Stats don’t lie, or do they?
December 7, 2012
Sports lovers love statistics. Even those who are less avid know about baseball's batting average or the NFL's quarterback rating (although they likely don't know how it is calculated). Heck, if a player can get to the top in multiple categories, we give them new identities. Miguel Cabrera, of the Detroit Tigers, earned the Triple Crown by leading the league in batting average, home runs and runs batted in (RBIs).
Our game has statistics, too. Generally, they are very informative. Greens in regulation (GIR) tells us how many greens a player hits in the appropriate number of shots — one shot for a par 3, two shots for a par 4, and three shots for a par 5.
This GIR statistic is not ambiguous and is easy to understand. It gives us a very good grasp of the better "ball strikers" on tour, whereas other statistics are not so simple. Putting average, for example, is based on the number of putts averaged over the number of holes played.
Unfortunately, this is an imperfect measure of a player's putting. Player A could miss the green, chip it to within a foot of the hole and make one putt. Player B could hit the green leaving 30 feet from the hole and hit two putts.
On the stat sheet, this would make Player A the better putter. Yet, is Player A the better putter? We really don't know.
But now, the PGA Tour has introduced a new and improved statistic on putting that might be fun to watch. It is called Strokes gained — putting. It's not directly a "who is the best putter?" stat, but it measures the next closest thing — approximately how many strokes does a certain player save during a round or a season?
Here is how it works. The bench mark is a putt that a given player will make 50 percent of the time. For this conversation, we'll call it seven feet. If the player has a 7-foot putt and makes the putt, he or she has "gained" half a stroke because it will be missed by everyone else half the time. On the flip side, when the player misses the putt, he or she has "lost'"half a stroke.
This same formula is used from one inch up to 100 feet. At the end of a round (or multiple rounds), these gains or losses are compiled for a net gain/loss.
Okay, enough of the details, but this is fun stuff. We can now see much more accurately who the better putters really are. Since we know how many strokes are gained, we have a very good idea who the best putters are, who is making more putts as compared to the other players on tour.
The curiosity is — are the players who are perceived to be the best putters really the best putters? We've all heard the phrase "drive for show, putt for dough." Is that really true?
Let's look at a marquee player, Phil Mickelson. Phil gets a lot of credit for being a good putter, but … with all that attention, we do see him miss some relatively short putts. How does he rank on the strokes gained — putting list? Phil is No. 10. On a list of nearly 200 players, he is 10th, with a gain of 35 shots to his score (year to date). That is very good. Really good.
At the same time, the top 10 on the strokes gained list are not very similar to the top 10 Money List. Brandt Snedeker, Phil Mickelson, Zach Johnson and Luke Donald are on both. Yet Jonas Blixt is No. 2 on the strokes gained list and Derek Lamely is No. 7. On the Money List (which is the primary reference point), Blixt is No. 37 and Lamely is No. 221. Blixt has gained more than 50 shots this year on the putting green. Think where they would be if they couldn't putt.
It may not be completely accurate to say "drive for show, putt for dough." But what we do know is if you're not a good putter, you better be really, really good at everything else.
Like most people, I'm not really, really good at the other stuff. So I'll see you soon on the practice putting green.
John Renslow is general manager and director of golf at Alta Sierra Country Club. Please contact John with your questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org