How to Read Golf Greens for Speed and Break

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You take your stance on the green, eyes flicking first to the hole and then back down to the golf ball at your feet.  You’re closer to par than you’ve ever been, close enough that one good putt will see you through.  Pushing down the mounting pressure, you try to focus on the ball.  You make your putt with as much confidence as you can muster and then watch in horror as the ball not only overshoots the hole but breaks in the opposite direction of your planned shot.  Cringing, you trudge to your ball, wondering why your putting feels so random.

If this sounds like you, you aren’t alone.  Short game is an essential part of golf and one of the fastest ways to improve your score.  Developing your short game starts with learning how to read the greens for both break and speed.

How Do You Read a Break on a Green

Break refers to the degree to which a putt moves right to left or left to right.  It’s affected by three key factors: how hard you hit the ball, the slope of the green, and the green’s effective stimp.  We’ll talk about how hard to hit the ball and stimp later.  For now, let’s focus on slope.

Nearly all greens have some contour to them making it extremely likely there will be some slope between the ball and the hole.  This slope will affect the path of the ball as gravity will naturally pull a ball in motion towards the base of a slope.  However, the degree to which this affects your putt is determined by the severity of the slope.   

That said, you don’t need to know the exact percentage of a slope to estimate how it will affect the break of your putt.  To get a feel for slope, pace out the path between your ball and the hole.  Pause a third of the way, two-thirds of the way, and at the hole to feel the ground beneath your feet.  Is one foot lower than the other?  Does that change as you get closer to the hole?  This simple exercise will give you a natural feel for the slope and how significantly it will affect the path of your putt.

Next, walk back to your ball.  Crouch down and take a look at the slope you just paced.  Try to visualize how the ball will roll if putted straight toward the hole.  Will it end left of the hole?  To the right?  Now visualize a path that corrects for the expected break.  Getting into the habit of visualizing your putt will put you in better control and with time allow you to better understand your stroke.

How are Golf Greens Measured for Speed

Many factors affect the speed of a green.  To account for this, a simple method called stimping is used to formalize green speed measurements.  To measure the stimp, officials use a yardstick-like device called a stimpmeter. 

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The base of the stimpmeter is placed on a flat section of green and three balls are rolled down it.  The distance the balls rolled from the base of the stimpmeter is then measured in feet and averaged.  Next, the stimpmeter is set at the opposite end of the same flat section and the process is repeated.  Finally, the two average distances are averaged, and the resulting number is the stimp.  For perspective, a seven stimp green is considered slow, a nine stimp green is moderate, and a 14 stimp green is very fast.

Green speed can change daily.  So, unless you are playing in a tournament or planning on measuring it yourself, knowing the expected stimp may not be of practical value to you.  However, you can use a simple technique to approximate green speed with a little practice.

To do this, you’ll need to find a flat section of putting green and mark a length of ten paces.  Then practice your putting until you can consistently hit the ten paces mark.

When you arrive at new green, take a practice putt, hitting the ball with the same power you use for your ten-pace putt.  It’s important to remember you are not trying to hit ten paces on this putt, just trying to use the same amount of power.  Then pace out how far the ball actually rolled.  If the distance is shorter than ten, it’s a slower green.  If it is longer than ten, it’s a faster green.  With that knowledge, you can adjust your putting power accordingly.

Do Slow Greens Break More Than Fast Greens

Speed does affect break but, to fully understand how, we’ll need to talk about the phases of golf ball velocity.  There are three phases to ball velocity: the acceleration phase, the constant phase, and the deceleration phase.  The acceleration phase is the moment after the putter strikes the ball where the ball is picking up speed.  The constant phase is the middle part of the ball’s journey where its speed stays about the same.  The deceleration phase is the final part where the friction of the grass slows the ball down until it eventually stops. 

Anything that extends the deceleration phase will also increase break.  Therefore, fast greens will break more than slow greens.  This is because the lower friction of a fast green decelerates the ball more slowly thus extending that phase.  Likewise, a downhill putt will tend to have more break than an uphill putt because an uphill putt will decelerate more quickly, thus minimizing the break.

Putting it All Together

Now that we’ve discussed how speed and break affect your short game, let’s discuss how you can put it all together to start improving right away.

When you are getting ready for a putt, the first thing you will want to do is pace out the distance between the ball and the hole.  Count those paces so that you can better estimate how much power to apply to your stroke and make sure to pause along the way to feel out the slope beneath your feet.

Next, return to your ball and squat down to better visualize your shot.  Pick an aim point that will account for the expected break and follow the line from that point to your ball.  Finding an intermediate point (a point along that line a few inches from the ball) can help you stay aligned with your aim spot.

Then, with the shot firmly visualized, move into your pre-stroke routine, and stroke your putt.

Finally, pause to examine where the ball ended up versus where you visualized it would end.  Did it travel farther than you expected?  Did it break more than you thought?  Or less?  Did it travel the line you intended, or did it deviate?  Taking a moment to give yourself immediate feedback will help inform your next stroke and, overtime, take your short game to new heights.

Practice Makes Improvement

We have talked a lot about some of the physical science that affects your golf game.  All the above can help but there is no substitution for good old-fashioned practice.  So, take what you’ve learned here today and head out to the putting green.  In no time, you’ll start to see the improvement in your game.  And be sure to let us know how it went in the comments below!