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How Different Kinds of Breaking Putts Affect Tour Player Performance

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Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from Rich Hunt’s 2017 Pro Golf Synopsis, which can be purchased here for $10. Stylistic changes were made to the story for online publication.

At the start of the 2015-2016 season, PGATour.com introduced the Strackaline app to ShotTracker. The app provides 3D topographical scans of each green on the PGA Tour, but its presence with the Tour was short-lived. By early 2016, the Tour stopped using the app in conjunction with ShotTracker. I found the Strackaline app to be helpful in exploring something we have long wondered about; how well Tour players putt on different types of breaking putts.

I was excited to use this app for my own Tour clients to help them with their putting, and I started to notice some interesting trends. Poor putters putted differently from average putters, and average putters putted differently from great putters. Some characteristics started to emerge when players putted significantly better than normal, as well as when they putted significantly worse than normal.

I then used that data and explore other random players: great putters, better-than-average putters, average putters, worse-than-average putters, and the worst putters on Tour. I was interested in seeing how different golfers putted from certain locations on the Fall Line Clock to see if there were any similar characteristics or trends with their putting.

Methodology

The Tour’s decision to stop using the Strackaline app made my research more difficult. The good news is that the Strackaline app has a function that allows you to place the pin in the position where you think it is located on the green. Then you can place a golf ball on a spot on the green and Strackaline will give the distance to the hole, as well as the contours of the particular putt and where exactly golfers should aim.

Granted, I cannot say that I was 100 percent accurate on my estimations of flag and putt location, but I did examine the following putts:

1. Putts that were on a very planar slope.

These are putts that have one break to them and are not double breakers. They don’t sit on a crown or in a “saddle.” I tried to get putts that were essentially right on one particular position on the Fall Line clock. Any putt that was too difficult to tell, I did not record the data.

2. Putts from 4-20 feet.

These are makeable putts that require more precise green reading, aim, touch/speed and stroke mechanics. I examined 38 right-handed-putting Tour players ranging from excellent putters like Luke Donald and Mackenzie Hughes to the worst putters on Tour like Boo Weekley and Robert Garrigus. In particular, I sighted events where the player was either greater than 1 standard deviation in Putts Gained for the entire event or worse than 1 standard deviation in Putts Gained for the entire event.

Matt Jones was a player I examined. For the 2016-2017 season, his Putts Gained was +0.170 per round. His standard deviation for the year was 0.7092. So I researched two events that he was greater than +0.8792 strokes per round (the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am and The Greenbrier Classic) along with the two events where he putted worse than -0.5392 strokes per round (the AT&T Byron Nelson and the Shell Houston Open). I also examined four more events for Jones that were right around his average for the season.

Here’s a representation of the Fall Line Clock from golf instructor John Dunigan.

Twelve and 6 o’clock represent straight putts (12 o’clock is a straight downhill putt and 6 o’clock is a straight uphill putt). Putts from 4 to 8 o’clock are on an uphill gradient, and putts from 10 to 2 o’clock are on a downhill gradient. Putts from 1 to 5 o’clock break to the left, and putts from 7 to 11 o’clock break to the right.

Lastly, I normalized the data so the putting performance from each position on the Fall Line Clock would represent a probable make percentage from 10 feet. On average, 10-foot putts have a 38 percent make percentage on Tour.

Make Percentages from Different Locations

Here are the make percentages of all of the golfers and rounds I examined. I normalized the data to reflect the projected make probabilities from 10 feet, as well as how the normalized data works out.

There is a theory that downhill putts are easier to make than uphill putts. The reason is that the force vectors on a downhill putt tend to get the ball breaking toward the hole. With uphill putts, the force vectors tend to get the ball breaking away from the hole. My research refutes this theory to a degree. The make percentages are significantly higher on uphill putts, however; the second-highest make percentage location is at the 12 o’clock position (straight downhill).

My conclusion is that the downhill straight putt is very easy to make, but once the putt gets away from the 12 o’clock position it becomes increasingly more difficult to make. In summation, the more a putt breaks the more difficult it is to make — and uphill putts will break less than downhill putts.

Lastly, the players (all right-handed putters) had a slight bias in right-to-left putts versus left-to-right putts. This has been a common theory for as long as I can remember, and it held up to be true. The difference in make percentage, however, may be smaller than many people think it should be.

Break Biases and Putting Skill

The research showed a very strong trend in a player’s bias toward right-to-left or left-to-right breaking putts depending on their skill. I labeled golfers in the following categories:

  1. Greatest Putter (Upper 90th Percentile in Putts Gained or roughly top-20 in Putts Gained)
  2. Worst Putter (Lower 10th Percentile in Putts Gained or roughly ranking 170th or worse in Putts Gained)
  3. Good Putter (ranking roughly 30th to 70th in Putts Gained)
  4. Mediocre Putter (ranking roughly 120th to 160th in Putts Gained)
  5. Average Putter (ranking roughly 80th to 105th in Putts Gained)

I found that the vast majority of the players I analyzed had a significant bias toward either right-to-left or left-to-right breaking putts. Here’s an example of PGA Tour player Richy Werenski, who finished the year at 0.000 in Putts Gained. He neither gained nor lost strokes to the field for the entire season with his putter.

Richy Werenski’s make probabilities on the Fall Line Clock.

Werenski had a clear bias toward right-to-left putts (40.7 percent) versus left-to-right putts (33.7 percent). Just because a player was putting right-handed, however, did not mean the player would automatically have a bias toward right-to-left putts.

Here’s a breakdown of Rory McIlroy’s make probabilities on the Fall Line Clock.

Rory McIlroy’s make probabilities on the Fall Line Clock.

Outside of the 11 o’clock versus the 1 o’clock position, McIlroy had a bias toward making left-to-right putts versus the corresponding location that broke right-to-left.

As it turns out, the putters that did not have a bias were from the “Greatest Putters” group. They had no significant bias toward leftward or rightward breaking putts. Mackenzie Hughes was a good example of this, as he finished 8th in Putts Gained. Not only did he make a high percentage of putts from most locations on the Fall Line Clock, but he did not have a significant bias toward rightward or leftward breaking putts.

Mackenzie Hughes’ make probabilities on the Fall Line Clock.

Out of all of the players I researched, making putts at 12 o’clock (straight-downhill), 6 o’clock (straight uphill) and 5 o’clock (uphill, breaks left) were consistently the putts with some of the highest make percentages out of all the Fall Line locations. The only players that could struggle to reach the normalized make percentage average of 38 percent from 10 feet from those locations were the “Worst Putters.” It was not always the case with some of the Worst Putters, but there was a segment of the population that could struggle to make those putts.

One of the conclusions I derived from this was that good putting is not necessarily about holing putts. It is fairly easy for better players to make relatively straight putts, and sometimes in a round the golfer may just happen to get a lot of putts that are fairly straight. On the other hand, the golfer may get a lot of breaking putts. That was one of the amazing things about Jim Furyk’s 58 at TPC River Highlands; only two of his putts were not fairly straight. Obviously his ball striking was phenomenal and he holed putts to shoot 58, but there was a certain amount of luck involved in continually getting favorable putt locations.

Break Biases on Performances Outside of Standard Deviation

I wanted to examine the times that golfers putted better or worse than one standard deviation. What are the commonalities when golfers putt significantly better or significantly worse than normal? Golfers that putted one standard deviation worse than their mean in Putts Gained did not have any noticeable change in their putting other than they just putted worse overall. This was particularly the case in breaking putts. The bias remained the same.

Here’s a look at the putting make probabilities from Billy Horschel on average versus the events where his putting was one standard deviation worse than the mean.

The results were different, however, when I examined golfers that putted one standard deviation greater than their mean. Horschel had a bias toward right-to-left breaking putts on his poor putting performances. The bias went away when he putted better than one standard deviation from his norm.

This was common with virtually every player I studied except for the “Greatest Putters” group, as they did not have a bias toward breaking putts to begin with. If they had a bias towards a particular break, they would often putt even better when they putted significantly better than normal. But they made incredible gains on the putts that broke in a direction that caused them problems — to the point that they were putting as well as they did on the breaking putts they preferred and no longer had a bias.

Conclusions

Based on the data we know the following:

  • Tour players greatly favor uphill versus downhill putts as a whole.
  • The exception was from 12 o’clock (straight-downhill).
  • The best location for right-handed-putting Tour players was at 5 o’clock (uphill, slight break to the left).
  • The vast majority of Tour players had some sort of bias toward right-to-left or left-to-right breaking putts.
  • Not all right-handed-putting Tour players preferred right-to-left putts.
  • As a whole, there was a moderate preference toward right-to-left putts from right-handed-putting Tour players.
  • The best putters had virtually no bias toward right-to-left or left-to-right breaking putts.
  • Virtually all Tour players consistently favored the 5 o’clock, 12 o’clock and 6 o’clock positions.
  • The only Tour players that struggled with straight putts (6 or 12 o’clock) were in the “Worst Putters” category.
  • Break bias disappears for a Tour player when they putt one standard deviation better than their mean in Putts Gained.
  • Break bias is still present when the Tour player putts one standard deviation worse than their mean in Putts Gained.

For the non-Tour golfer, the data suggests that initial practice on putting should be done on straight putts. The only players I studied that did not do well on straight putts on occasion were the worst putters on Tour. While there has been debate as to how well Tour players putt in relation to the entire world’s golf population, I still tend to believe that even the worst putters on Tour are likely better than any segment of amateur golfers. Thus, if the worst putters of the Tour population can struggle with the straight putts, there’s a strong likelihood that amateur golfers will need to work on straight putts first in order to make a significant improvement in their putting over time.

Once straight putting develops, I recommend that golfers determine how well they putt on right-to-left versus left-to-right breaking putts and see if they have a bias toward a particularly type of break. I recommend that they try to hit putts from various distances and locations between 2 to 4 o’clock (right-to-left) versus 8 to 10 o’clock (left-to-right). It would be best to putt one ball from one side of the hole and then putt the next ball from the opposite side in order to truly determine bias.

Once bias is determined, I would recommend seeking instruction to determine what may be causing the bias against a particular breaking putt. Work on your green reading, stroke mechanics and speed/touch to improve your ability to make more putts from your weak side of the cup. Once you can become a stable putter on uphill putts and erase the bias on breaking putts, you will see much better results and more consistency in your ability to make putts on the course.

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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

5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. Stephen Finley

    Jan 18, 2018 at 8:54 pm

    This is just terrific stuff. Real research with solid methodology is all too rare in this game. Thanks for posting. I’m saving it in an email file right away.

  2. Scott

    Jan 12, 2018 at 11:31 am

    Great article Rich. I was told that left vs. right eye dominance had a being on which breaking putts one would prefer. Thank you for your effort.

  3. CB

    Jan 11, 2018 at 3:13 am

    Yeah I think an untucked, un-buttoned shirt can definitely affect your putting as you’re not concentrating on making it, you’re more concerned with making a fashion statement

  4. AJ

    Jan 10, 2018 at 8:24 pm

    This was definitly the most interesting articles I have read on wrx so far. Currious how green speeds and slopes affected the numbers between best and worst for a player….

  5. The dude

    Jan 10, 2018 at 2:23 pm

    Really really good article…… as watching putting on TV is boring idecided to track in my head just how often tour pros miss on the low side….and it amazes me that when thy miss…..it seems ~ 75% of the time they miss on the low side….even they don’t play enough break

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Opinion & Analysis

Clark: A teacher’s take on Brandel Chamblee’s comments

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Because I’m writing to a knowledgeable audience who follows the game closely, I’m sure the current Brandel Chamblee interview and ensuing controversy needs no introduction, so let’s get right to it.

Brandel Chamblee, a former PGA Tour player, now plays a role as a TV personality. He has built a “brand” around that role. The Golf Channel seems to relish the idea of Brandel as the “loose cannon” of the crew (not unlike Johnny Miller on NBC) saying exactly what he thinks with seeming impunity from his superiors.

I do not know the gentleman personally, but on-air, he seems like an intelligent, articulate golf professional, very much on top of his subject matter, which is mostly the PGA Tour. He was also a very capable player (anyone who played and won on the PGA Tour is/was a great player). But remember, nowadays he is not being judged by what scores he shoots, but by how many viewers/readers his show and his book have (ratings). Bold statements sell, humdrum ones do not.

For example, saying that a teacher’s idiocy was exposed is a bold controversial statement that will sell, but is at best only partly true and entirely craven. If the accuser is not willing to name the accused, he is being unfair and self-serving. However, I think it’s dangerous to throw the baby out with the bathwater here; Brandel is a student of the game and I like a lot of what he says and thinks.

His overriding message in that interview is that golf over the last “30-40 years” has been poorly taught. He says the teachers have been too concerned with aesthetics, not paying enough attention to function. There is some truth in that, but Brandel is painting with a very broad brush here. Many, myself included, eschewed method teaching years ago for just that reason. Method teachers are bound to help some and not others. Maybe the “X swing” one player finds very useful, another cannot use it all.

Brandel was asked specifically about Matthew Wolff’s unique swing: Lifting the left heel, crossing the line at the top, etc. He answered, “of course he can play because that’s how he plays.” The problem would be if someone tried to change that because it “looked odd.” Any teacher worth his weight in salt would not change a swing simply because it looked odd if it was repeating good impact. I learned from the great John Jacobs that it matters not what the swing looks like if it is producing great impact.

Now, if he is objecting exclusively to those method teachers who felt a certain pattern of motions was the one true way to get to solid impact, I agree with him 100 percent. Buy many teach on an individual, ball flight and impact basis and did not generalize a method. So to say “golf instruction over the last 30-40 years” has been this or that is far too broad a description and unfair.

He goes on to say that the “Top Teacher” lists are “ridiculous.” I agree, mostly. While I have been honored by the PGA and a few golf publications as a “top teacher,” I have never understood how or why. NOT ONE person who awarded me those honors ever saw me give one lesson! Nor have they have ever tracked one player I coached.  I once had a 19 handicap come to me and two seasons later he won the club championship-championship flight! By that I mean with that student I had great success. But no one knew of that progress who gave me an award.

On the award form, I was asked about the best, or most well-known students I had taught. In the golf journals, a “this-is-the-teacher-who-can-help-you” message is the epitome of misdirection. Writing articles, appearing on TV, giving YouTube video tips, etc. is not the measure of a teacher. On the list of recognized names, I’m sure there are great teachers, but wouldn’t you like to see them teach as opposed to hearing them speak? I’m assuming the “ridiculous” ones Brandel refers to are those teaching a philosophy or theory of movement and trying to get everyone to do just that.

When it comes to his criticism of TrackMan, I disagree. TrackMan does much more than help “dial in yardage.” Video cannot measure impact, true path, face-to-path relationship, centeredness of contact, club speed, ball speed, plane etc. Comparing video with radar is unfair because the two systems serve different functions. And if real help is better ball flight, which of course only results from better impact, then we need both a video of the overall motion and a measure of impact.

Now the specific example he cites of Jordan Spieth’s struggles being something that can be corrected in “two seconds” is hyperbolic at least! Nothing can be corrected that quickly simply because the player has likely fallen into that swing flaw over time, and it will take time to correct it. My take on Jordan’s struggles is a bit different, but he is a GREAT player who will find his way back.

Brandel accuses Cameron McCormick (his teacher) of telling him to change his swing.  Do we know that to be true, or did Jordan just fall into a habit and Cameron is not seeing the change? I agree there is a problem; his stats prove that, but before we pick a culprit, let’s get the whole story. Again back to the sensationalism which sells! (Briefly, I believe Jordan’s grip is and has always been a problem but his putter and confidence overcame it. An active body and “quiet” hands is the motion one might expect of a player with a strong grip-for obvious reason…but again just my two teacher cents)

Anyway, “bitch-slapped” got him in hot water for other reasons obviously, and he did apologize over his choice of words, and to be clear he did not condemn the PGA as a whole. But because I have disagreements with his reasoning here does not mean Brandel is not a bright articulate golf professional, I just hope he looks before he leaps the next time, and realizes none of us are always right.

Some of my regular readers will recall I “laid down my pen” a few years ago, but it occurred to me, I would be doing many teachers a disservice if I did not offer these thoughts on this particular topic!

 

 

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Opinion & Analysis

A trip down Magnolia Memory Lane: Patron fashion at the 1991 Masters

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Like a lot of golfers out there, I’ve been getting my fix thanks to the final round Masters broadcasts on YouTube via the Masters channel. Considering these broadcasts go back as far as 1968, there is a lot we could discuss—we could break down shots, equipment, how the course has changed, but instead I thought we could have a little fun taking a different direction—fashion.

However, I’m not talking players fashion, that’s fairly straight forward. Instead, I wanted to follow the action behind the action and see what we could find along the way – here are the 1991 Highlights.

I love the “Die Hard” series as much as anyone else but one fan took it to a new level of fandom by wearing a Die Hard 2 – Die Harder T-shirt to Sunday at the Masters. This patron was spotted during Ian Woosnam fourth shot into 13. Honorable mention goes to Woosie’s gold chain.

There is a lot going on here as Ben Crenshaw lines up his put on 17. First, we have the yellow-shirted man just left of center with perfectly paired Masters green pants to go along with his hat (he also bears a striking resemblance to Ping founder Karsten Solheim). Secondly, we have what I would imagine is his friend in the solid red pants—both these outfits are 10 out of 10. Last but not least, we have the man seen just to the right of Ben with sunglasses so big and tinted, I would expect to be receiving a ticket from him on the I20 on my way out of town.

If you don’t know the name Jack Hamm, consider yourself lucky you missed a lot of early 2000s late-night golf infomercials. OK so maybe it’s not the guy known for selling “The Hammer” driver but if you look under the peak of the cabin behind Woosie as he tees off on ten you can be forgiven for taking a double-take… This guy might show up later too. Honorable mention to the pastel-pink-shorted man with the binoculars and Hogan cap in the right of the frame.

Big proportions were still very much in style as the 80s transitioned into the early 90s. We get a peek into some serious style aficionados wardrobes behind the 15th green with a wide striped, stiff collared lilac polo, along with a full-length bright blue sweater and a head of hair that has no intention of being covered by a Masters hat.

Considering the modern tales of patrons (and Rickie Folwer) being requested to turn backward hats forward while on the grounds of Augusta National, it was a pretty big shock to see Gerry Pate’s caddy with his hat being worn in such an ungentlemanly manner during the final round.

Before going any further, I would like us all to take a moment to reflect on how far graphics during the Masters coverage has come in the last 30 years. In 2019 we had the ability to see every shot from every player on every hole…in 1991 we had this!

At first glance, early in the broadcast, these yellow hardhats threw me for a loop. I honestly thought that a spectator had chosen to wear one to take in the action. When Ian Woosnam smashed his driver left on 18 over the bunkers it became very apparent that anyone wearing a hard hat was not there for fun, they were part of the staff. If you look closely you can see hole numbers on the side of the helmets to easily identify what holes they were assigned to. Although they have less to do with fashion, I must admit I’m curious where these helmets are now, and what one might be worth as a piece of memorabilia.

Speaking of the 18th hole, full credit to the man in the yellow hat (golf clap to anyone that got the Curious George reference) who perfectly matched the Pantone of his hat to his shirt and also looked directly into the TV camera.

It could be said the following photo exemplifies early ’90s fashion. We have pleated Bermuda shorts, horizontal stripes all over the place and some pretty amazing hairstyles. Honorable mention to the young guys in the right of the frame that look like every ’80s movie antagonist “rich preppy boy.”

What else can I say except, khaki and oversized long sleeve polos certainly had their day in 1991? We have a bit of everything here as Tom Watson lines up his persimmon 3-wood on the 18th. The guy next to Ian Woosnam’s sleeves hit his mid-forearm, there are too many pleats to count, and somehow our Jack Hamm look-alike managed to find another tee box front row seat.

You can check out the full final-round broadcast of the 1991 Masters below.

 

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The 19th Hole Episode 119: Gary Player joins the 19th Hole!

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Hall of Famer Gary Player gives an exclusive one-on-one interview with Host Michael Williams about his life in golf, his thoughts on the current game and his tips for thriving even in difficult times.

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

Want more GolfWRX Radio? Check out our other shows (and the full archives for this show) below. 

 

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