Will new statistics unlock the secrets of golf?
There's a longstanding faction in golf that thinks putting has too much influence on a golfer's scorecard. Here's Ben Hogan: "Hitting a golf ball and putting have nothing in common. They're two different games. You work all your life to perfect a repeating swing that will get you to the greens, and then you have to try to do something that is totally unrelated." Hogan is joined by Gary Player, Chi Chi Rodriguez, and Johnny Miller, who have all declared at one time that putting is unmanly, unfair, and "not golf."
Even the gracious golf writer Herbert Warren Wind brooded over the dominance of putting. Here he is writing in Golf Digest in 1972: "Over 18 holes, even the best player in the world can lose to a man with a hot putter, and it is rough for a star's self-esteem to be beaten in a head-to-head encounter by his peers, let alone by some upstart bumpkin."
It's easy to understand the chokehold that putting has on the golfing mind. If you flub a drive or fly the green with a 9-iron, there's still hope that you can make up for it with a miraculous recovery shot. In contrast, putting delivers a brutal, obvious, and seemingly final judgment. You miss the eight-footer, you drop a stroke. It's no wonder that Ryan Moore and many of his peers see putting as the skill from which all good things in golf flow.
But does putting really have an outsize impact on the game of golf? After the MIT team established its putting rankings, it calculated which golfers pick up the most strokes off the green. The top five names may be familiar to you: Tiger Woods, Vijay Singh, Jim Furyk, Phil Mickelson, and Ernie Els. No "upstart bumpkins" to be found.
The authors underline the starkness of these results: "All the top 20 golfers are better than average off-green performers, while roughly a third are worse than average putters." Three-time major champion Singh, for example, drops one-third of a stroke per round with his putting but gains 2.3 strokes with his other shots. While it certainly wouldn't hurt Singh to perform better on the greens, his superior shot-making more than makes up for any weakness with the putter. The opposite scenario doesn't hold: Great putting will never make up for not being able to consistently crush the ball into the horizon. A golfer's power also gives his long-iron shots a higher trajectory, allowing him to land the ball more softly on the greens, which in turn allows for greater accuracy.
Pro golfers who lack adequate power are like runners competing with pebbles in their shoes. They lose fractions of a stroke on most long shots, meaning that over 18 holes they are slowly ground down by the course. Golfers overemphasize putting because they can't mentally tally these fractional losses. Instead, they carry around those pesky missed eight-footers. But the truth is that once a pro golfer is crouched down to examine the break of a green, there's not as much room for him to excel. That's partly because golfers are very close in skill on the greens, and it's also because nothing that disastrous can happen, such as putting into the water. The tee box, the fairway, and the rough are where good and bad things happen on the golf course. The green is mostly there to make you hate yourself.
We also have to be careful not to err in the opposite direction and declare that the long game explains everything. All the data show that winning on the PGA Tour requires a player to have a career week, to perform better than average in several different facets of the game. In fact, winning may be even scarier than that: It may be beyond a golfer's control. A team of researchers has found that triumphing on tour almost always comes down to luck.
At this year's Masters, Phil Mickelson provided stunning demonstrations of both luck and skill. On the second hole on Sunday, Phil had what looked like an easy birdie putt:
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.