Will new statistics unlock the secrets of golf?
In my next piece, I'll take a closer look at putting and the researchers who are trying to bring mathematical rigor to golf's most mystical skill.
The Dark Art of Putting: A new stat sheds light on golf's most mystical skill.
The green is golf's great stage. It's the place where the pros seem the most mortal, the most like us. They misread the breaks. They yip five-foot putts. They even four-putt in excruciating fashion. On the green, the pros can't really do anything special to the ball that an ordinary golfer couldn't do. Perhaps that's why golf announcers are at their most wide-eyed when talking over a putt. They'll tell us the putt's distance and then head for the self-help aisle and start talking about "mojo" and "attitude" and "momentum."
The players themselves are also in awe of putting. In an interview on an NYC rooftop with golf writer Stephanie Wei, alterna-pro golfer Ryan Moore breaks down the PGA Tour this way: "Really, when it comes down to golf, at this level, I mean, it really comes down to putting. As much as we all kind of want to complain about our ball striking, you know, that just distracts us from our putting … and that's probably really the reason we're not playing that good."
Putting, we're told, is a dark art of willpower and focus. But putting has accrued such mystique in large part because the stats are a mess. On Tuesday, I explained how Mark Broadie's shot value allows us to precisely measure how much putting or driving contribute to a player's score. A team from MIT has built on Broadie's work by developing a new putting stat for the PGA Tour called "putts gained per round." It's similar to Broadie's shot value but makes a few different decisions in how to set a benchmark putting standard for pro golfers. Putts gained per round is likely to be the stat that brings "moneygolf" to the masses—if all goes according to plan, it should be part of golf's television broadcasts starting next season.
Since the time of shepherds and brassies, prowess on the greens has been judged by the number of putts a player takes per round. That's fine as a rough guide, but it's easy to see where the stat falls short. Yes, a player with a low number of putts per round may be holing an absurd amount of putts. Or maybe he's missing a lot of greens, chipping it close, and knocking in a bunch of easy two-footers that anyone could make.
In order to get around this "missed green" problem, the PGA Tour has a related stat called putting average, which counts the number of putts taken on greens that a player hits in regulation. (That means landing the ball on the green with a chance to make birdie or better.) But putting average isn't precise either. If you consistently hit great iron shots, you'll land the ball closer to the hole, and you'll subsequently make more putts. The player who lands the ball farther away from the hole but is a world-beating putter will be hidden by the statistics. He's better on the greens, but you don't know it.
With ShotLink, the building blocks for an accurate putting statistic are almost right in front of us. ShotLink has the key pieces of information: where millions of putts started, where millions of putts ended up. But determining putting skill from these data requires some mathematical gymnastics. To that end, the Tour approached the MIT mathematicians, led by Douglas Fearing, and asked them to analyze the stats.
They came back with many equations. Here is what the equation for putting looks like:
Photograph of ShotLink volunteer by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images. Video of Anthony Kim at the AT&T National © 2009 CBS. All rights reserved. Video of Tiger Woods at the Arnold Palmer Invitational © 2008 NBC. All rights reserved. Putting equation and chart from "How To Catch a Tiger: Understand Putting Perfomance on the PGA Tour," by Douglas Fearing, Jason Acimovic, and Stephen Graves.