To master the essential skill of green reading, it is critical that you be able to accurately identify the straight downhill slope which runs through through the middle of the hole, also known as the fall line.
Correctly identifying the fall line provides crucial information about the putt, no matter what direction you are putting from
There are always many clues as to which way the fall line is running. It can be tricky at first, but when you build experience at using these clues, you can become a True Fall Line Detective.
Try these five strategies to accurately identify the fall line:
1. Start from the fairway. The view from the fairway gives a great perspective on which way the green is generally sloping, and a guess as to where the fall line will be at the day's hole location. Typically greens slope in both the direction of the general lay of the land, as well as slightly back to front. (Greens are sloped this way to help with the course's drainage, and to make the green more receptive to approach shots.) I have never played Whistling Straights, but the view from the 13th fairway shows the green sloping slightly to the right (pictured below).
Knowing that greens typically also run from back to front, I would make a guestimate that most fall lines on the green would run in the direction of the red arrow.
Other greens are more nuanced. On the par 3 17th hole at Whistling Straights (again, pictured below), the view from the tee box shows that the right side of the green follows the rule of thumb and slopes with the general lay of the land, in this case to the left. However, you can also see that the left side of the green has been built up so that that section slopes to right.
With this in mind, from the tee box I would make the following predictions about the fall lines for the right and left sides of the green.
As you move closer to the hole you can use the following strategies to more precisely access the fall line:
2. Use your feet In my opinion, your feet are actually more accurate than your eyes at identifying the fall line. Many amateurs give me strange looks when I say this, but as any optical allusion shows us, our eyes can be fooled quite easily. Learning to read a green with your feet can take a bit of practice, but learning to do so can prevent you from being misled by a deceiving green. Take the picture below for instance.
From the 12:00 position (positioned straight down the fall line), the golfer will feel an equal amount of pressure in their left and right feet, but more pressure in their toes.
From 3:00, the golfer will feel more weight in their left foot.
From 6:00, the golfer will feel an equal amount of pressure in their left and right feet, but more pressure in their heels.
From 9:00, the golfer will feel more weight in their right foot.
I like to find the 12:00 position by inching from ~ 11:00 to 1:00, with my feet aimed straight to the hole. At 11:00, I can feel a bit more weight in my right foot, and at 1:00 I can feel a bit more weight in my left foot. When I have identified this, I know that that the 12:00 position (the fall line), will be somewhere between those two points.
3. Use your eyes. Maintenance staff try to cut the hole as vertically as possible, even if the hole is placed on a slope (for a bad example, see below). Going to the hole and looking at which side of the cup is highest and which side is lowest will give a good indication of the direction of the fall line.
4. Take notes of your playing partners' putts. No matter what direction your playing partner's putt is coming from, it can help you read your own putt. Since fall lines are typically very consistent around the hole location, watch your playing partners putts to see how they break close to the hole, even if they are putting on a different line than you. For instance, imagine your playing partner is putting from the 12:00 position and you are putting from the 3:00 position (see below). If the playing partner's putt is very quick and straight downhill, you now know your putt from 3:00 will break to the left.
5. Make your own notes We all have greens that we find difficult to read. If you play the same course frequently, keep a notebook and make a note of any putts that fool you. We all make mistakes, but try to not make the same mistake twice!
Bonus: use a digital level
The rules prohibit you from doing this during an actual round, but when scouting the course during practice rounds I will put a digital level on the green to identify the fall line at various parts of the green. As you get better, you will need the level less and less.
There's no question; reading greens is a skill that can be improved with the appropriate strategies and focused practice. Try these five strategies and identify which ones are best for you to accurately identify the fall line.