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Drive for show, putt for dough with putting guru Geoff Mangum

Tim McDonaldBy Tim McDonald,

Tim McDonald got a chance to talk with renowned putting expert Geoff Mangum on everything from belly putters to the yips.

Have you ever had the yips?

No. I've worked with a number of golfers who have, and I'm a technical advisor to the German Science and Motion Academy headed by neuroscientist Dr Christian Marquardt, who is highly regarded on the PGA Tour and the European Tour for his high-tech medical approaches to the yips in golf.

You've written that you've taken more than 3.5 million putts. Are you obsessed with putting and, if so, how did it start?

Geoff Mangum: Fifteen years ago, I decided to learn how to putt, as part of learning golf. Once I started delving into the books, articles, and tapes on putting, I discovered that the existing lore is vague, inconsistent, and repetitive, and only rarely gets beyond the rudiments of talking about what should happen in good putting to describing insightfully how to do it. This irritant sparked me to survey the entire lore of putting since the beginning to today in search of simple answers to simple questions, and to try out the various suggestions, tips, and drills, in a daily regimen of putting between two to five hours every day.

I found that the books and magazines just don't come to grips with these basic questions: How does a person read a putt? What happens in accurate targeting and aiming? What is the relationship between setup and targeting and between setup and stroke movement? What is an optimal stroke and how is it best performed for accuracy and consistency? How does a person best control the distance of his putts? The great players and teachers of the past decades have a lot to say about different techniques and preferences, and even about the physics of putting, but the missing element has always been about how the brain and body actually work for targeting and stroke movement. So in my daily putting explorations, I have been incorporating in-depth research into how the brain functions in putting, and what this means for techniques, learning, and teaching.

My objective is to be the best putting instructor in the history of the game, so I am committed to mastery of the art and science of putting as a student, teacher, and golfer. Steve Lowry, noted commentator on the martial arts, has written about how the regimen of practice towards mastery becomes second-nature, and George Leonard, well-known golf teacher and akido expert, has written similarly that the master loves the journey itself. I love what I'm doing and I "work" very hard at it.

How are the other parts of your game?

Geoff Mangum: Not bad. I now have a pretty good driver shot, hit my irons pretty straight, but I need a lot of work on chipping and bunker play.

What are your thoughts on "long putters?"

Geoff Mangum: I have seen some golfers use long putters with great skill and effectiveness, and that makes me want to understand what is going on in the targeting and stroke movement processes that is different from those involved with conventional putting style. On the one hand, I agree with Arnold Palmer that golf needs to be fun for the amateur, and equipment that promotes success for the amateur should be allowed with only modest restrictions on gimmickry. On the other hand, I'm also a traditionalist when it comes to competitive golf, so I tend to agree with Ernie Els and others that equipment-based differences that make the human task substantially different between competitors should be disallowed. If at the professional level at least the consensus arises that long putters in comparison to conventional putters involves a significant unfair advantage, then either everyone should use them or no one should use them.

But I don't think long putters really present a significant advantage just from the nature of the design or the technique of use. Sure, some golfers benefit from switching to a long putter or a belly putter, but this doesn't mean a golfer with a conventional putter needs to switch in order to outperform those with long putters - clearly, golfers using conventional putters typically outperform those using the long or belly putter. The take-away lesson from Vijay Singh's magnificent year in 2004 is that using the belly putter is a very good way to learn how to get better with a conventional putter.

What's the most difficult putt you've ever made?

Geoff Mangum: To me, all putts are the same basic task of effective targeting and stroke control for line and distance, and I give the same effort on a short straight putt as I do on a long monster snake of a putt. I especially enjoy the challenge of staying committed to a target outside the hole on a mid-range putt involving subtle touch. My most astonishing successful putt to date was a 250+ foot putt to a 4.25 inch "cup" on Daytona Beach in June 2000. Tom Olsavsky of Taylor Made Golf had just given me a new Rossa "Daytona" putter and I was trying it out on the fine-grained sand of Daytona Beach shortly thereafter. As it happens, the surface there stimps above 15, faster and truer than Augusta National on a Sunday in early April! The beach can be as wide as 500 feet on occasion and slopes around 2.5 to 3 percent. At low tide, I dug a small '"cup" at the top of the high-tide line and then walked down to the water's edge, over 85 paces, and putted two balls uphill to the cup, located at the feet of a man in a lounge chair who was nursing a beer. The first ball I blasted uphill and it then slowed and eventually toppled casually into the cup. The second putt missed a foot to the right.

What do you tell yourself when you miss a short, easy putt?

Geoff Mangum: It depends. If I did what I needed to do to give the putt its best chance of sinking and it still missed, that's just "the rub of the green"-something beyond my current ability to control. I then take another look to see if I can find out what I might should have seen beforehand, if anything, so I can improve. If the miss was within my ability to control, then I made a bad putt on that occasion -- something in my effort wasn't as good as it could have been. Then I try to assess why I didn't put forth my best effort, so I can improve and reduce the number of times I have this less-than-best effort, but otherwise I accept that these letdowns will occur and move on. As Tony Lema once said, just because I missed a putt on the last green doesn't mean I have to pull my next drive out of bounds.

What is the first thing you look for when analyzing a student's putting stroke?

Geoff Mangum: A general comfort level with the task. Some veteran golfers who lack this are very good learners of changes in technique that bring welcomed comfort with it. Some novices who have this comfort are easily molded towards a technique that preserves the comfort. Veteran golfers who are comfortable with sub-optimal putting are the greatest teaching challenge.

What is the most common putting mistake for newcomers to the game?

Geoff Mangum: Misunderstanding how little effort should be used in making a good stroke.

What is the most common putting mistake advanced players make?

Geoff Mangum: Believing they are good enough putters not to worry about getting much better, and instead focusing on maintaining their present level of skill out of fear of going backwards.

How can you help the golfer who has absolutely no athletic ability?

Geoff Mangum: By showing him or her how normal adult skills, like reaching the hand out and opening a door or turning to pick up a glass of water on a nearby table, really underlie top athletic performance, and that the decades of experience with these processes of the brain and body can be used quite instinctively in sports to great effect, with appropriate guidance and practice.

Why did you decide to become a golf instructor?

Geoff Mangum: Golf is choked with swing teachers, but top putting coaches are as rare as hen's teeth. I'm independent and driven to be the best there is in the world at what do, and I love learning and teaching and helping people enjoy a high degree of success in golf. I am probably some sort of nurse.

What's your own handicap?

Geoff Mangum: As a professional teacher, I don't have a USGA handicap for amateur competition. For a while, my game was down near scratch, but that was when I was playing 54 holes a day, four or five times a week on the same golf course. These days, I certainly expect to break 80, think of myself in terms of a "single-digit" handicap, but don't get too upset if I shoot higher. But I plan on getting a lot better!

For more information, check out Geoff Mangum's Web site, www.puttingzone.com.

Veteran golf writer Tim McDonald keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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