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The most important putts to make

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Back in May, I felt that Tiger Woods was Statistically Primed For the U.S. Open.

Tiger had just come off his fourth victory for the year, and was using a very conservative tee shot strategy — hitting a lot of 3 woods and 5 woods off tees where most of his competitors were hitting driver.

All of the research I have conducted actually states that a conservative tee shot strategy is usually a bad idea, and that leaving the driver in the bag should be a golfer’s very last option, not his first or second option. But, my reasoning was that since Merion would force a lot of lay-up shots off the tee and that nobody was better at laying up off the tee than Tiger, he was in prime position to win his fourth U.S. Open.

However, there was something that made me a little uncomfortable about forecasting Tiger’s success for the U.S. Open. For most of the first half of the season he was by far and away the best putter on the PGA Tour from outside 15 feet. And all the research I have done has shown that Tour players will move toward the means on putts from outside 15 feet regardless of their putting skill level. I feel that this important information for amateurs to understand in order to not only putt better, but to better plan their shots.

The gold standard for putting metrics is Strokes Gained – Putting. The concept is simple: It calculates the distance of the putt and what the average number of putts for the field have been from that distance. Then it takes the number of putts the golfer makes and subtracts it from the field average.

For example, if a golfer two-putts from 40 feet and the field average from 40 feet for the tournament is at 2.183 strokes, then the golfer gained 0.183 strokes on the field from that particular distance of putt. If the golfer three-putts, then they lost -0.817 strokes to the field on that putt.

What I found was that the distance range of putts that correlates most strongly to Strokes Gained — Putting are putts from 3 to 15 feet. Here is the list of the current top-15 golfers in Strokes Gained — Putting and how they rank on putts from various distances.

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The table shows that not only do these top putters tend to rank much better on putts from 3 to 15 feet than on putts longer than 15 feet, but the standard deviation shows much more variance in the rankings as the putts get longer. Sergio Garcia is ranked No. 1 in putts from more than 25 feet and in Strokes — Gained Putting. However, this is merely an anomaly and goes to show how there is little rhyme or reason as to what golfers will make putts from longer than 15 feet.

Here’s a line chart that hopefully illustrates the point a little better.

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I call the percentage of putts made from longer than 15 feet a “volatile metric.” What I mean is that a player may rank high in putts made from greater than 15 feet one season, and then rank low on putts made from greater than 15 feet the very next season. It does not matter if the golfer is generally a “great putter” or a “bad putter.”

Here’s a few examples using typically “great putters” (Baddeley, Donald and Snedeker) versus typically “bad putters” (Weekley, Garrigus and Stadler) on putts from longer than 15 feet over the years.

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The table further demonstrates the volatility on making putts from longer than 15 feet. Luke Donald has been the greatest putter on Tour during the past five years, and he has had some years where he has made a high percentage of putts from longer than 15 feet and other years where he has struggled from this distance. Conversely, Boo Weekley has been one of the worst putters on Tour in the past five years and he has had some years where he has made a lot of long putts and in other years he has struggled from longer distances.

The data shows that making putts from outside 15 feet has more to do with luck, while making putts from inside 15 has more to do with skill. Thus, for golfers looking to learn from this, they should spend more of their time practicing putts from 3 to 15 feet than putts longer than 15 feet.

However, if I want to go into more finite detail, the strongest correlation of putts made from a one-foot distance range and putts gained is putts from 3 to 4 feet. This is particularly telling when we look at the rankings of the top and bottom-15 players in Strokes Gained — Putting and their rankings in putts from 3 and 4 feet.

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I believe that the reason for the strong correlation on these 3- to 4-foot putts and Strokes Gained — Putting is because a putt from 3 to 4 feet is very makeable, but just difficult enough where golfers can easily miss. I believe that these putts require the basic fundamentals to good putting in the golfer’s ability to aim properly, the centeredness of contact and having the right amount of touch and speed on the putt. I also feel it requires a sharp eye for green reading.

While most putts from 3 to 4 feet have little or no break to them, the golfer has to correctly identify that small break when it is there. And again, we should note that Sergio (and Tiger) are mere anomalies as the average ranking for these top-15 putters from 3 to 4 feet is typically in the top-50.

Thus, I recommend golfers not only focus their practice toward putts from inside 15 feet, but to spend a little extra time on those 3 to 4 footers in order to get the fundamentals of putting.

But, that’s not all that the data shows. Another key metric is that current average on Tour is for a golfer to make one birdie putt from outside 15 feet for every 36.2 holes of golf he plays. In essence, it will take a little over two rounds before the average Tour player will make a birdie putt longer than 15 feet.

Thus, if golfers want to make more birdies, they need to strive to get more birdie putts inside 15 feet rather than hope that they can make a few long putts outside of 15 feet. This is what happens in EVERY super-low round on Tour. The player simply accumulates a lot of birdie opportunities. For instance, Tiger’s 61 at Firestone included nine birdie opportunities from inside 15 feet in which Tiger converted eight of them.

For golfers looking to shoot better scores by improving their putting, focus on making more putts from inside 15 feet. And if you’re looking to make substantial improvements to your score, accumulate more birdie opportunities inside 15 feet. For the higher handicappers, I suggest continuing to work on putting from inside 15 feet and to try to accumulate more par opportunities from inside 15 feet.

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Richie Hunt is a statistician whose clients include PGA Tour players, their caddies and instructors in order to more accurately assess their games. He is also the author of the recently published e-book, 2018 Pro Golf Synopsis; the Moneyball Approach to the Game of Golf. He can be reached at ProGolfSynopsis@yahoo.com or on Twitter @Richie3Jack. GolfWRX Writer of the Month: March 2014 Purchase 2017 Pro Golf Synopsis E-book for $10

11 Comments

11 Comments

  1. td

    Aug 17, 2013 at 10:37 am

    …” I believe that these putts require the basic fundamentals to good putting in the golfer’s ability to aim properly, the centeredness of contact and having the right amount of touch and speed on the putt. I also feel it requires a sharp eye for green reading.”

    Is that you Tim Mccarver!?!?

    • t120

      Aug 20, 2013 at 1:37 am

      …funniest baseball comment in a non-baseball thread I’ve ever read.

  2. Tim

    Aug 17, 2013 at 7:25 am

    Great analysis! I really appreciate the data crunching you did to support your recommendations. I look forward to reading more and to getting the e-book.

  3. Bob

    Aug 16, 2013 at 4:50 pm

    Sooooo hit the ball closer to the hole and make more putts? Who woooda thunk it!

    • Richie Hunt

      Aug 22, 2013 at 1:34 pm

      Bob,

      That wasn’t the point of the article. The point is that the *most important putts to make* are putts from inside 15 feet. Mainly because making putts from longer than 15 feet come down to luck and randomness, regardless of your putting skill. Obviously, we will make less putts as we get further away from the hole, but the best putters that ‘gain the most strokes’ on the greens do it by making more putts inside 15 feet than their competition.

  4. steff

    Aug 16, 2013 at 4:15 am

    Great article Rich! I did not agree with your last article but this is spot on!

    This year i have improoved my putting a lot. I´ve practiced a lot from 4 feet. I have a drill where i putt 8 tees around the hole and putt 4 balls from each tee. I do this before evry competative round. I´ve gone from 25/32 to around 30 evry time!

    This have resulted in lowering my average score a lot but not lowered my best scores (yet).

    Next up is 6-7 feet. With the same drill i usuly score around 15-20 out of 32.

  5. Pat

    Aug 15, 2013 at 7:13 pm

    All I learned from this is that if Luke Donald could make something outside 15 feet he’d be pretty good.

    • Richie Hunt

      Aug 16, 2013 at 9:06 am

      Well, he’s pretty good to start with. It just means that Luke is likely to progress towards the mean from outside 15 feet pretty soon. Luke’s biggest weakness is his driving. And lately he has struggled on some of his longer approach shots.

  6. Steve

    Aug 15, 2013 at 7:07 pm

    Where do you access all of your source data? I’d be very interested in rooting through the data.

    Thanks,

  7. Rich Hunt

    Aug 15, 2013 at 3:00 pm

    Geoff,

    The research I’ve done is based on years of work. I just used this year’s current data as an example. Generally 5-10 foot putts are about as important as 10-15 footers. This year there is a bit of an exception as the top players in Putts Gained are putting quite well from 5-10 feet. However, I expect that to regress more towards the 10-15 footers.

    I generally recommend golfers that are struggling to work on 3-4 footers first. Then move to 5-10 footers. Then 10-15 footers.

    Hope this helps.

  8. Geoff S

    Aug 15, 2013 at 2:45 pm

    Maybe I’m missing something here, but the 10-15′ foot putts don’t appear to be as important as < 10' putts. The 5-10' ranks of the top putters is pretty impressive.

    I agree on your thesis though. Without question the more practice I put into 5'-15' putts, the better my scores get each round.

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Golf's Perfect Imperfections

Golf’s Perfect Imperfections: The best drill in golf (throwing the club)

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Check out the full podcast on SoundCloud below, or click here to listen on iTunes or here to listen on Spotify.

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Opinion & Analysis

Ways to Win: A New No. 1 – How Justin Thomas overcame a poor putting performance

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In the final tuneup before the PGA Championship in San Francisco, many of the world’s best teed it up at Memphis’ TPC Southwind in the WGC FedEx St. Jude Invitational. The final day showcased a stacked leaderboard and plenty of volatility, but in the end, it was Justin Thomas who came from four back to win for the third time this year. This was a quick bounceback after a letdown at The Memorial just a few weeks ago. Winning on the PGA Tour certainly takes stellar play and, typically, a little luck like Thomas’ pulled drive on 15 that skirted off a cart path, over a bridge and into prime position for a late birdie. Had that tee ball found the hazard instead, this article would likely be about Brooks Koepka and his late charge.

Golf is a game of misses and taking advantage of good breaks. That is not to take away from JT’s week of stellar ball striking. He finished the week first in Strokes Gained Tee-to-Green and second in Strokes Gained Approach. That’s no surprise for the new number one in the world. What is surprising is how poorly Thomas putted throughout the week. It is extremely rare for a PGA Tour winner to lose strokes to the field with the putter, but that is exactly what Thomas did.

In Ways to Win, it is rare that we highlight Short Game as a differentiating factor for winners. That is typically because to excel in the short game, one has to miss quite a few greens. When you miss greens, it’s hard to score. However, Justin Thomas was able to consistently get himself out of difficult situations, minimize damage, and turn bogeys into pars throughout his four rounds.

If you want to be an elite player, you can’t do it with your short game alone. It sure comes in handy on those off days, though. Just how good was Thomas’ short game? He finished fourth for the week in Strokes Gained Around the Green and got up and down inside 75 yards more than 80 percent of the time (including several clutch up and downs late on Sunday). His touch was particularly crucial, given that his putter wasn’t really cooperating.

Again, it is very rare for a PGA Tour winner to lose strokes with the flatstick. Typically the winner is the best putter out of the best ball strikers, but not so this week. Thomas only three-putted twice for the week. However, he lost strokes to the field from three out of nine distance buckets that we analyzed using V1 Game’s putting breakdown.

In four other buckets, he was almost “net zero” in strokes gained with the putter. He only gained strokes with the putter from inside six feet. Making short putts is certainly a big key to golfing success. That is why short misses are highlighted in V1 Game’s post-round analysis: missing short putts is a quick way to compound errors. Thomas is not an elite putter by any means, but he is typically solid in the clutch.

V1 Game makes it easy to keep track of personal bests and track progress in a tournament. Any stat that the PGA Tour gives can be recreated with V1 Game. Here are some quick stats for Thomas’ week using V1 Game’s Personal Bests feature:

Total Score: 267
Best Round: 65
Worst Round: 70
Longest Drive: 347 yds
Longest Holeout: 28 ft
Most consecutive holes without a bogey: 24
Scrambling Streak: 9 in a row
Holes without a 3 putt: 20
Most birdies in a round: 6

Thomas certainly played well when it mattered, resisting the urge to look at a scoreboard throughout the final round and focusing on the job at hand. His patience paid off with his 13th victory in a young career. Short game play is a fantastic equalizer and a great tool for any golfer’s bag. However, Thomas really separates himself with ball striking.

The best way to improve your short game is to miss fewer greens, like JT. For most amateurs, short game practice should focus on eliminating mistakes, such as “two-chips” when you do miss the green. Once you can consistently get on the green and have a putt to get up and down, focus should shift to the long game. Tee to Green play is where the game’s best separate themselves from the weekend warriors.

V1 Game can help you with each of these items.

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