How is the green breaking? It’s a question most golfers want answered before they line up their putt. But this question assumes that greens have only a single break or will break in only one direction. This is a myth: in fact, very few greens will break in only one direction. Even when a green does break mostly in one direction, the Break Amount (or severity of the break) will likely change quite a bit over the entire area of the green. In reality, most greens will have a number of different breaks, and each one can affect your putt differently.
I frequently play golf as a single, merging into a foursome (by direction of the match-making starter) with other players who may or may not know each other. This is especially interesting if I’m playing a golf course for the first time. Invariably, one of the golfers (presumably a golfer who has played the course a number of times) is right up front in sharing his "sage" green reading advice. The advice they give usually goes something like this: "on this course, all the greens break away from the
mountains," or "everything breaks toward the ocean," or some other general tip.
While there may be some truth to this advice (nobody can be 100% wrong), it is usually quite mistaken because it assumes that each green has basically one single break. In fact, most greens will break in several different directions.
So how is a green really breaking? Well, that depends on where you are on the green. Greens can break in one direction in one area, and in quite a bit different direction in another area. I’ve used the BreakMaster Digital Green Reader to measure the slopes on all 18 greens on a good number of golf courses. This is extremely revealing in understanding how the break (the force of gravity) will cause your putt to roll. I’ve observed that Break Directions and Break Amounts vary quite a bit over a typical green. I’ve mapped out the breaks on these courses and created Greens Books that help golfers understand the break on any green. The greens map on the right is an actual green I have measured and mapped.
So a better question for a golfer to ask would be “How is the green breaking in a particular location?” Or, more specifically, “How is the green breaking at the hole?” Why do we need to understand the break at the hole? Because for most of your putt, the stroke of your putter determines the direction in which the ball will travel. But as the ball slows down as it approaches the hole, the force of gravity kicks in, and gravity (in the form of the break) has progressively more effect on the roll of your putt as your putter stroke has progressively less effect. That’s why we see putts take those major turns as they slow down near the hole. Identifying the break at the hole location is the first concept you must contend with. All the other breaks on the green matter very little compared to the break at the hole.
Golf professionals are increasingly coming to a better understanding of the true break on the green. These days, before a professional golf tournament, someone on the tournament committee will go out on the greens and choose the hole locations that will be used during the four days of competition. The tournament directors choose these locations by measuring the Break Direction, Break Amount and Stimp readings at various points on the green to determine that a specific area is conforming to accepted USGA standards.
These approved locations are then marked on the greens by paint dots or some other method. Tour Pros and Caddies take note of these hole locations, measure them and make their own notes (on greens maps), showing how the greens will break at the hole so that they are prepared on game days. This chart on Conforming Hole Locations was created in an article from the USGA magazine. For a closer look, click HERE
In our study, we measured all the greens at the Riviera Country Club (Pacific Palisades, CA) prior to that year's PGA event, the Northern Trust Open. We found that only 2 of the 18 greens broke generally in the same direction over the surface of the green. Most of the greens broke in different directions on different parts of the green. To help visualize, let’s consider the green as a clock face with the 12 to 6 line pointing toward the center of the fairway.
On the #5 green at Riviera (seen on the right), the upper-left quadrant of the green had a Break Direction mostly toward 6 o’clock, the upper-right quadrant of the green broke mostly toward 8 o’clock, while the lower-right of the green broke mostly toward 9 o’clock. That’s three different break directions on one green! Most golfers trying to read the green visually would not see these three different break directions, but would think it broke only in one direction.
What’s more, on the #14 green at Riviera (on the left), one of the few on the course that generally broke in one direction (in this case, toward 9 o’clock), there was a great variation in the Break Amount. Most of the right half of the green was a similar slope of 1.0 to 2.0 degrees. But on the left half of the green, the Break Amount increased significantly to 3.5 degrees and in some places up to 4 degrees (a very severe break). For more information on how the Break Amount can affect the roll of the putt, see my previous essay: “The Break Direction Myth.”
But the proof in the pudding is that by using our BreakMaster break measurements in the Greens Book we created for Riviera, PGA Tour Pro Scott McCarron came in #1 in putting for the 2009 Northern Trust Open tournament. He accomplished this by using actual scientific data (the measurements we took of the breaks on the greens) rather than by trying to “read” the greens by eye or by guessing the break.
The point is, we have to disabuse ourselves of simplistic notions that greens only break in one direction or one amount – at least if we want to sink more breaking putts and lower our scores. The best way to understand the break on a green is to measure the green at various points (taking note of Break Direction and Break Amount), and make a note of those breaks on greens maps. The most understandable method is to use arrows to indicate Break Direction and a number of degrees (usually from 0.0 to 4.0) for Break Amounts. This is perfectly legal to do (as long as you’re not doing it during the competition itself), and it is the way Tour Pros and Tour Caddies have been reading greens for years.
What’s the best way to do this? During a practice round, or after everyone in your party is done putting, use the BreakMaster to take a measurement of the green at the hole location and make a note of it in your Greens Book (or a collection of index cards showing each green). I always like to be the one in my foursome that replaces the flag stick. This makes me look courteous, but actually gives me an opportunity to take a quick measurement of the green and record it without disturbing my foursome or the foursome following us. Over the course of several rounds, you will collect a significant amount of data, and become an expert on the greens on that course. In this way, you’ll know exactly the breaks you’ll encounter the next time you play this green. You will have far more information than the average golfer you are playing against; in fact you will have the same information that Tour Pros use when lining up their putts.
Once you really know the break, you can more accurately observe how your putt reacts to different Break Directions and Break Amounts. Most importantly, by understanding the true break (and how it affects your putt), instead of guessing or relying on myths about a single break, you will significantly lower your scores.