. This is one of those old tenents when greens were shaggy and grainy. If you keep the putter low on the way back, you are extending the radius of the swing, which moves the bottom of the swing further behind the ball. From here, you cannot let gravity do its job or you will hit the putt “fat.” To avoid this, you will need to accelerate the putter to get it back to the ball. This requires tension in the trail hand.
To feel what I am talking about, stand in reasonably good posture, clap your hands together and let them swing. You will notice that they naturally travel up on the backswing. They can then fall back down and through. If you kept them low, you would essentiallly be pushing them down and creating a great deal of tension.
Concerning the eyes over the ball, grab a water bottle and hold it in both hands. When you are in good posture, it is fairly light and can swing freely. Now, bend over to get your eyes over the ball. The bottle becomes heavier and the motion becomes more restricted. It is actually easier to keep your hands low on the backswing, requiring that forced acceleration. When you have a putter in your hands and place your eyes over the ball, your body weight pushes down on the balance point of the putter, ensuring it will stay too low. I believe the eyes should be even with the heel of the putter, just inside the ball.
Your brain reacts to the initial motion of the stroke. If it senses no resistance, it will let gravity bring the putter down and through. However, if there is tension and pressure to keep the putter down, it will engage the trail hand to get the bottom back to the ball. Throw in a grip in the palms and a vicious cycle starts to develop. You sense that your hands are becoming too active, which leads to more tension, which leads to a worse stroke, and on it goes…
If you are headed down this path or have already arrived, stand up tall, breathe to relax your jaw and chest, and then allow the putter to swing. The follow through will be low, naturally, because gravity took the putter there.