Reading a Green
I once played in a golf tournament with a guy who could hit the ball a mile off the tee box and hit his irons so solid it looked effortless. The problem was, he couldn't putt to save his life. I remember one time watching him six-putt a green, which ended up costing him the chance at making an important cut.
It might be the shortest shot in the game of golf, but the putt can also be one of the most difficult. Not only that, but it is, perhaps, the most important shot of all because it's the only one that regularly has a chance of going in the hole.
One of the reasons is that most players struggle with putting is that they don't know how to read a green properly.
Think about a book. Even a children's book can be nearly impossible to read if we don't know the language it's written in. Similarly, in order to putt well, we must know the "language" of the green. So, here are five tips to help you read the green and make more putts.
DON'T BE FOOLED
Always remember that any good golf course architect is going to try to deceive players. Keep this in mind as you start reading a green. If a putt looks like it'll break one way, don't be too quick trust your gut...subtle breaks can be misleading. Use tips 2-5 below to confirm your gut instinct before you hit your putt.
LOOK AT TOPOGRAPHY
As you approach a green, look around at the macro-level surroundings. Meaning, don't forget about the geography of the entire golf course. Maybe the course is on a hill or a mountain. It's easy to get so narrow in our focus that we forget these things. If a golf course is sitting on, or even near, an elevated area, then chances are good that putts will break away from the high point.
LOOK AT COURSE FEATURES
Next, look at the landscape surrounding the specific green you're standing on. A deep bunker or pond will often influence break. Those are low points in the terrain that will influence your golf ball. Depending on how deep those features are, putts will tend to break towards those areas.
Once you've determined the general direction of the green based upon the geography, you're ready to investigate your specific putt. Look for contours in the green that would affect how water drains. (There might even be a drainage grate nearby to help.) Ask yourself if these contours are helping or hurting the overall picture you discovered in the surrounding landscape. This will either magnify or reduce the break in the putt. Again, remember that an architect will often create conflicting pictures by using the areas geography and green's contours. You'll have to be the judge over which is more dominant for your putt.
READ THE GRAIN
In some areas of the world, grain can have a huge impact on putting. Grain is the direction the blades of grass grow on a particular green. Often times, the grass blade will follow the sun, but it can also grow in different directions depending on how it was mowed.
If the blades of grass are growing away from you, it will be a slightly faster putt than normal. If it's growing towards you it'll be slower, if it's growing to the right it'll break slightly more right, and if it's growing left it'll break more left. Sometimes (specifically in the south), you can even look inside the actual hole and see that one side of the grass is burnt out or darker. This usually indicates that the grass is growing away from that area and it'll break towards the burn out.
If the grass looks shiny, that typically means the grass is growing away from you. If it's darker in color, that often indicates the grass is growing towards you.
FINAL BONUS TIP
80% of putts are missed on the low side of the hole. Meaning that most players read too LITTLE break in a putt rather than too much. Try aiming 1/2 inch higher in all your putts and I think you'll see a lot more of them find the bottom of the cup.
If you start implementing these tips into your putting routine, I'm sure that you'll start to feel more confident on the green and make more putts.