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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 ghost of Allan Robertson: A few thoughts on the distance debate

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It’s that time of year in certain parts of the world. Ghosts, ghouls, and ghoblins roam the lawns. Departed ancestors return to these fields to visit with living descendants. It’s also a time (is it ever not?) when curmudgeons and ancients decry the advances of technology in the world of golf equipment.

Pretty big narrative leap, I’ll admit, but I have your attention, aye? An October 16th tweet from noted teacher Jim McClean suggested that it would be fun to see PGA Tour players tee it up for one week with wooden heads and a balata ball.

Others beg for a rolling-back of technological potency, raising property acreage as a critical determinant. Fact is, 90 percent of golfers have no experience with hitting the ball too far, nor with outgrowing a golf course. And yet, the cries persist.

Recently, I was awakened from a satisfying slumber by the ghost of Allan Robertson. The long-dead Scot was in a lather, equal parts pissed at Old Tom Morris for playing a guttie, and at three social-media channels, all of which had put him on temporary suspension for engaging violently with unsupportive followers. He also mentioned the inaccuracies of his Wikipedia page, which credits him for a 100-year old business, despite having only spent the better part of 44 years on this terrestrial sphere. Who knew that the afterlife offered such drip internet access?

I’m not certain if Old Tom cared (or was even alive) that his beloved gutta percha ball was replaced by the Haskell. I believe him to have been preoccupied with the warming of the North Sea (where he took his morning constitutional swims) and the impending arrival of metal shafts and laminated-wood heads. Should that also long-dead Scot pay me a nighttime visit, I’ll be certain to ask him. I do know that Ben Hogan gave no sheets about technology’s advances; he was in the business of making clubs by then, and took advantage of those advances. Sam Snead was still kicking the tops of doors, and Byron Nelson was pondering the technological onslaught of farriers, in the shoeing of horses on his ranch.

And how about the women? Well, the ladies of golfing greatness have better things to do than piss and moan about technology. They concern themselves with what really matters in golf and in life. Sorry, fellas, it’s an us-problem. Records are broken thanks to all means of advancement. Want to have some fun? Watch this video or this video or this video. If you need much more, have a reassessment of what matters.

Solutions

Either forget the classic courses or hide the holes. Classic golf courses cannot stand up in length alone to today’s professional golfers. Bringing in the rough takes driver out of their hands, and isn’t a course supposed to provide a viable challenge to every club in the bag? Instead, identify four nearly-impossible locations on every putting surface, and cut the hole in one of them, each day. Let the fellows take swings at every par-4 green with driver, at every par-five green with driver and plus-one. Two things will happen: the frustration from waiting waiting waiting will eliminate the mentally-weak contestants, and the nigh-impossible putting will eliminate even more of them. What will happen with scoring? I don’t know. Neither did Old Tom Morris, Robert Tyre Jones, Jr., Lady Heathcoat Amory, or Mildred Didrickson, when new technology arrived on the scene. They shrugged their shoulders, stayed away from Twitter and the Tok, and went about their business.

Add the tournament courses. Build courses that can reach 8,500 yards in length, and hold events on those layouts. Two examples from other sports: the NFL made extra points longer. Has it impacted game results? Maybe. The NBA kept the rim at ten feet. Has it impacted game results? Maybe. We don’t play MLB or MLS on ancient diamonds and pitches. We play their matches and games on technologically-advanced surfaces. Build/Retrofit a series of nondescript courses as tournament venues. Take the par-5 holes to 700 yards, then advance the par-4 fairways to 550 yards. Drive and pitch holes check-in at 400 yards, at least until Bryson DeChambeau and Kyle Berkshire figure a few more things out.

Note to the young guys and the old guys from this 55-year old guy: live your era, then let it go. I know things.

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