Quiet Eye, Doug Sanders and the Fly

It is the 1970 Open Championship at the Old Course in St. Andrews. Doug Sanders, justifying his nickname ‘Peacock of the Fairways’ by wearing a resplendent purple sweater, is standing over a putt that sits 3 feet from the hole. If he sinks it, he will win the Open, leaving Jack Nicklaus in second place. He walks around the green examining the putt from various angles, swatting a fly away from the ball as he goes but not stepping out to gather himself after doing so. Ben Hogan, a friend of Sanders who is watching the moment on TV back back in Texas, yells at the screen, ‘step away and get your composure back’. Saunders however never did, instead stabbing at the ball in a jerking motion and missing the putt. It allowed Nicklaus back into it, who went on to win the 18 hole play off the next day. Indeed, Sanders never did win a major, instead coming second on four occasions in various major championships. Sanders remarked later in life what he was thinking during that moment in 1970, ‘I made the mistake about thinking which section of the crowd I was going to bow to. I did it all. I never blamed anybody….There was only one person to blame. Doug Sanders.’ In 1997 when he was asked did the miss ever play on his mind, Sanders responded, “Nah, not too much. Sometimes five or six minutes can go by in a day without me thinking about it …”.

I tell this story of the 1970 Open to illustrate what a loss of focus in a single moment can cost us. Certainly for Saunders it was legacy, and depending on estimates the financial return (Sanders himself reckoned it was around $10m per feet realistically). So focusing, or refocusing, in terms of putting is an important business for golfers. In 1992 Joan Vickers published a paper on putting, highlighting that successful putts could be correlated with gaze control during the process. This evolved into the term ‘Quiet Eye’, which basically revolves around what the final things the golfer is looking at before they execute their putt, and the amount of time that this involves. For example, for expert golfers these ‘fixations’ are usually very focused on the centre of the hole and the back of the ball, compared to novice golfers who look around the hole more, the green itself and even the club head during putting. Similarly expert golfers are also more consistent in the duration of their gaze, maintaining it on the back of the ball for around 2 seconds prior to their back swing and also continually maintain this focus through the swing until after contact with the ball. We also know such gaze control is highly disrupted by distractions whether internal (e.g. anxiety) or external (e.g. like which part of the crowd to bow to or a pesky fly).

So, although this information is interesting, the important question for many golfers is whether Quiet Eye can be trained to improve performance. The research would suggest it can with Sam Vine and colleagues performing a 1 hour long intervention to do just that. Similarly Vine and Mark Wilson also detail a number of Quiet Eye Training (QET) instructions in putting to complement those of a technical nature:

  • Assume stance and ensure that gaze is on the back of the ball
  • After setting up, fixate the hole (fixation should be made no more than three times)
  • Your final fixation should be on the back of the ball and for no longer than 2–3 seconds
  • No gaze should be directed to the clubhead or shaft during the putting action
  • Your fixation should remain steady for 200–300 ms after contact with the ball

As Wilson and another colleague Hugh Richards suggests though, ‘focus with a quiet eye, putt with a quiet mind’. The quiet mind here involves striving to be automatic and mindful in your actions. In essence quiet eye training and instructions need to be integrated with techniques and attributes that facilitate a lack of self consciousness. Indeed, even the ability to consistently embrace a resetting strategy, whether faced with a persistent fly or any distraction, may help quieten our minds for our own respective moments of success. 

Worth a read:

Vickers, J. N. (1992). “Gaze control in putting.” Perception 21: 117-132.

Vine, S. and M. Wilson (2018). The Quiet Eye in Golf Putting. Routledge International Handbook of Golf Science. M. Toms. London, Routledge: 219-231.

Vine, S. J., L. J. Moore and M. R. Wilson (2011). “Quiet eye training facilitates competitive putting performance in elite golfers.” Frontiers in Psychology 2(8): 1-9.

Vine, S. J., L. J. Moore and M. R. Wilson (2012). “Quiet eye training: The acquisition, refinement and resilient performance of targeting skills.” European Journal of Sport Science 14(1): 1-8.