Speed and acceleration
The main ball skill required for distance control is speed - starting the ball with the right mph for the putt at hand. The quality of strike plays a part in the start speed (and consistency) of the ball, but unsurprisingly, clubhead speed is the most influential. Given the variety of distances you might face in a round, it is important to be clear how your clubhead speed will best adapt from one putt to another without losing any qualities (like control) in the process. Therefore, we want to only change one variable.
A key distinction to explore is around acceleration. A popular misconception is that the putter has to accelerate through the ball.
Although it might feel “positive”, excessive acceleration can make it harder to control speed at impact.
The accompanying short slow backswing and long and fast follow through rarely match our natural rhythm. Combined with the fact that the ball will typically come off the face of the putter up to 70% faster than the club was travelling, it’s not a recipe for “feel”.
Imagine rolling the ball underarm. What would the rhythm of your hand swinging back and through feel like? Most gravitate to a rhythm with minimal or even zero acceleration in order to regulate speed. It’s quite an instinctive strategy for putting where hand (or putterhead) is cruising smoothly through the impact zone. To illustrate: Ben Crenshaw with his long languid backswing and Brandt Snedeker with his “pop” stroke. Both exceptional putters sharing a crucial quality in common - zero acceleration through impact.
Rhythm & tempo
Let’s clarify what these terms mean. Tempo is a measure of how much time it takes to make the stroke. Rhythm is the ratio of backswing duration to the downswing (to impact). In the full swing 3:1 is desirable (the backswing takes three times longer than the downswing. Ideal for an accelerating swing where generally the loft of club is controlling distance.
However for putting we want minimal acceleration and thus, a rhythm of 2:1 is more appropriate. The backswing is one unit of time, and the whole follow through is another unit of time (“1-2”). Thus the time from backswing to impact is exactly half the backswing time - 2:1 ratio. Managing speed is much easier as the acceleration is minimal or even zero.
Remember, minimising variables is the key to consistency. Keeping the rhythm the same for all distances of putt is the hallmark of consistently good putters. What changes is the length of swing.
More often than not, when you see a golfer noticeably decelerate or accelerate, swing length was usually the culprit. Self organisation was desperately trying to help them out after a backswing that didn’t match the putt at hand. Too long a backswing and your subconscious slams on the breaks prior to impact. Too short and instinct delivers a rush of power to compensate. Neither will work consistently.
Swing length is the start point for establishing a rhythm that can regulate speed. The simplest concept is to have a backswing and follow through of equal length.
With a consistent rhythm binding it together, you simply need to find a length of swing that produces the appropriate speed for the putt in front of you.
Try the tee peg drill where you place markers to represent equal length backswing and follow through and see how it allows a nice rhythm to develop.