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Opinion & Analysis

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, 2017 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

An early look at the potential U.S. Ryder Cup Team

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With the Masters and the Players Championship complete, I wanted to examine the statistics of the current leaders in Ryder Cup Points for the U.S. Team. Over the history of the Ryder Cup, the U.S. Team has relied on pairings that were friends and practice-round companions instead of pairing players that were more compatible from a statistical standpoint. This has led to disappointing performances from the U.S. Team and top players such as Jim Furyk performing poorly at the Ryder Cup, as he is ill-suited for the Fourball format.

After a disastrous 2014 Ryder Cup where the U.S. Team lost by a score of 16.5-11.5, the U.S. decided to use a more statistical approach to Ryder Cup play. According to my calculations, the 2016 U.S. Team’s pairings were the closest to optimal that the U.S. Team has compiled in the last seven Ryder Cups. And not surprisingly, the U.S. Team won 17-11 over the Europeans.

Since there are several months to go before the Ryder Cup, I won’t get too much into potential pairings in this article. Instead, I will focus more on the current games of top-12 players in U.S. Ryder Cup Points Standings and how that translates to Ryder Cup performance.

About the Ryder Cup Format

In the Ryder Cup, there is the Foursome format (alternate shot) and the Fourball format (best score). There are distinctly different metrics in the game that correlate to quality performers in each format.

In the Foursome format, short game around the green performance is usually critical. In a typical stroke play event such as The Players Championship, short game around the green performance usually has a much smaller impact on player’s performance. But in a match play, alternate-shot format the opposite has been true. My conclusion is that with the alternate-shot format, more greens in regulation are likely to be missed. The team that can save par and extend holes is usually likely to come out on top. The European team has mostly dominated the U.S. team over the past 20 years in the Foursome format, and the European teams typically are stronger with their short game around the green.

Other factors involved with Foursome play are Red Zone Performance (shots from 175-225 yards) and being able to pair the right players together based on how they each play off the tee and with their approach shots from the rough. For example, a pairing of Phil Mickelson (who misses a lot of fairways) and Zach Johnson (who is not very good from the rough) would likely be a poor pairing.

In the Fourball format (lowest score), the best performers are high birdie makers and players that perform well on the par-4s, par-5s, and par-3s. Bubba Watson makes a lot of birdies and plays the par-4s and par-5s well, thus making him a good candidate for the Fourball format. The only issue with Bubba in the past is he has occasionally struggled on the par-3s. That can be resolved by pairing him with a player who makes a lot of birdies and is a strong performer on the par-3s. The reason for Jim Furyk’s struggles in the Fourball format is that he does not make a lot of birdies and is a merely average performer on the par-5s.

Note: All rankings below are based out of 209 golfers.

1. Patrick Reed

In the past, it has been difficult to get an accurate depiction of Reed’s game. He was notorious for either getting into contention or blowing up if he wasn’t in contention after the first round. He is now far better at avoiding those blowup rounds and remaining competitive regardless of how he well he performs at the beginning of the tournament. His iron play has been excellent, and since he is good on approach shots from the rough, short game around the green and he makes a lot of birdies and plays the par-4s and par-5s well, he should continue to be a great competitor in the Ryder Cup format. Given his inability to find the fairway off the tee, however, I would recommend pairing him with a quality performer from the rough in the alternate shot format.

2. Justin Thomas

On paper, Thomas should be Team USA’s toughest competitor as he has little in the way of holes in his game. He drives it great, hits his irons well from every distance, has a superb short game and can putt. He also makes a ton of birdies, plays every type of hole well and rarely makes bogeys. Like Reed, it would be advisable to pair him with a player that is a quality performer from the rough in the alternate shot format.

3. Dustin Johnson

DJ is the second-strongest performer on paper. The only thing that currently separates Justin Thomas from DJ is their Red Zone play. DJ has typically been a world-class performer from the Red Zone, however, and the data suggests that his ranking from the Red Zone should rapidly improve. He struck it well from the Red Zone in his last two events at Harbour Town Golf Links and TPC Sawgrass. And with his putting performance this season, he could make for a great competitor in this year’s Ryder Cup.

4. Jordan Spieth

Spieth has the metrics to be a strong Ryder Cup performer, as he strikes the ball well with his driver and his irons while having a superb short game around the green. His only weakness in the Fourball format is his performance on the par-3s, but that is due to his inability to make putts from 15-25 feet (198th). That is the crux of the situation for Spieth; can he get his old putting form back?

A look at previous great putters on Tour that inexplicably struggled with their putter shows that Spieth is going about his putting woes the correct way. He’s not making equipment or wholesale changes to his putting stroke. He is continuing to work with what made him a great putter just like Jason Day did last year when he inexplicably struggled with the putter early in the season… and then turned it around and regained his old putting form.

The question is, how long will it take for Spieth to regain his old form? Typically, players like Spieth that have a dramatic drop-off in their putting take about a year to regain their old form. He may not regain that form by the time the Ryder Cup takes place. If he does, Team USA is very strong with its top-4 points earners.

5. Bubba Watson

Bubba is off to a strong enough year to make the U.S. Ryder Cup Team, but the best bet for him is to stick to the Fourball format given his struggles around the green. Watson’s performance on the par-5s has not exactly been remarkable, but typically he’s one of the very best in the world on par-5s and can make a ton of birdies.

6. Rickie Fowler

Fowler has not been as strong in some areas of the game such as Red Zone, shots from the rough and putting as he has been in recent years. That makes him a little less appealing in the alternate shot format, but he still has a solid foundation to be a quality contributor in either format. The upside is if Rickie gets back to his old form with the putter and from the Red Zone, he should be a top-notch Ryder Cup performer because he is well suited to perform in either team format. At this time, he would be best suited to play with an accurate driver and very good performer around the green (i.e. Matt Kuchar) in the alternate shot format.

7. Brooks Koepka

There currently is not enough data on Koepka due to his wrist injury he suffered early in the season. Koepka is arguably the best bomber in the world who is also a great putter and a solid performer from the Red Zone. The main issue for Koepka has been his short game performance around the green. That would typically make for a weak partner in the alternate shot format, but Koepka was spectacular in the 2016 Ryder Cup. His combination of length and putting may make him a formidable Ryder Cup performer for years to come.

8. Phil Mickelson

As a statistical analyst for golf, I never quite know what I’m going to get from Lefty. This season Lefty has putted superbly, but his performance around the green has left a lot to be desired.

In recent Ryder Cups, he has been a quality performer in both the Foursome and Fourball formats. His recent success in the alternate shot format makes him a mandatory candidate, however, his inability to find the fairway means he would need a partner who is very good from the rough. The data suggests that his performance around the green should get closer to his old form as the season goes along.

9. Webb Simpson

Like Mickelson, it’s always a surprise as to what the strengths and weaknesses of Simpson’s game will be by the end of the season. Typically, he’s been a decent driver of the ball that is often a superb iron player and short game performer. With the anchoring ban, he has struggled with the putter up to this season. Lately, he has been an incredible putter that is struggling a bit with the irons.

Most of Simpson’s struggles with the irons have been from the rough, so a partner who finds a lot of fairways off the tee could be an excellent pairing in the foursome format with Simpson.

10. Matt Kuchar

Kuchar could be a very critical player for Team USA down the stretch. There are potential players on the team that could be valuable in the alternate shot format if they can find a teammate to find fairways off the tee to make up for their struggles on approach shots from the rough. Historically, Kuchar has been the most accurate off the tee of the players mentioned thus far.

This season, however, Kuchar has been underwhelming in his ability to find the fairway. The next most-accurate drivers of the ball that are near the top-12 in Ryder Cup points are Brian Harman, Bryson DeChambeau, Kevin Kisner and Andrew Landry, and none of them have nearly the experience in the Ryder Cup as Kuchar has. If Kuchar continues to miss fairways, his chances of making the team are not good unless he’s a Captain’s pick. If he cannot find the fairway, he has little-projected value as a member of the team. He is not making a lot of birdies, and his struggles on the par-3s and does not make him a favorable teammate in the Fourball format either.

11. Brian Harman

Harman’s value is that he has fairly decent Fourball metrics and his accuracy off the tee, putting, and iron play can work well with players like Fowler, Simpson, and Kuchar in the alternate shot format.

Harman has not performed that well from around the green using the Strokes Gained methodology, however; he ranks 15th on shots from 10-20 yards. I placed that metric in there as strokes gained takes into account all shots from less than 30 yards, but 10-20 yards is the most common distance range from which scrambling opportunities occur on Tour. Thus, Harman is an excellent performer from 10-20 yards and is only losing strokes around the green due to poor performance from 20-30 yards, and those shots occur less frequently on Tour. His struggles from 20-30 yards would also explain why his par-5 performance is roughly average, as that is the distance players typically finish from the hole when they go for par-5s in two and do not make the green.

And even though Harman is not very long off the tee (147th in Measured Driving Distance), he is a quality performer from the rough and thus he does not have to be tethered to another short-hitting, accurate driver in the alternate shot format.

12. Bryson DeChambeau

Dechambeau makes for a solid Ryder Cup candidate, as he has no outstanding weaknesses in his game this season as he appears to have rid himself of the putting woes that have hurt him in the past. I think he is better suited for the Fourball format, however, given how many birdies he makes. Pair him with a strong performer on the par-3s like Rickie Fowler or Phil Mickelson and it would make a very formidable duo in that format.

A pairing with Mickelson in the Fourball format would be intriguing given DeChambeau’s excellent driving. DeChambeau could hit first and — if he continues to drive it superbly — that would free up Mickelson to not worry so much about his woeful driving and focus more on making birdies. Perhaps a Fourball pairing with Bubba would make for a situation where DeChambeau could tee off first and pipe his drive, and then give Bubba a free rip to hit it as far as he possibly can and give them a sizeable advantage over their opponents.

31. Tiger Woods

I know I said I was only going to look at the top-12 players in Ryder Cup points, but the readers would inevitably ask about Tiger anyway. Furthermore, Tiger is an intriguing candidate for the team given his current game.

Tiger has struggled in both the Foursome and Fourball format. He seems to not play that great in alternate shot. In Fourball, it appears that he plays well by himself, but he is often let down by his teammates. The Europeans have always gunned for Tiger in the Ryder Cup, and it takes a special type of teammate to deal with the hysteria of having Tiger as their partner.

There are the makings of a very good alternate shot partner with Tiger, as his iron play and putting are still really good and his short game has been incredible this season. In the Fourball format, it would be advisable to find a strong par-5 performer, as Tiger’s performance on the par-5s has not been outstanding thus far. Having said that, I could see three excellent partners for Tiger in either format.

Patrick Reed has the numbers to be compatible with Tiger’s game, and he also has the track record of living up to the moment in the Ryder Cup. Dustin Johnson is can make up for Tiger’s possible big misses off the tee and can overpower a course with Tiger. And Phil Mickelson, whose game is compatible with Tiger’s, and could provide a symbol of the old guard working together to beat the Europeans.

There are certainly a lot of compelling possible pairings for Team USA, and there is still a long way to go before we start to see what pairings are available. The European Team looks like one of the strongest in years, and with all of the potential storylines for the 2018 Ryder Cup, it could be one of the greatest Ryder Cups of all time.

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