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Opinion & Analysis

What’s easier: Free throws or three footers?

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I’ve made three free throws in a row before; before, as in a long, long time ago, and I made maybe five or six in a row during drills when I was at the peak of my teenage game. I’ll also claim 10 in a row when no one was watching. I’ll bet in 35 years of golf, I’ve never made three 15-foot putts in a row, even on a practice green.

Of course there are differences and maybe shooting a free throw and making a putt don’t really correlate. But in this world today, you can statistically compare almost any two things; why not free throws and putts? See which skill is more difficult. Indulge me for a bit of fractured logic that would make Nate Silver shake his head…and if you’re really looking for a serious discussion, well, it’s a big Internet.

The golf hole is about 2.5 times the diameter of the golf ball while the basketball hoop is only 1.8 times larger than the basketball (there won’t be any footnotes to show my calculations). Now there may be some area or volume variables that I don’t understand or account for, but this isn’t fivethirtyeight.com and I’m not smart enough to know that math. Let’s just stipulate that everybody stands 15 feet away from the target. And that it is possible to fit a square peg into a round hole if the square peg is small enough.

My postulation then is, assuming roughly equivalent athleticism and skill levels for the control subjects, it should be easier for a golf ball to fit into a golf hole than it is for a basketball to go into the hoop. The larger the projectile relative to the target’s diameter, the harder it is to fit it in. This isn’t the birds and bees here, kids.

Let’s have the control subjects be top pro athletes; members of the PGA Tour and, even though we’re all crazy with college hoops right now, NBA players.

Okay, this blows my theory to smithereens. From 10-to-15 feet, lasered, this season’s leading tour pro is Matt Every and he has a one-putt from this distance 20.1 percent of the time, making 30 out of 149 tries (through the Valspar Championship). Granted, I doubt if he ever three-putts, but this percentage of makes still seems low. I mean for pros, not for me.

The bottom man on the putting totem pole is Johnson Wagner; he practically laid the goose egg, making a one-putt on just one of 43 tries from 10 to 15 feet in his first 18 rounds this year.

In the NBA, it’s quite a different story from the free throw line; granted, there are no downhill, left-to-right breaking free throws. Stephen Curry and a few others make nine out of 10 tries. And even when the air conditioning is blowing straight into his face, DeAndre Jordan makes nearly 2.5 times as many of his free throws as Matt Every does his 10-to-15-foot putts.

There are many differences, of course. The free throw shooter is facing the basket, holds the ball, looks at his target and knows he has a backboard. The golfer is sideways to the hole, holds a putter, looks at the ball, not the eventual target, and knows he could run it 5 feet by or leave it 4 feet short. Air ball.

Basketball players are likely to be sweaty and in good shape. Pro golfers, too, are in good shape; most look like professional athletes and stand out in a crowd of non-athletes. As for the other: hey, they don’t show the golfers who sweat on TV, at least not during the Sunday afternoon telecasts.

At what distance do pro golfers make the same percentage of putts as NBA players do their free throws?

At 5-to-10 feet, (these stats are only for the distances of the players’ first putt on a green), the PGA Tour percentage doesn’t increase much — a few guys hole 35 out of 100, but no one is making four out of 10 one-putts.

Inside 5 feet, we finally get to a number that fits within the NBA’s free throw percentage range. Kevin Na, at slightly more than 60 percent made one-putts from inside 5 feet, leads the PGA Tour. Kevin would be the guy you’d foul at a crucial point in the game if his sport were hoops, not holes.

The distance that matches the pro golfers’ make percentage with NBA players’ percentage of converting free throws isn’t measured by official PGA Tour statistics. I’d guess that the NBA’s “pro’s par” of 75 percent make-rate is reached by PGA pros at about 2.5-to-3.5 feet, or just outside of tap-in range.

For an NBA player, that distance isn’t a free throw — it’s called a slam-dunk.

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Tom Hill is a 9.7 handicap, author and former radio reporter. Hill is the author of the recently released fiction novel, A Perfect Lie – The Hole Truth, a humorous golf saga of one player’s unexpected attempt to shoot a score he never before thought possible. Kirkus Reviews raved about A Perfect Lie, (It) “has the immediacy of a memoir…it’s no gimme but Hill nails it square.” (kirkusreviews.com). A Perfect Lie is available as an ebook or paperback through 7-ironpress.com and the first three chapters are available online to sample. Hill is a dedicated golfer who has played more than 2,000 rounds in the past 30 years and had a one-time personal best handicap of 5.5. As a freelance radio reporter, Hill covered more than 60 PGA and LPGA tournaments working for CBS Radio, ABC Radio, AP Audio, The Mutual Broadcasting System and individual radio stations around the country. “Few knew my name and no one saw my face,” he says, “but millions heard my voice.” Hill is the father of three sons and lives with his wife, Arava Talve, in southern California where he chases after a little white ball as often as he can.

11 Comments

11 Comments

  1. NB

    Mar 28, 2015 at 9:35 am

    Statistics used in this article are incorrect. Just check pgatour.com for accurate 1-putt probabilities. Stats from 5-6 feet: http://www.pgatour.com/stats/stat.344.2014.html

    • Tom HIll

      Mar 28, 2015 at 4:02 pm

      Cool NB – those were just the stats I was looking for and couldn’t find – putts made at specific distances – all I could find, that was germane, at that site were putts made from under 5 feet, from 6 to 10, 10 to 15, 15 to 20 etc. Hah – just watched Kevin Na miss a 2-footer at the Valero…

  2. Dave N

    Mar 27, 2015 at 2:17 pm

    Played basketball in college (85% FT shooter) and I am a mid-capper in golf. IMO, three footers are easier, generally. (Unless we’re talking a lightning fast downhill left to righter–in which a more reasonable comparison would be an outdoors FT with strong wind). Putting is a simpler motion, and most 3 footers are pretty predictable in terms of pace and direction. Shooting FTs involves active participation by so many major muscles (feet, calves, quads, gluten, abs, back, shoulders, triceps, forearms, hands, fingers) that to be out of sync or twitchy a little bit in any area means a likely miss. It’s not a hard shot by any means, but harder than 3 foot putts. To the extent that this matters- I’m rarely upset if I miss a FT in a game, but if I miss a 3 footer, I’m ticked off for days.. Fun topic/comparison.

  3. Jake W

    Mar 26, 2015 at 5:22 pm

    I come up with about a 3.55 foot putt being equivalent to a free throw.

    By my calculation, a free throw is taken 18.95 ball diameters from the hoop. This equates to 31.83″ from the hole on a putt, given that a golf ball is 1.68″ diameter. Then you have to consider the ratio of ball size to hole size (2.53 for golf, 1.89 for basketball). 2.53/1.89 is 1.34. 1.34 times 31.83″ equals 42.65″ which converts to a 3.55 foot putt.

    I realize there’s some assumptions made here and it probably doesn’t follow perfect logic, but I’m trying not to over-think this…

    Any questions?

  4. Jafar

    Mar 26, 2015 at 3:45 pm

    I think it’s hard to compare the two because in basketball your fingers are in contact with the ball till the very end of the release so you can add more “feel” to it.

    In golf you have a club, and therefore only feel something until after contact has been made.

    But I like the idea of correlating the two sports despite this.

  5. Phil

    Mar 25, 2015 at 1:54 pm

    I’ll have to go with freethrows. Definitely both include pressure and major nerves, but freethrows at the end of a game usually mean you’re exhausted and winded.

  6. Mnmlist Golfr

    Mar 25, 2015 at 11:59 am

    3-footers on the PGA Tour = Point-After-Touchdown in the NFL

  7. Scooter McGavin

    Mar 25, 2015 at 6:56 am

    I’m not even good at golf, but as someone who has played both sports, I’m still going to have to say 3 footers are easier.

  8. Vadim

    Mar 24, 2015 at 11:19 pm

    what is the point of this article again?

  9. mike

    Mar 24, 2015 at 7:08 pm

    At least on the professional side, 3 footers are much easier. Just have to look at 3 footer converstion rates on the PGA tour vs the free throws percentages in the NBA. It’s a no brainer.

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Opinion & Analysis

The Wedge Guy: Why wedge mastery is so elusive

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I have conducted numerous surveys of golfers over my 40-year golf industry career, because I have always believed that if you want to know what people are thinking, you simply have to ask them.

As a gearhead for wedges and a wedge designer over the past 30 years, most of my research and analysis is focused on these short-range scoring clubs and how golfers use them. What this research continually tells me is that most golfers—regardless of handicap–consider the wedges the hardest clubs in the bag to master. That’s because they are. I would even go so far as to say that the difficulty of attaining mastery even extends to the best players in the world.

Watching the Genesis Open this past weekend, for example, it seemed like these guys were hitting wedge approaches on nearly every hole. And while there were certainly many shots that covered the flag—like Max Homa’s approach on 18–there were also a great number that came up woefully short. Not what you would expect when a top-tier tour professional has a sand or gap wedge in their hands.

The simple fact is that wedges are the most difficult clubs in our bags with which to attain consistent shotmaking mastery, and that is because of the sheer design of the clubhead itself. For clarity of this article, I’m talking about those full- or near full-swing wedge shots, not the vast variety of short greenside shots we all face every round. To get mastery of those shots (like the tour pros exhibit every week), you simply have to spend lots of time hitting lots of shots, experimenting and exploring different techniques. There are no shortcuts to a deadly short game.

But today I’m talking about those prime opportunities to score, when you have a full- or near-full swing wedge into a par-five or short par four. We should live for those moments, but all too often we find ourselves disappointed in the outcome.

The good news is that’s not always all your fault.

First of all, you must understand that every wedge shot is, in effect, a glancing blow to the ball because of the loft involved. With 50 to 60 degrees of loft—or even 45 to 48 degrees with a pitching wedge—the loft of the club is such that the ball is given somewhat of a glancing blow. That demands a golf swing with a much higher degree of precision in the strike than say, an 8-iron shot.

I have always believed that most golfers can improve their wedge play by making a slower-paced swing than you might with a longer iron. This allows you to be more precise in making sure that your hands lead the clubhead through impact, which is a must when you have a wedge in your hands. Without getting into too much detail, the heavier, stiffer shaft in most wedges does not allow this club to load and unload in the downswing, so the most common error is for the clubhead to get ahead of the hands before impact, thereby adding loft and aggravating this glancing blow. I hope that makes sense.
The other aspect of wedge design that makes consistent wedge distance so elusive is the distribution of the mass around the clubhead. This illustration of a typical tour design wedge allows me to show you something I have seen time and again in robotic testing of various wedges.

Because all the mass is along the bottom of the clubhead, the ideal impact point is low in the face (A), so that most of the mass is behind the ball. Tour players are good at this, but most recreational golfers whose wedges I’ve examined have a wear pattern at least 2-4 grooves higher on the club than I see on tour players’ wedges.

So, why is this so important?

Understand that every golf club has a single “sweet spot”–that pinpoint place where the smash factor is optimized—where clubhead speed translates to ball speed at the highest efficiency. On almost all wedges, that spot is very low on the clubhead, as indicated by the “A” arrow here, and robotic testing reveals that smash factor to be in the range of 1.16-1.18, meaning the ball speed is 16-18% higher than the clubhead speed.

To put that in perspective, smash factor on drivers can be as high as 1.55 or even a bit more, and it’s barely below that in your modern game improvement 7-iron. The fact is—wedges are just not as efficient in this measure, primarily because of the glancing blow I mentioned earlier.

But–and here’s the kicker–if you move impact up the face of a wedge just half to five-eights of an inch from the typical recreational golfer’s impact point, as indicated by the “B” arrow, smash factor on ‘tour design’ wedges can be reduced to as low as 0.92 to 0.95. That costs you 40 to 60 feet on a 90-yard wedge shot . . . because you missed “perfect” by a half-inch or less!

So, that shot you know all too well—the ball sitting up and caught a bit high in the face—is going fall in the front bunker or worse. That result is not all your fault. The reduced distance is a function of the diminished smash factor of the wedge head itself.

That same half-inch miss with your driver or even your game-improvement 7-iron is hardly noticeable.

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Golf's Perfect Imperfections

Golf’s Perfect Imperfections: Breakthrough mental tools to play the golf of your dreams

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Incredibly important talk! A must listen to the words of Dr. Karl Morris, ham-and-egging with the golf imperfections trio. Like listening to top athletes around a campfire. This talk will helps all ages and skills in any sport.

 

 

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On Spec

On Spec: Homa Wins! And how to avoid “paralysis by analysis”!

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This week’s episode covers a wide array of topics from the world of golf including Max Homa’s win on the PGA Tour, golf course architecture, and how to avoid “paralysis by analysis” when it comes to your golf game.

This week’s show also covers the important topic of mental health, with the catalyst for the conversation being a recent interview published by PGA Tour with Bubba Watson and his struggles.

 

 

 

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