You must be part civil engineer, part optician, part agronomist and part psychic. If you can be a little bit of all these things, you, too, can read a green.
Reading greens is one of the skills that many top players have. Some don't. It is also a skill some non-players have. It is a skill Orville Moody of the Senior PGA Tour admits he does not have. It is a skill his daughter Michelle possesses as his caddy.
Putting is a game within a game, and reading greens gives you a path to follow. If you don't know where to putt, it doesn't matter how good your stroke it. Once you know where to putt, part of the mystery is taken out of putting.
"All putts are straight putts," said Cog Hill teaching pro Bruce Adams, who has been a professional for more than 30 years.
The trick is finding where to aim that straight putt and how hard to hit it so the ball will break into the hole. It is a trick that can be learned through practice -- not by reading a newspaper article. It is something that must be felt as well as understood.
Let's say you have a 15-foot birdie to win the club championship. How do you know where to hit it? Let's start from the beginning.
Instead of basking in the glory of your shot, get to work. Take a look at the green while you walk to your ball. Take a gander at the green and use your eyes to tell you what lies ahead.
"I start thinking about reading my putt before I get to the green," said Gary Pinns, who spent 10 years as a touring pro before starting his teaching career this year at Oak Brook Golf Club. "You can see the lay of the green and see which way it slopes. It's where it all starts."
In this day of golf carts, checking out the green as you walk up has become more difficult. If you're not driving, get out before you get to the green and start your work.
Once you get to the green, the civil engineering starts.
"You have to learn how to plumb bob," said Lance Ten Broeck, a PGA Tour pro. "That's the first thing you need to do. Then, reading greens is easy."
Plumb bobbing uses the same principal as a bricklayer uses to make sure the wall he builds is straight. It will help tell you which way the green slopes.
Like any golf technique, plumb bobbing must be practiced. It is an accepted practice on the PGA Tour where the best putters in the world work.
Of course, opinions of plumb bobbing vary.
"The only thing it will tell you is if you're standing on a level spot," says Adams.
It is generally agreed that a putt should be looked at from behind the ball, at the side of the line and from behind the hole. This can be done without slowing down play if you get right to work when you get on the green.
Pinns, who has won four Illinois Opens and spent two of his 10 years as a pro on the PGA Tour, and Adams start behind the hole and work their way around to behind the ball to see which way the terrain slopes.
"When I get behind the ball, I get as close to the ground as I can," said Pinns. "Some people are afraid to get right down near the ground because it looks funny. I don't care how I look."
Pat Kenny, pro at Crystal Tree, takes a different approach. He had a detached retina in his right eye and has had to depend on feel. He walks to the hole and back, feeling his way along, determining which way the green slopes.
"I used to play with an old guy at twilight and you couldn't see the line," said Kenny. "You had to feel it. That's what I do."
Once behind the ball, the psychic takes over. You must visualize where to hit the ball. Here's where practice comes in. You must know how hard to hit the putt or the ball either will take too much or too little break.
Much of this is learned behavior. Dennis Troy of Zigfield Troy Golf Range believes he learned much of what he knows about reading greens from playing miniature golf at his father's driving range on the South Side. His youngest son Jimmy, 10, is doing the same thing at the family's new Lost Mountain miniature golf layout while his older brother and sister didn't have Lost Mounain to play on as kids and aren't as sharp.
The slope can be affected by grain. The bent grass in the north usually doesn't have that much grain and won't make or break a putt. It can affect speed. If the grass is shiny, you're with the grain and the putt will be faster. Against the grain, where the grass is a darker shade of green, the putt will be slower. Looking at the cup also will help determine the direction of the grain.