One of the most frequent questions I receive is about the numbers behind “going low.” Fortunately with the ShotTracker and ShotLink data, we’re able to analyze what it takes to go low as executed by the types of golfers that go low the most, PGA Tour players.

For the sake of brevity, I will examine golfers who shot a round of 61 or better in the 2012 season. They were:

  • Tommy Gainey (60 — The McGladrey Classic)
  • Brian Harman (61 — The Honda Classic)
  • Padraig Harrington (61 — The Transitions Championship)
  • Tim Herron (61 — The Wyndham Championship)
  • Hunter Mahan (61 — The Travelers Championship)
  • Troy Matteson (61 — The John Deere Classic)
  • Ryan Moore (61 — The Justin Timberlake Shriners Hospitals for Children Open)

Robert Garrigus (The Humana Classic) and Charlie Wi (The AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am) also shot rounds of 61. But, they were on courses that were not tracked by ShotTracker, so I will not include them in the analysis.

But first, we have to understand an important rule of going low. Golfers make a significantly smaller percentage of birdie putts than putts for par or worse. Here’s a look at the make percentage of birdie putts versus non-birdie putts on Tour in 2012:

Birdie Putts

The average Tour player makes nearly half of the non-birdie putts from 5 to 20 feet, while making roughly one-third of his birdie putts from that distance. While most people chalk it up to pressure, I tend to disagree with that claim because the pressure for birdies are likely the same as pressure to save par or a bogey. I think there are other reasons for the discrepancy.

  1. Golfers are much more likely to have an uphill putt when putting for par (or worse) than when they putt for birdie. Particularly after they miss a birdie putt, the next shot is much more likely to be an uphill putt and research has shown that golfers of all levels make a higher percentage of uphill putts.
  2. Golfers can get a better read on a par or worse putt than a birdie putt. If a golfer misses a birdie putt or chip, they can read how the ball breaks as it rolls on the green and can use that information to better judge the line of the putt.

That is part of the reason why going low is difficult. In order to go low, a golfer has to make birdie putts which are inherently more difficult than most par (or worse) putts. This is most noticeable on putts from inside 10 feet of the hole. Here is the average birdie putts per round by Tour players from various distances:

Average Distance of Birdie Putt

What all of this leads to is that in order to go low, the golfer has to strike the ball much better and putt much better than they typically do. It is not a case of simply doing one thing great and struggling with the others. Both the ball striking and putting must improve greatly in order for a golfer to go low. Below is a table looking at the golfers mentioned, their number of birdie putts from within 21 feet and the number of times they converted.

PGA Tour Birdie Putts Within 21 Feet

Most of these players’ birdies came from no longer than 20 feet away from the cup. What the players did was increase their number of birdie attempts from inside 20 feet away. These players averaged 11 attempts in their rounds of golf, a 129 percent increase from the Tour average!

I think that is where the misconceptions about putting and shooting low scores come from. Yes, a golfer has to putt very well as the table above shows in order to go low. But, the golfer also has to have an incredible improvement in his ball striking. Furthermore, I think one could argue that low rounds are due to the golfer having things click and the better ball striking helps their confidence with the putter.

It is fairly obvious that in order to go low, regardless of skill level, the golfer has to hit the ball well and putt well. But, Tour players must get more birdie opportunities inside 20 feet in order to have any chance at having that spectacular round.

Click here for more discussion in the “Tour Talk” forum.

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