Putting aids probably came into being as soon as putting, as we know it today, became a skill rather than a stroke where luck played a major role.
Rik DeGunther details several interesting examples of early patents in his book The Art and Science of Putting. Where there is despair and frustration on the greens, there is room for another godsend, it seems.
So do putting aids really help to improve your putting or are they just a temporary band-aid to patch up the problem of a lousy short game? The short answer is yes and no. Yes, they help when you use them intelligently, and no when you use them mindlessly.
By way of an introduction, it is useful to look at some broader aspects of learning how to putt.
Modelling is the 'monkey see, monkey do' approach that primates use. It involves selecting a plausible role model - one you can truly relate to, and then shaping your behaviour and actions to match that of the model. Thinking is not really required.
Children learn without judgement by watching others. In theory it should be possible to learn how to putt simply by observing closely the putting stroke of, say, Brad Faxon or Ben Crenshaw, and then repeating their stroke over and over until you have got it?
Visually modelling your putting stroke on an expert can be taken a step further by combining it with an appropriate putting aid. Instead of just watching Brad Faxon putt, you could buy a Putting Track trainer and set it up so you can practise the same stroke at home. Introduce a secondary aid – a metronome, and you could even go someway to mimicking his rhythm.
Such an approach may be helpful in the beginning, but it is not the whole deal. If putting was that easy, the pros would simply copy the best putter on tour to improve their putting stats. So there must be something more.
To putt well – consistently and when it counts - you need to understand at a conscious level what works and why it works that way.
You should be able to articulate through language what you are doing. Blind obedience to a method without some understanding of how it does what it does puts you at risk that you will not able to adapt to changing conditions.
This is not the opinion of everyone. Some sports psychologists postulate that the more you have learned about a subject with conscious thought, the more likely you are to mess up under pressure by over-thinking.
Instead the strategy should be for you to experience the skill as a whole (implicit learning), rather than overloading your brain with the specific mechanics needed to perform the skill (explicit learning).
Here is an extract from the CD Putting – The Complete Guide by Harold Swash
"The benefit of a training aid such as the Putting Action Track lies in getting you to focus on 'doing' rather than 'thinking and doing'. Instead of overloading your conscious mind about what the perfect stroke should be, the Putting Action Track allows you to simply experience the skill".
The central idea is that only instructors of putting have a real need to explain the actual process of putting.
In the past it was widely held that the way to learn a motor skill was through continuous repetition. The more repetitions and the longer the period you kept at it, the better you would bed down the skill.
This extract is from a golf book published in the 1990s. "The 21-day habituation process: Execute at least 60 repetitions of the skill per day for 21 consecutive days. Put your full intent and attention into each repetition of the skill. After 21 days of 60 repetitions per day, you’ve got it".
The objective of doing the same thing over and over is to build so called 'muscle memory'. Unfortunately this is a misnomer as there is no such thing as muscle memory. Muscles can’t be trained through repetitive motion.
You need to train your brain how to putt not your muscles. This is because the neurons in your brain instruct your muscles what to do. How you program your brain will depend on how best you assimilate the necessary information.
The literature used in marketing putting aids makes certain claims. They are based on the assumption that everyone learns best the one way. This is patently wrong, and it is up to you to decide if a putting aid supports your way of learning. If it doesn’t, it is probably a poor choice.
Learning a putting skill only has value when you can demonstrate that learning through your performance on the greens under actual conditions of play. Otherwise what you have learned is just academic – nice to know stuff.
Our brain is pretty good at flushing information that doesn’t 'feed the dog'. The more ways a putting aid can deliver to you the information about how to acquire the skill, the better you will retain the information in your long-term memory bank.
An essential part of all learning is feedback. Imagine putting to a hole where a curtain prevents you from seeing the result of your putt. Without any knowledge of the result you would have difficulty in judging how good your putting stroke really was.
However, learning to putt on a practice putting green presents too many variables unrelated to the quality of your stroke to be of any value. It is possible to hole a putt with a bad stroke and miss a putt with a good stroke.
When you are learning a skill, knowledge of results is a false god. What is far more important in the initial stages of learning is feedback on how well you are performing the procedure, not just the results you are achieving. This is best done indoors with a putting aid that can give you this feedback.
I have bought (and built) dozens of putting aids. Some have been helpful in learning and practising a skill; others have not been value for money.
Dr Bob Christina, dean emeritus of the School of Health and Human Performance at the University of North Carolina, believes that for a training aid to work it has to facilitate the learning away from the training aid. In other words the best putting aids should give you a procedure rather than just a pill.
He believes that there are two kinds of training aids, guided and non-guided.
I am a great believer in self-coaching. Learning the basic fundamentals – how things function – and then working through the information.
My personal preference for an effective putting aid is one that gives me the know-how of what works and why it works. Armed with this information of cause and effect I can build a practice regime to develop the skill through structured experimentation.
This is not everyone’s cup of tea. For some golfers conscious analysis only leads to later paralysis. More important for them is a case of what feels right.
The general consensus is that putting aids are a means to an end. You should only use them for a short time, and then wean yourself off them. The more you can extract real-life cues from their use to guide your performance on the course, the better they will have served their purpose.