In putting there are only two objectives: distance and direction. One is no good without the other, however, direction pales in comparison to distance. Think about it. How many times have you had a putt be right on line only to have it come up short? Direction was perfect, not distance. Or you had a putt hit the back of the cup only to save you from running it by five feet or more? Again direction was perfect, not distance.
Direction is important (especially inside six feet) but without the proper distance it is of little consequence. How hard is it to aim from twenty to forty feet anyway? If you missed by two feet in either direction and your distance was good, then you would only have a two-footer left; hence you should never three-putt. I rarely see anyone three-putt due to poor aim besides the hole is wide enough to let the width three balls in.
The most common complaint I get from my students is that they have trouble reading the greens. Their problem is usually related to distance control. Distance is the key to breaking putts; and all putts break. Unless you are 90 degrees above or below the hole, all putts break. Architects build greens with slope (pitch) so that they can drain water. “Reading the greens” is simply knowing where the most influence is coming from. The most influential factors are slope and grain.
Greens are three-dimensional, so there could be several slopes influencing your putt. Always look for the overall contour of the green and surroundings, i.e. where is the natural roll of the land and where did the architect design the water to run off? These two do not always go together and when this occurs you must take into account the grain.
Determine which direction the influence is coming from. One way to do this is to bend down and imagine pouring a pitcher of water out at the hole. Where would the water drain? That is where the most influence will be. Now that we know where the influence is, we have to match up the break with the amount of speed we intend to roll the ball past the hole.
Grain tends to run in the direction of the natural contour of the land; away from hills and towards places where creeks and ponds naturally occur. Bermuda grasses are thicker leafed and tend to have more grain than other grasses. The grass tends to grow towards the sun, which is strongest and last influence is to the West. Also, the predominant wind can influence the grain. Grain is not as prevalent today as it was forty years ago due to better mowing practices and different grasses. To determine where the grain is growing, look at the cup and the side that is the most worn out is the direction that the grain is growing. The greatest improvement in the game today is better greens.
So how do you develop a feel for distance? Where people tend to get off is that they do not putt with a consistent pace. First find a pace that you are comfortable with, adopt this pace on both sides of the ball so there is no real change in tempo. Once your pace is constant, simply control the distance by the length of your swing. The length of your swing should match up on both sides much like a pendulum.
For short putts, you do not need much swing so a short stroke on both sides should do fine. On longer putts, lengthen your stroke so you will have more momentum at impact. We do not want to hit the ball harder, we can do that without changing the length of our stroke. So now that we have a consistent pace or tempo to our stroke we simply match up the length of our stroke with the distance we are trying to hit the ball. This would be similar to playing pinball. The farther we pull back on the spring (a constant) the more momentum that we have to propel the ball with and the farther it will go.
A way to practice this is to take five tees and place them five feet apart. Find an uphill place on the green so that there will be little break. While keeping a constant pace try to hit each ball to the first tee without running it by or leaving it short. Then do this to the second and third tee and so on. Notice how the length of your stroke causes the ball to go different distances. After you realize how you can control your distance, try putting to the tees in random order. This way you can create feel. Another way to practice distance would be to lag putts to the fringe from different distances, much like pitching pennies.
Putting with a better feel for distance will help to eliminate any three-putts. Remember to play enough break so that when your ball starts to break it is breaking towards the hole and not running away from it.