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Stan Utley's Approach to Putting

September 11 2003 at 8:34 AM
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In the August 11, 2003, Golf Plus section of Sports Illustrated, Stan Utley describes his teaching of putting for the first time in print. Because of the current interest in Utley, and so that others can analyze and judge for themselves, here is the full text of that article:

STAN'S THE MAN

Byline: Gary Van Sickle; Stan Utley

Nine holes, six putts--that's a PGA Tour record even Tiger Woods isn't likely to break, but it's not held by Ben Crenshaw, Brad Faxon, Loren Roberts or any of the other players known for their silky putting strokes. The record was set at the 2002 Air Canada Championship by Stan Utley, a journeyman pro who bounces between the PGA and the Nationwide tours. [micro] Utley, 41, has a secret: He's the guy the other Tour pros go to for advice when they need help on the greens. Since joining the Tour in 1988, he has worked closely with about 60 players, most of them in recent years. His client list includes Greater Hartford Open winner Peter Jacobsen; Jay Haas, who at 49 is enjoying one of the finest seasons of his long career; Buick Classic champion Jonathan Kaye; and Craig Stadler, who recently won the B.C. Open on the regular Tour a week after his victory at the Senior Players Championship.

Utley's name may sound vaguely familiar. He won the now-defunct Chattanooga Classic in 1989 and still plays about 23 PGA or Nationwide tour events a year. A soft-spoken, contemplative man, Utley says he isn't ready to give up playing despite a slew of lean years. But so many players have been asking Utley for advice, he has officially hung out his shingle and now charges $150 an hour for lessons. He still can't find the time to work with everyone who wants to see him. "I have credibility from capability," says Utley, who is averaging 27.13 putts a round this year--half a stroke better than the Tour leader--but hasn't played enough to be included in the stats. "The other players know I wouldn't be out here if not for my chipping and putting. I don't hit the ball as well as most of them."

Utley's stock as a teacher skyrocketed in the wake of Haas's surprisingly strong play this year. (Haas has had six top 10s.) They got together by accident two years ago when a Nationwide tour event was held in Greenville, S.C., where Haas lives. Utley was staying with Haas's brother-in-law, Dillard Pruitt, a former player who is now a PGA Tour rules official. One night Pruitt invited Haas over for dinner. When the conversation turned to putting, Utley confided that while his own play was inconsistent, he thought he had a gift for teaching the short game. "Then I'm your first student," Haas said.

Within minutes the two men were out in the darkened driveway using a six-iron (believe it or not, they couldn't find a putter) to work on Haas's putting grip and stroke. "Who in the world would have thought that I'd have dinner with Jay Haas at Dillard Pruitt's house and he'd ask me about putting?" Utley says. "And I could've helped 100 guys who wouldn't have said a word about it, but Jay has been screaming my name. I couldn't be more grateful. I was already teaching a bunch of guys I hang out with, but now it has snowballed."

Utley's putting philosophy is based on the swinging-gate method, in which the clubhead traces an arc with the clubhead opening slightly on the backswing and closing after impact. Crenshaw and Faxon are swinging-gate-style putters. Dave Pelz, the most widely known short-game coach, swears by a different putting style, the square-to-square method, during which the putter head remains square with the target throughout the stroke. Roberts is a square-to-square man.

"I believe the putter travels on an arc and the putter face should stay square to that arc," Utley says. "People ask, 'How am I going to hit the putt straight if the club face doesn't aim at the hole?' I say, 'The same way your club face aims at the sky at the top of your full swing, yet the shot goes straight down the middle because it's square to the arc you're swinging on."

In June, Utley was hanging around the range at the U.S. Open when Butch Harmon approached him. "He said, 'Way to go. You've done a great job helping people with their putting,'" says Utley. "That meant the world to me."

Utley grew up in Thayer, a town of 2,200 in southern Missouri that didn't have a golf course. His father, Frank, was a brakeman and a conductor for the Burlington Northern railroad. It was only when the family moved 25 miles to West Plains so that Stan's mother, Ruby, could enroll in Southwest Missouri State to study to become a teacher, that Frank and 12-year-old Stan took up the game. A year later Stan was taking lessons from Ken Lanning, a selfless scratch player devoted to helping young golfers. Utley was one of those kids who could always make putts, but Lanning, along with St. Louis amateur Jim Tom Blair, made sure that he was making them the right way. Utley was a two-time second-team All-America at Missouri, then played his way onto the PGA Tour in 1988. After competing in only two Tour events in 1989, he landed a sponsor's exemption for the Chattanooga Classic, which, surprisingly, he won. His status as a past champion has allowed him to stay on Tour during the down years that followed.

Last November, Utley moved his family from Columbia, Mo., to Scottsdale, Ariz., and got serious about teaching. He travels with his wife, Elayna, and their two children, Tatum, 8, and Jake, 6, because, he says, "Not being together doesn't work for us."

Life is good and getting better. "I'm on a roll at the moment," Utley says. "If I had worked for anybody but myself, I'd have been fired four or five years in a row on Tour. But I wouldn't change a thing. This whole ordeal has been a blessing. I feel as if God has a plan for me and I'm simply letting it happen."

[BOX:]

WHY I LOVE TIGER'S STROKE BY STAN UTLEY

At first I had reservations about dissecting Tiger's putting stroke because some of my clients on Tour said that the last thing they need is my helping a guy they already have a hard time beating. But as it turned out, there's very little I would change about Tiger's action because his stroke is based on the same technique that I use and teach. I believe in the swinging-gate method of putting, in which the putter travels on a slight arc, or curve, during the stroke, instead of straight back and forth. Think of the swinging gate this way: During the backswing and again on the follow-through, the putter head moves a bit to the inside of the target line while remaining square to the arc of the stroke. The arc is created by rotating the shoulders, which move perpendicular to the spine tilt.

In 1B Tiger has perfect posture at address. He tilts forward from the hips, and his back is virtually straight. (Slouching the back makes it difficult to turn around the spine, which is the most efficient and accurate way to putt.) Woods's elbows point at his hips, his eyes are slightly inside the ball, and the shaft and his forearms are on the same angle. If you drew a line up his shaft beginning at the putter head, the line would go straight through his forearm. Tiger's shoulders are relaxed and down in 1A. Tension in the shoulders hinders a free-flowing stroke. See how the ball is in the center of the putter head at address in 1B but on the toe in 2B? That's because Woods's putter is traveling on an arc, with the toe sweeping back and open. In 3B Woods's shoulders are still almost on the same level they were on at address, but they've swung around a little more to his right. That's because he is rotating his shoulders around his spine. His shoulders will move perpendicular to his spine tilt throughout the stroke. In 3A Tiger's putter head is farther back than his hands and slightly open as it moves away from the ball. The clubhead should always move farther, proportionately, than the hands, elbows and shoulders. At impact in 5B Woods looks exactly the same as he did at address, with one key exception: His putter is slightly off the ground. The putter must be in the air at impact so that the sweet spot can hit the center of the ball. After impact in 7B the ball appears to be on the toe of the putter, and if you look below Tiger's right forearm you can see the bottom of his left forearm. These are signs that his stroke is still moving on the curve, with the putter head now traveling inside the target line. During the follow-through in 9A the toe has swung well past the heel, indicating that the putter head is still moving on the curve. Also, Woods's right arm is lengthening like a piston as the stroke progresses, while his left arm, especially the elbow, stays fairly stable and acts like a shock absorber. Tiger's shoulders are still almost parallel to the target line in 9B and in about the same position as they were at address and during the backswing. Woods's stroke finishes pretty low and compact in 10A, indicating that Tiger has driven the putter down and through the ball.

[BOX:]

HERE'S HOW I DO IT

AT ADDRESS (1) I have a little forward press, my eyes are slightly inside the ball, and my shoulders are relaxed. I often get off balance by placing too much weight on my left foot, so I have to constantly remind myself to lean a little to the right. The man who taught me how to play and to putt was Ken Lanning. Now in his 70s and still living in his hometown of Rolla, Mo., Mr. Lanning earned a living in real estate and was a scratch amateur who devoted his life to teaching golf to kids. He used to tell me, "The stroke begins with an inclination of the left shoulder going toward your chin." As a teenager I didn't understand what Mr. Lanning meant, but I do now--the shoulders must pivot perpendicular to the spine tilt. To help keep the putter moving on an arc throughout the stroke (4) and not straight back and through along the target line, I imagine that I'm rotating my forearms to the right in the backswing and to the left during the through stroke. I'm also very conscious of swinging the putter head. My elbows remain relaxed and pointed at my hips all the way back and all the way through to the finish. It doesn't look as if my putter is opening very much on the backswing or closing on the follow-through, but it feels as if it's opening and closing a ton. At impact (8) I hit down on the ball and try to make contact with a little forward lean (i.e., hands ahead of the clubhead) in the shaft, with the head just above the turf at its lowest point in the swing. I always pay attention to what a solid stroke sounds like, and I strive for that sound on every shot. Once you feel and hear a solid putt, you always want to repeat it.

[BOX:]

MY TAKE ON THE NUMBERS

A LOT OF MY PEERS like to pore over the Tour stats, especially putting stats, but I don't put too much stock in them for one simple reason: They rarely tell the whole story. For example, I'm one of the Tour's best putters according to the stats, but I don't take many putts partly because I miss so many greens. This discrepancy between the stats and reality was demonstrated at last year's Air Canada Championship, during which I set the Tour record with six putts in nine holes. I set the record not because I putted well, but because I chipped well. I holed two bunker shots and rolled in a 35-footer from the fringe, while most of my six official putts were from less than four feet. Here's a detailed statistical look at Woods's short game, using data from the Tour's new Shotlink system.
PUTTING

[TW= Tiger Woods]

CATEGORY TW RANK TW STATS TOUR AVG TOUR LEADER

Putts per GIR 9th 1.717 1.773 Justin Leonard, 1.697
Putts per round 15th 28.17 28.99 Aaron Baddeley, 27.68
One-putt % 86th 38.5% 37.2% Baddeley, 45.3%
One-putt streak T10th 10 NA Three tied with 12
Streak without 104th 127 NA Tim Herron, 342
three-putt
3 feet 36th 99.6% 99.2% Eight tied at 100%
4 to 8 feet 46th 72.3% 69.0% Brian Henninger, 85.1%
10 to 15 feet 3rd 40.6% 31.1% Carl Pettersson, 41.1%
15 to 20 feet 27th 25.0% 19.5% Angel Cabrera, 34.5%
20 to 25 feet 25th 18.8% 13.3% David Frost, 37.0%
Over 25 feet 195th 1.9% 6.2% Ben Crane, 12.2%

SHORT GAME

CATEGORY TW RANK TW STATS TOUR AVG TOUR LEADER

Sand saves 57th 53.3% 50.0% Paul Stankowski, 68.2%
Proximity to T7th 7'8" 9'10" Justin Leonard, 6'10"
hole from sand
Scrambling 16th 63.8% 58.8% Two tied at 67.5%
From the fringe T4th 94.6% 84.5% Angel Cabrera, 97.8%
From the rough 36th 58.6% 52.8% Chris Riley, 70.3%
Under 30 yards 15th 39.1% 27.2% Dicky Pride, 50.0%
20 to 30 yards T6th 66.7% 49.6% Retief Goosen, 81.3%
10 to 20 yards 67th 65.1% 62.9% Andrew Magee, 77.5%

APPROACH SHOTS

CATEGORY TW RANK TW STATS TOUR AVG TOUR LEADER

Greens in reg. 36th 68.1% 65.3% Dan Forsman, 72.8%
Proximity to hole 63rd 38'6" 40'11" Retief Goosen, 31'2"
Under 125 yards 9th 19'7" 24'7" John Huston, 18'2"
125 to 150 yards 122nd 32'10" 32'1" Chris Riley, 22'7"
150 to 175 yards 62nd 36'7" 40'7" Retief Goosen, 27'7"
175 to 200 yards 122nd 50'2" 49'5" Craig Parry, 33'6"
Over 200 yards 25th 47'4" 60'5" Robert Allenby, 37'1"

[BOX]

MY FAVORITE DRILLS

ONE ARM

Practice while holding the putter with only one arm. Take the free arm and hold it across your chest, grabbing your shoulder. Practice with each arm, striving to keep the shoulder you are holding still while that arm swings the putter. Then grip the club with both hands and learn to blend a little arm swing into your stroke.

CIRCLE THE BALL An easy way to find out how true you roll the ball on the greens is to draw a line around your ball with a felt-tip pen. Then aim the line on the ball at your target and stroke the putt. If the line wobbles, you still have room for improvement. After doing this drill for several months, Jay Haas is close to perfecting it.

END OF ARTICLE


 
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