Monday, September 9, 2013

A Guide to Putting Out

No, this is not a dating advice column. We're talking about how to proceed once your golf ball's within a few feet from the hole.

Recently I was paired at the local muni with a newbie, who's just a couple years into it. But a pretty decent player given that much experience. After one bad hole though, his ball lying seven or whatever it was, on the green ten feet from the hole he said "That's enough" and went to it pick up. Seeing that the people in front of us had only just teed off I said that he might as well putt out--we'll be waiting on the next tee anyways, no need to rush. He gave it a go, but seemed sort of uneasy about it. It occurred to me then that this topic warrants a discussion.

We can all agree that putting a ball into a hole is what essentially defines golf. It's literally the first rule in the book.

1-1. General 

The Game of Golf consists of playing a ball with a club from the teeing ground into the hole by a stroke or successive strokes in accordance with the Rules.
The act of holing is arguably the core of the entire game. That little 4.25-inch wide cylinder in the ground is what turns an otherwise random strip of land into something we all can love--a golf hole. Every technological advance, every swing theory or thought, every last piece of performance equipment or accessory, they're all geared towards helping you better achieve that one singular goal. Golf... is all about getting the ball in the hole, right?

Wrong. Out out here in the real world let's face it, a lot of people just aren't holing out. What exactly is going on out there then, and why? Let's talk about our real world options for proceeding once our ball's within a few feet of the hole.

1. Hole out: the first, simplest option is to simply treat the short putt like any other shot which is to say, give it your full attention and make every reasonable effort to hit it with success.

2. Half-ass it: that is make an intentionally negligent attempt to hole it by raking, scraping, or one-handing it towards the hole, your body language making it clear to anyone within view that you're not actually trying to hole it, therefore you don't actually care if it misses.

3. Self-concede it: a common practice is to simply consider the putt holed and pick it up. This can be viewed as a loose bastardization of the match-play rule that allows a player to concede putts to his opponent. That is putting it generously--most people don't even put that much thought into it. Whatever the case, it's become too common, and it's probably a contributing factor to the overall decline of golf in America if you ask me.

Note that options 2 and 3 are essentially the same. In any case then, what are our reasons for picking up our putts during the course of normal play?

Discomfort/physical duress/laziness
Granted, it can be a pain to bend over and reach down into the hole to fetch the ball--literally, for those with back or joint issues.

Causes slow play
Golf takes long enough as it is. Sometimes lining up a short putt takes time, why bother?

Selective effort 
"If it's for a birdie, I'll putt it."--in other words, the higher the score on a given hole, the less attention the putt warrants.

Over-confidence/fear of embarrassment 
I'm not going to miss a putt that short, ever. Nobody misses putts inside three feet, right? Therefore if I were to miss mine, I'd be humiliated. And why put myself through that stress when it's perfectly socially acceptable to just stoop down and pick it up?

(Over-confidence and fear of embarrassment might seem like polar opposites, but when you think it about, they are actually the same compulsion.)


Picking up putts, no matter how short, is a blatant violation of golf's most fundamental rule. Actually, it is a violation of the actual definition of the word golf.

"Its natural environment is in the hole."

Some people will self-concede, but only within inches. By doing so they think they are being more upstanding, but when you think of it philosophically, that's even more objectionable than picking up from farther away. Doing all that work to maneuver your ball from Point A, over and around various obstacles and hazards, across distances of up to a third of a mile, somehow getting it to within inches of Point B, only to refuse to put it across the finish line, it's hurtful and offensive to the ball. The ball, when you're out there is really an extension of, well, you. So you're really just disrespecting yourself even worse.

If you pick up putts out of a concern for slow play, you are again, in the wrong. Semantically speaking, this rationale is as wrong as it would be to concede yourself a driver in the fairway, or an iron shot on the green, or to pick up your ball and throw it out of a bunker, all while claiming pace of play. Slow play's a major problem that nobody would dispute, but there's literally thousands of other opportunities to speed up play that have nothing to do with the actual act of making a stroke--if you are so concerned about pace of play, go find some of them.

If you're picking up putts because you find the physical act of reaching down into the cup difficult, then  you have the sympathy of most reasonable people. However physical limitations no longer have to preclude one from participating in normal regulation golf.

Thanks to a clever application of suction technology, pain sufferers and the flexibility-challenged can now hole out with total freedom. Thanks to this device you can fish balls out of the cup all day, with the reckless abandon of a teenager.

If you pick up a putt out of fear of embarrassment from missing, you are guilty of simultaneously taking things way too serious, and not taking them serious enough. This is a weird kind of self-inflicted mental schism that can make the whole golf experience more tortuous than it should be.

If you half-ass your short putts, you're still guilty of making a mockery of the game and its most basic, elemental rule. On top of that you're also engaging in a childish attempt to hedge yourself against emotional stakes: make the putt, and of course you meant it. Miss it and well, no big deal, screw you all because I wasn't actually trying anyways. This is actually more objectionable and way less dignified than just picking it up.


Contrary to popular belief, holing out is both normal and acceptable. Don't let peer pressure ever dictate otherwise. Holing out is a violation of neither rule nor etiquette. In fact you could say it's quite the opposite.

So naturally this is our best option for proceeding once the ball is very near to the hole. Forgetting about ethics and morality, it's just a simple, elegant way to approach one's rounds, one that offers numerous practical benefits. It needs no justification, really.

If you're out there specifically to schmooze a client, or make a deal, or even just to goof around then fine--you don't need to hole out. But, if your intention is to play a round of golf, if "golfer" is something you normally refer to yourself as, with a straight face, you have to hole out. Let's discuss why.

Money's Worth
Your green fee entitles you to hole out 18 times. The ball rattling in the cup is a satisfying sound. You paid for it. What, you don't like getting all of what you paid for?

Nobody's saying that missing short putts is fun. In fact it sucks. But there can be no thrill of victory without the sting of defeat. Yin and yang. This is an ancient concept.

By immunizing one's self against the sting of missed short putts, a person effectively deprives himself of the full range of experience offered by this great sport. A surefire way to suck some of the wonder, excitement and gratification out of a milestone golf round is to give yourself a few putts along the way.

On balance, playing by the rules and carding an honest score is the most fulfilling way to play. Your score at the end of the day may not be what you wanted, but it almost always is what you deserved.

Anybody out on a golf course can be influenced by anyone else who happens to be a better golfer, or more experienced. Traditions are passed along in this way. People learn how to be a golfer by both conscious and unconscious observation of others.

Therefore it's the duty of any self-respecting golfer to be a good example. The fact is there are multitudes of people out on the course who lack proper guidance, who pick up putts, take mulligans and improve lies simply because this is what they've observed as common behavior on the golf course.

To ensure the continued existence of a game in which rules are by and large enforced by one's own self, integrity is extremely important. Even at my shitty local course--one of the most immoral, dissolute golf locales anywhere--the scorecard emphatically states: "the person with the lowest handicap is responsible for adherence to the rules of good golf etiquette for the members in his group."

The more people see holing out as normal, the sooner we can eliminate the wanton behavior of picking up balls with our grubby hands.

Improves your putting
Putting out (along with generally playing by the RoG at all times) will have an overall positive effect on your game. It will make you more conscious of scoring.

There is something called holing instinct, and it is what distinguishes good golfers from the rest. Putting out all your putts hones this instinct, whereas self-conceding only dulls it.

People who putt out everything develop a compulsive need to hear the ball rattle in the cup. For them, a hole's not complete until that sound is produced. Therefore, their subconscious drive to get the ball in the hole is far greater than that of those who are prone to picking up putts, who are not engaged in any sensory reward system. Without a reward mechanism in place, the subconscious mind makes little distinction between a holed putt and a close miss. The stakes have been lowered. Therefore, that golfer will be generally less focused on the task of putting, and therefore less likely to hole any given putt.

Factual Accuracy
Counting all the subrules, definitions, rulings and decisions, there are many rules in golf. However by failing to hole out, a person runs afoul of Rule 1-1, which pretty much defines what golf is. That means if you're regularly picking up your ball on the green in a non-match situation, you're not actually playing a round of golf. In fairness if somebody asks you what you did over the weekend, and you consider yourself an honest person, you cannot say that you "played a round of golf".

Besides that, anyone who keeps a handicap, or statistics like scoring average (which, in this computer age all avid golfers should be doing) must report accurate scores. Because the instant you start lying about scores, the whole handicap and stat-keeping systems become elaborate webs of lies. Golf is a big enough waste of time as it is. Better to be honest.

Natural Order of the Universe
Perhaps most of all, putts should be holed out because all putts are missable. The results of a golf round must be real, countable and verifiable, and never imaginary, or speculative, or theoretical.

The above graphic shows Hale Irwin on the 14th green during the final round of the 1983 Open Championship, missing what looks to be a putt of a couple inches. "I guess I just lifted my head," he would say afterwards. "To be perfectly blunt, I just don't know what happened. I guess I had a mental lapse." That little two-inch putt mattered, in a big way: four holes later, Irwin finished a single stroke behind champion Tom Watson.

IK Kim a couple years ago missed this one-footer to win the coveted Kraft-Nabisco Wheat Thins Championship. By all accounts, she is considered a good putter. It happened, and even though she went on to lose the tournament, she did not die from embarrassment. Everyone accepted the miss, and nobody begrudged the winner because Kim missed a gimme putt. She was not kicked out of golf and arguably, she gained more respect than she lost as a result of this miss.

The point is both of these missed putts decided the outcomes of "major" championships. As tiny as they were, you cannot in your right mind deny that they occurred, any more than you can deny your own fallibility and your own capacity to miss short putts. To be a golfer is to subject one's self to painful misses. We have to accept this.


But if none of these reasons proves satisfying enough, then perhaps just think of holing out as another one of golf's silly traditions to be followed, if for no particular reason. The sport's already full of pointless traditions and ritual behavior. Take ball markers--within the rules, you can mark your ball on the green with almost any object imaginable, yet almost everyone including you, uses a coin and doesn't even ask why. Right?

In other words let's all just stop our whining and make the putt.


  1. I can't argue with your logic. I will give every putt my full attention until it is in the hole, regardless of the situation.

  2. Awesome write up. I've recently been holing out everything and it's worth it.


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