Perhaps one of the biggest misconceptions I had when I started to research the statistical part of golf was how players “go low.” This also shaped how I erroneously viewed the game. Years of competitive golf made me believe that in order to “go low” you had to putt really well. It meant that you had to make a lot of long putts. Therefore, I started to overvalue putting — long putts in particular, which I considered to be putts outside 25 feet. I started to focus my practice a lot on putting, especially the long ones.
After some research, it became clear as day that the low rounds on the PGA Tour did not consist of players making a lot of putts. Instead, it consisted of players frequently getting their birdie putts close to the hole, because that is where they have a reasonable chance of making the putt. For Tour players, once the putt is 26-feet long, their make percentage drops to roughly 9 percent. And for golfers that are playing average golf courses where the greens are not as smooth, that make percentage may dip to below 5 percent, even for the better putters in the world.
Troy Merritt’s fantastic score of 28 on the back nine at Harbour Town last Friday was a terrific example of how Tour players go low.
Merritt started this right away on the par-4 10th hole, as he hit his 173-yard approach shot to 5 feet, 2 inches. The Tour average is from that distance is roughly 75 percent and he went on to make the putt.
However, Merritt was not completely unconscious with his putter. He missed this 18-foot, 5-inch birdie putt on the 11th hole. In fact, that was his longest birdie putt attempt in those entire nine holes. While he made a lot of putts, he kept them within close distance to give himself a reasonable chance of making them.
In fact, his longest putt made in the entire nine holes came on the par-5 15th, where he made a 17-foot, 10-inch putt for birdie. He then finished off the nine-hole stretch by hitting his approach shots to 4 feet, 11 inches on No. 16; 7 feet, 3 inches on No. 17; and 4 feet, 11 inches on No. 18.
Here’s a look at how Merritt played each of those approach shots versus the Tour average:
Merritt was able to hit those last three approach shots to an average of 5.7 feet, which gave him an average expected make percentage of 67.3 percent. Meanwhile, the Tour average from those distances is 25.3 feet with an average expected make percentage of 10.3 percent.
Here are Merritt’s final numbers for that back nine holes on Friday:
Putting is certainly important, as Merritt made seven out of his eight birdie putt attempts. If he only made 46.3 percent of those putts he would roughly have made four birdies. It still would have resulted in a fantastic score of 31, but it is far from the score of 28. So, let’s not undervalue the importance of putting.
Merritt’s round shows us that putting from inside 15 feet is far more critical, because there is a more reasonable odds of making those putts. From there, it comes down to our ability to get our approach shots inside 15 feet so we can put ourselves in the best position to shoot the lowest score possible — instead of hoping we make long putts.