Dorman: Strokes-gained putting opens door to further analysis

October 23, 2013
By Larry Dorman, PGATOUR.COM

It’s finally happened. Decades after the PGA TOUR first introduced a rudimentary set of statistical categories to quantify the skills of the sport’s elite players, and some 10 years after implementing a ShotLink system that has collected mountains of performance data at every tournament on the schedule, golf is poised to enter the statistical big leagues.

Mind you, it may be awhile before fans can rattle off stats that prove Tiger Woods has, by quite a wide margin, won more tournaments with ball striking than with putting and that TOUR players – and amateurs – actually “drive for dough and putt for show.”

It takes time to overcome beliefs about putting’s pre-eminence as THE key to scoring. The myth has been a credo with many instructors and top players and an embedded golf maxim since the 1800s. Like the wheels of justice, the gears of mathematical facts in golf grind exceeding slow. But the latest, and most convincing, mathematical proof yet has been compiled and presented in a book available in March 2014. It is entitled “Every Shot Counts” from the Penguin Group division of Gotham Books, authored by Mark Broadie, and it already has high-profile adherents.

Sean Foley, the noted instructor whose stable of TOUR players includes Woods, Justin Rose, Hunter Mahan and Lee Westwood, and who admits in the book’s foreword that he is “not a math guy”, is convinced the numbers can help him get his players to focus on the parts of their games that need work.

“In the past guys would fight me on that,” Foley says. “But it’s tough to resist when you see the numbers right out in front of you. At some point, Mark’s approach will become how people determine golf performance. They’re just going to have to accept it because it makes too much sense.”

It does, and on a number of important levels. One is that the book avoids the statistical graveyard that awaits desert-dry dissertations. Although the author, Mark Broadie, is a professor at Columbia University Business School, he also is 4-handicap amateur golfer, former club champion at Pelham Country Club and part of a team of three MIT researchers and PGA TOUR stats experts that designed and implemented the “strokes gained-putting” stat in 2011.

The putting stat has gained credibility on TOUR, and, interestingly, Jimmy Walker and Webb Simpson – the winners of the first two events in the 2013-14 season – were each ranked No. 1 in strokes gained-putting.

It might not be too long before we know what percentage of a player’s victory was achieved from strokes gained-driving, or by iron play from more than 100 yards from the hole in the strokes gained-approach shots or inside 100 yards by strokes gained-short game.

Broadie has expanded the strokes gained discipline through the bag to include all those categories in his book. He sifted through all the ShotLink data compiled from a universe of 240 TOUR players with at least 200 rounds played in 315 events in the period of 2004-12, applying the “dynamic programming” technique routinely used in finance as a mathematical means to solving “complicated, multi-step problems involving risk and uncertainty.”

When viewed alongside the strokes gained-putting numbers, all this produces some facts that have been buried. For example, did you know:

• Putting contributed 35 percent to victories on the PGA TOUR while off-green shots contributed to 65 percent.
• Bubba Watson was ranked No. 1 in strokes gained-driving, with nearly a full-stroke advantage over the field (.91) gained by bombing it an average of 301 yards within a 3.01-degree window of accuracy.
• Averaged across the top 40 golfers ranked by total strokes gained, driving was nearly twice as important to scoring as putting, 28 percent to 15 percent.
• In total strokes gained, No. 1 Tiger Woods (2.8 per round) was almost a full stroke clear of No. 2 Jim Furyk (1.84) and was two full strokes clear of No. 40 Ian Poulter (.78).
• So, just how good is Vijay Singh’s ball-striking? Off the charts good. Broadie points out that in his 2008 victory at the World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational, Singh actually LOST 1.1 strokes per round to the field with his putting. It was the worst putting performance by any tournament winner in the ShotLink era.

Broadie enjoys making light of the widespread misapprehension that Woods, who won 24 tournaments over the nine-year span, was so dominant, as he quotes one golf legend, “Because he’s the best putter.” A current TOUR player is quoted saying, “I think by now every player on TOUR is aware that the biggest reason Tiger is the best is because he putts the best.”

Au contraire. As the author points out, “applying math to settled wisdom,” putting accounted for an average of 28 percent of the strokes Woods gained in his 24 victories.

“This is significantly less than the winners overall average of 35 percent,” Broadie writes. “In his victories, Tiger gained 1.14 putts per round on the field, but he gained 2.94 strokes per round with his tee-to-green play.”

So, all those times Woods commented that he “hit it great but couldn’t make anything,” was more than just filler. It was fact. But who knew?

For those who must delve into each and every permutation of the strokes gained equation before deciding whether Broadie actually has, to paraphrase Hogan’s famous quote about improving at golf, dug it out of the dirt, there is plenty of hardcore statistical evidence available. There are tables, charts and graphs replete with concise explanations how each performance area is measured against the field average.

For those more interested in the fascinating insights strokes gained sheds on the real performances of the world’s best players, Broadie’s serious but good-natured approach to “applying math to settled wisdom” is appealing. So are his anecdotes about the players he knows, the instructors who instinctively knew that putting has always been overrated and his relentless puncturing of what the British philosopher Bertrand Russell called “confirmation bias.”

Like how everybody says they would rather have an 8-footer uphill than a downhill 6-foot slider? Because, you know, they’re just easier to make. Except they’re not, at least not according to the two charts on page 155 that show the numbers: On greens that are relatively flat, moderately sloped and steeply sloped at the hole location, a 6-foot slider is easier than an 8-foot uphill putt. In all cases.

Them’s the facts. Feel free to argue amongst yourselves.