Opinion & Analysis
How Different Kinds of Breaking Putts Affect Tour Player Performance
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.
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:
- Greatest Putter (Upper 90th Percentile in Putts Gained or roughly top-20 in Putts Gained)
- Worst Putter (Lower 10th Percentile in Putts Gained or roughly ranking 170th or worse in Putts Gained)
- Good Putter (ranking roughly 30th to 70th in Putts Gained)
- Mediocre Putter (ranking roughly 120th to 160th in Putts Gained)
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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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The Wedge Guy: What really needs fixing in your game?
I always find it interesting to watch how golfers interact with the practice range, if they do so at all. I certainly can figure out how to understand that some golfers just do not really want to get better — at least not enough to spend time on the practice range trying to improve.
What is most puzzling to me is how many golfers completely ignore the rationale for going to the range to at least warm up before they head to the first tee. Why anyone would set aside 4-6 hours of their day for a round of golf, and then not even give themselves a chance to do their best is beyond me. But today, I’m writing for those of you who really do want to improve your golf scores and your enjoyment of the game.
I’ve seen tons of research for my entire 40 years in this industry that consistently shows the number one goal of all golfers, of any skill level, from 100-shooter to tour professional, is simply to hit better golf shots more often. And while our definition of “better” is certainly different based on our respective skill level, the game is just more fun when your best shots happen more often and your worst shots are always getting better.
Today’s article is triggered by what we saw happen at the Valspar tour event this past Sunday. While Taylor Moore certainly had some big moments in a great final round, both Jordan Spieth and Adam Schenk threw away their chances to win with big misses down the stretch, both of them with driver. Spieth’s wayward drive into the water on the 16th and Schenk’s big miss left on the 18th spelled doom for both of them.
It amazes me how the best players on the planet routinely hit the most God-awful shots with such regularity, given the amazing talents they all have. But those guys are not what I’m talking about this week. In keeping with the path of the past few posts, I’m encouraging each and every one of you to think about your most recent rounds (if you are playing already this year), or recall the rounds you finished the season with last year. What you are looking for are you own “big misses” that kept you from scoring better.
Was it a few wayward drives that put you in trouble or even out of bounds? Or maybe loose approach shots that made birdie impossible and par super challenging? Might your issue have been some missed short putts or bad long putts that led to a three-putt? Most likely for any of you, you can recall a number of times where you just did not give yourself a good chance to save par or bogey from what was a not-too-difficult greenside recovery.
The point is, in order to get consistently better, you need to make an honest assessment of where you are losing strokes and then commit to improving that part of your game. If it isn’t your driving that causes problems, contain that part of practice or pre-round warm-ups to just a half dozen swings or so, for the fun of “the big stick”. If your challenges seem to be centered around greenside recoveries, spend a lot more time practicing both your technique and imagination – seeing the shot in your mind and then trying to execute the exact distance and trajectory of the shot required. Time on the putting green will almost always pay off on the course.
But, if you are genuinely interested in improving your overall ball-striking consistency, you would be well-served to examine your fundamentals, starting with the grip and posture/setup. It is near impossible to build a repeating golf swing if those two fundamentals are not just right. And if those two things are fundamentally sound, the creation of a repeating golf swing is much easier.
More from the Wedge Guy
- The Wedge Guy: It’s not all about distance
- The Wedge Guy: Are you really willing to get better at golf?
- The Wedge Guy: Anatomy of a wedge head
Golf's Perfect Imperfections
Golf’s Perfect Imperfections: Great debut for Savannah at the WLD opener + Hideki’s driver grip
A great start for Savvy in her second season competing in the World Long Drive Organization! We talk about the whole experience and we also take a look at the Katalyst suit and how our training sessions are going. Plus we speculate why Hideki is experimenting with a putter grip on a driver, thanks to GolfWRX’s Ben and Brian help.
Opinion & Analysis
The best bets for the 2023 Corales Puntacana Championship
Golfing’s great take to Austin GC this week for the WGC Match Play, but the jamboree makes little appeal as a betting medium as far as pre-event odds are concerned.
Though the event doesn’t contain the likes of Cam Smith and pals from the LIV Tour, most of the world’s top lot take part in a tournament that is great fun to watch but, from my point of view, is only worth jumping in once the group stages are sorted. Good luck if you play.
Instead, we’ll hop off to the Dominican Republic for the Corales Puntacana Championship, where world number 90 Wyndham Clark heads the market.
After making seven straight cuts, and having a better chance of winning last week’s Valspar than the eventual fifth place suggests, he is probably the right favourite. However, quotes of single figures are incredibly short and I’d much rather be a layer of the win than a backer.
The last five Corales champions have averaged a world ranking of around 219th, with 2021 winner Joel Dahmen the highest ranked at 79. Given that and the unpredictability of the coastal winds, this is the chance to get with some bigger prices and progressive golfers whilst the elite play around in Texas.
According to 2018 victor Brice Garnett, this is a second-shot course, whilst previous contenders talk of the importance of mid-long range irons. The course won’t play its full 7600-plus yards, but with little punishment off the tee, those bombers that rank highly in long par-4s and par-5s will have an advantage.
Clearly, being coastal leads us to other clues, and all the last five champions have top finishes at the likes of Puerto Rico, Houston, Hawaii, Bay Hill, Pebble Beach and especially Mayakoba.
Sadly, the last-named Mexican track has gone over to LIV but at least for now it remains hugely relevant, with Dahmen, Graeme McDowell and Brice Garnett with top finishes at El Chameleon. Meanwhile, last year’s winner Chad Ramey, had previously recorded top-20 at Bermuda and fifth at Puerto Rico.
Best Bet – Akshay Bhatia
Full respect to the top lot, but given the recent ranking of the winners, the pair of improving youngsters make obvious appeal given their world ranking of around 280, almost certainly a number they will leave miles behind in time.
Runner-up behind the equally promising Michael Thorbjornsen at the 2018 US Amateur, the highly decorated junior star turned pro after contributing two points from three matches at the U.S victory in the 2019 Walker Cup.
Mixing various tours and invites, the 21-year-old finished a closing ninth at the 2020 Safeway Open before a short 2021 season that saw a 30th at Pebble Beach (top-10 at halfway) and a top-60 when debuting at the U.S Open.
2022 started well with a two-shot victory in the Bahamas on the KFT and whilst he racked up two further top-20s, they were not enough to gain his PGA Tour card.
After the conclusion of the ’22 season, Bhatia’s performances have been improving steadily, with a 17th in Bermuda followed by 45th at the RSM, and fourth when defending his Great Exuma Classic title, and seventh at the second Bahamas event a week later.
49th at the Honda disguises that he was 16th at the cut mark, and his fast-finishing second place at Puerto Rico just three weeks ago is further evidence of his ability in similar conditions.
Latterly, the Wake Forest graduate (see Webb Simpson, Cameron Young amongst many others) missed the cut at Copperhead, but again lost sight of his 21st position after the first round.
In the top-30 after his first round on debut in 2020, he said, “The more experience I can get, the better I can learn for myself,” and that certainly seems the case for a player that should play with a tad more confidence now he has secured Special Temporary membership on the PGA Tour.
Danger – Ryan Gerard
He may be two years older than Bhatia, but the 23-year-old is a novice at pro golf.
Having only played eight times on the Canadian Tour – containing one victory, a third, fourth and eighth place finishes, five times on the KFT – including a career-best third place in Columbia, and four events on the PGA Tour, there is no way of knowing how high the ceiling is for the Jupiter resident.
Take a chance we reach somewhere near that, this week.
It’s a small sample but having qualified for the Honda Classic via Monday Q-school, Gerard opened with a 69/63 to lie third at halfway, before finishing with a final round 67 and sole fourth place behind play-off candidates Chris Kirk and Eric Cole, and one place ahead of Shane Lowry.
That unexpected effort got him into the Puerto Rico Open, where he again defied expectation, always being in the top-20 before recording an 11th place finish.
Last week, he needed better than 54th place to earn his STM to Bhatia’s club, but whilst that proved a bit too much, showed plenty in recovering during his second round just to make the cut.
Ryan Gerard needs a two-way T54 this week to clinch Special Temporary Membership.
He was +1 through 13 holes, right on the cutline.
An inside look at how his last five holes played out @ValsparChamp. pic.twitter.com/s3vrrzEeXK
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) March 18, 2023
Gerard’s form is certainly a small sample size, but there is enough there to think he can step up again in this field.
He has that Spieth-type feel on the odd occasion we have seen his play, and he believes he should be here, telling the PGA Tour reporters that:
“But it’s definitely something that I’m not surprised that I’m in this position. I may be surprised that I’m here this early in my career, but I’ve always kind of felt like I wanted to be here, and I was going to do whatever I could to make that happen.”
Others to note – Kevin Chappell – Brandon Matthews
Far more experienced than the top two selections, Kevin Chappell appeals on best form.
Formally 23rd in the world, the 36-year-old has dropped to outside the top 600 but has dropped hints over the last two weeks that he may be approaching the play that won the Texas Open, run-up at Sawgrass, and finish top-10 in four majors.
Since his body broke down in 2018, golf has been a struggle, and he has not recorded a top 10 since the CIMB in October of that year. However, after missing nine of his last 10 cuts, the Californian resident has improved to 29th at Palm Beach Gardens (round positions 84/48/50/29) and 15th at Puerto Rico (47/54/33/15).
Strokes gained were positive throughout at the Honda, and he’ll hope to at least repeat last season’s 15th here, when again coming from way off the pace after the opening round. That effort was one of the highlights from the last 18 months or so, alongside repeat efforts at the Honda (13th) Texas (18th) and Barbasol (21st).
The work after major surgery may have taken taken longer than originally anticipated, but he says he handled the recovery badly. Perhaps that’s now a bad time gone, and Chappell can start making his way back up to where he belongs.
Brandon Matthews makes a little appeal at three figures, particularly on his win here on the Latino America Tour. This massive driver led those stats twice on the KFT and at the Sanderson Farms, and ranked second behind Rory McIlroy at the Honda Classic, when also being top 10 for greens-in-regulation.
He has a way to go on overall PGA Tour form, but Joel Dahmen won after missing six of seven cuts and whilst the selection’s three wins are at the KFT level, he made the cut on his only major attempt – at Brookline – and we all know one mammoth driver that took courses apart from time to time.
Top-10 Banker – Cameron Percy
I looked closely at Aaron Baddeley. The ultimate family man loves a test in the wind and comes here having shown a tad more consistency this year in better class. However, he loses out to his compatriot, Cameron Percy.
The 48-year-old Australian veteran may only have one KFT title to his name, but if we are going to make money out of him, it’s likely to be at one of these coastal ‘opposite’ events.
With top-10 finishes at likely locations such as Bay Hill, Deere Run, Puerto Rico and Panama, Percy’s game is testimonial to his heritage, ranking top-10 finishes aplenty in his homeland.
Best finish in 2021 was a seventh place at Puerto, and he repeated that same number a year later, just three weeks before finishing in the top five at this event.
2022 saw Percy mix with higher grades when eighth at Sedgefield and whilst he missed the cuts at both the RSM and his home Open, he was lying 29th and 25th after the first rounds respectively (6th after round two in Oz).
This season has seen just two cuts from five starts, but there is relevance in a 12th at Honda, and a closing 16th last week at Innisbrook, certainly enough to believe that he can carry on a solid Corales record of two top-eight finishes over the last two outings.
- Akshay Bhatia – 33/1 WIN/TOP-5
- Ryan Gerard – 50/1 WIN/TOP-5
- Kevin Chappell – 90/1 WIN/TOP-5
- Brandon Matthews – 150/1 WIN/TOP-10
- Cameron Percy – 9/1 TOP-10
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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.
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.
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
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….
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