The year 2018 is going to be a busy one profiling the golf courses and walking experiences for this blog and my forthcoming book with UNC Press. That along with having passed my sixtieth birthday last June gives me extra motivation to tighten up several areas of my golf game. I wrote two weeks ago about my strength and flexibility issues (and that project is well under way). Now it’s time to address my putting stroke.
The man at lunch is talking about teaching the nuances of the flat stick, about the emotional purgatory he’s witnessed on the PGA Tour when a player misses a four-footer or flubs a chip at an inopportune moment. He speaks of helping golfers “rewrite their stories” that they are bad putters and the absolute necessity of measuring elements of putting that cannot be seen by a naked eye.
David Orr taps the sides of his head and motions toward the never-never land between the ears.
“Putting is an ‘inside job,’” he says. “A friend in the business named Chris Smith said that once, and it’s stuck with me. Teaching putting begins with the mental side. The putting coach has it the worst. If a player misses a fairway, so what? If he misses a green, so what? But miss a three-footer and lose a hundred bucks and you can be scarred for a very long time.”
We are eating at the “In the Rough Lounge” at Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club in Southern Pines and the 49-year-old Orr is telling me his story of growing up in upstate New York, playing Division III golf and, after college in the early 1990s, lamenting as a lower-rung shop pro “all the benjamins” the boss was raking in on the lesson tee. He played a few years on golf’s mini-tours but eventually decided that golf instruction as a vocation had some merit, then moved to Raleigh and held jobs at Cheviot Hills and North Ridge Country Club. In 2000 he landed a job at Pine Needles and for four years honed his craft under one of the best in the business, the late Peggy Kirk Bell. Orr left in 2004 to pursue his PGA Class A-6 status through the Professional Golf Management program at Campbell University and in time immersed himself in putting research in a studio on the campus in Buies Creek.
Orr learned so much and developed such a feel for teaching putting and the short game that he’s spent considerable time the last decade coaching some of golf’s top talents—from helping Justin Rose win the 2013 U.S. Open to working regularly now with LPGA stalwart Suzann Pettersen. The 2014 Ryder Cup Match gave Orr conflicting emotions—Rose played the European team and another client, Hunter Mahan, was on the American team. Orr has traveled the world to lecture other teaching pros about the science and art of putting.
Now in 2018, he’s relocating his putting lab and teaching business, The Flatstick Academy, to Pine Needles at the invitation of resort President Kelly Miller.
“This is a homecoming for me,” Orr says. “I think of Peggy every day. Every day. I stand on the range and look around and say, ‘Wow, every brick, every blade of grass—they’re here because of her.’ She built the dream. You cannot replace her. But it’s an honor to be back.”
I tell Orr I’m a mediocre putter, that practicing on the greens is boring and thus I don’t put much stock in it. I believe I have reasonably good fundamentals, but I don’t adjust well from fast greens to slow greens on different courses. I also tell him I frankly don’t see what in hell most people are looking at when reading a green; I simply try to get the overall lay of the land walking up to the green—indeed, yet another reason to walk—give it a quick plumb-bob and hit it.
“It sounds like you already have a story in your mind that you can’t putt,” he says. “Most people are like that. I started with Suzann a few months ago and everyone told her two things: She’s a wonderful ball-striker and she can’t putt. Well, she had a couple of technical issues that were holding her back. But the fact is, she can putt. She’s a helluva putter. We just had to rewrite her story.”
He looks around the room at the dozen or so folks eating and drinking, most of them just having played golf or getting ready to go out on the course.
“Putting should be simple, but people miss four putts inside ten feet and come in here and bitch,” he says. “So it starts with the mental. People create these stories to cope with a very hard game.”
We walk out onto the practice putting green at Pine Needles and Orr has me strike a variety of putts of different lengths, shapes and slopes. He quickly identifies two faults. One, I overdo an idea ingrained in my psyche over many years that one must accelerate through the ball; and two, I’m habitually lined up left of my target. It turns out the two issues are connected.
“You hurry your transition way too much, and that leaves the clubface open at impact,” he says. “Your eye is used to missing it right, so your body subconsciously begins aiming left.”
We move into the indoor golf center at the far end of the Pine Needles practice range and Orr shows me his putting platform and a sophisticated 3-D analysis computer called SAM (an acronym for Science And Motion). The centerpiece is an elevated surface fourteen feet long by six feet across that can be adjusted along four axis lines to simulate breaking putts. Orr attaches a sensor to my putter shaft that is connected by wireless to the SAM hard drive. I strike ten 10-foot putts and the significant take-away from the report generated instantly is that my clubface is open (or aimed right) an average of 2.1 degrees on every putt.
No wonder I have no confidence on the greens. I might as well be running 105 meters in the 100-meter dash.
Orr suggests a subtle grip change, moving my right hand slightly around to the right so that the palm runs more parallel with the putter face. He also has me hold my hands a little higher at address with a tiny bit more angle between my hands and wrists. And he notes that I tend to address the ball slightly off-center of the notch at the top of my Scotty Cameron putter.
But the main thing is the length of my backswing and the speed of the transition.
“What kind of car do you drive?” Orr asks. “I bet you go from zero to sixty pretty fast. Slow down.”
I lengthen my backswing and ease the transition.
“Better,” he says. “Hit another.”
I strike a putt.
“Nope, you saw green and mashed the gas. Slow down.”
On this goes for a dozen putts. Finally, I take what seems an interminable time for a backstroke and follow-through. The ball rolls solidly into the cup.
“That is IT!” Orr exclaims. “That’s beautiful. Your transition was unhurried. What words would you use to describe that feel?”
I think for a moment.
“Relaxed. Unhurried. Languid. Slow,” I answer.
“I like ‘unhurried,’” he says. “Think ‘unhurried’ over the ball.”
We keep working and over the span of a couple hours I learn some drills, experiment with different putters and hear some great stories.
Orr has me try a couple of putters slightly heavier than mine. “How does that one feel?” he asks. “That stroke looked good. The added weight slows you down. We put rocks in the dump truck. It’s a hair heavier.”
He has me hit putts of varying lengths in the six-foot range and draws on his basketball background to draw speed parallels: Aim for the back of the rim (firm hit), swish it (perfect), front-rim roll (die it into the cup).
“This is good practice for developing feel for break and speed,” he says.
He chides me if I miss one left.
“You cannot miss it left,” he says. “You’ve got lions and tigers and bears to the left.”
After two hours, I’ve gotten a much better grasp on Orr’s three bedrock areas of putting: green reading, feeling the speed of a putt and starting the ball on the correct line.
“So, you’re a writer. What words would you use to describe our time together?”
“Informative,” I answer. “Entertaining. And very productive.”
“Good answers,” he says. “I’ll take that. The biggest takeaway is that you can be a good putter, a very good putter. Just quit telling yourself that you suck.”
With the extended forecast not showing a temperature over fifty degrees in Chapel Hill for the next two weeks, the dawn of the new year is perfect to work on strength, flexibility and putting. My story will certainly take a turn for the better before my next random walk.
Lee Pace hopes to drain a few more putts in 2018 as he searches out the great walks in Carolinas golf. The story will be published in a handsome coffee-table book by UNC Press. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Meanwhile, to learn more about David Orr and his teaching services at Pine Needles in Southern Pines, view his website at flatstickacademy.com or call him at 910/ 740-9616.