News & Opinion

The hole truth: You don’t putt like a tour pro

U.S. Open — Adam Scott, R3
The average golfer certainly knows how Adam Scott feels in missing a short putt at the 2020 U.S. Open, and it’s often a far more frequent occurrence for recreational players. If you didn’t already realize it, that’s one key reason why you’re not on the PGA Tour.

Amateurs don't sink nearly the total feet of putts made by PGA Tour players, and that’s a key differentiator between us and them

The yips is an affliction that affects some golfers.

Putting is an affliction that affects all golfers. Almost all golfers, anyway.

You say you putt great? Bully for you. Check back in 30 years and let me know.

Allow me to exaggerate to make a point: Average golfers know that we can’t hit it like the PGA Tour pros. They’re Happy Gilmores come to life, what with Matthew Wolfe’s official 388-yard drive during the U.S. Open’s final round and Bryson DeChambeau’s launch monitor that showed a drive with a 400-yard carry. Some of us need multiple swings to cover 400 yards.

The gap between how well tour pros putt and how average hacks putt might be bigger than the afore-mentioned distance gap. Did I say gap? I meant gorge.

The putting-gorge gap might not seem as obvious. You and I can come close to making 20-foot putts, and we often do – come close, that is. Tour players make 20-footers on a ridiculously regular basis. In the 2019-20 PGA Tour season, three players holed more than 31 percent of their putts from 15-20 feet: Anirban Lahiri, Vincent Whaley and Ian Poulter. That’s almost one out of three.

Your make percentage from that distance probably is closer to one out of 20, and that’s even if you keep putting from the same spot and learn the line. You and I don’t burn the cup’s edge from 20 feet as often as tour pros make it.

That old PGA Tour slogan had it right: These Guys Are Good. If the rest of us had a slogan, it might be, These Hacks Are The Opposite of Good. Or maybe a less-polite version.

Of course, I can’t prove my hypothesis, although watching almost any Thursday afternoon Golf Channel tournament telecast ought to do it. For proof, I need statistics. I need data. The PGA Tour compiles gigabytes of data. You and I have a broken-down old caddie named Jack Squat. (Zero data, in other words.)

So how can we compare our skill levels? As an experiment, I asked a dozen or so colleagues, golf pals and assorted strangers to keep track of a simple putting statistic: add the total length of the putts that they made for 18 holes. For example, if I hit a putt from 30 feet that stops a foot short and tap it in, I get credit for 1 foot of holed putts.

It’s a flawed stat (as most putting stats are) because it’s based too much on where a golfer’s putting originates. But it’s a simple number to keep and requires minimal effort, which I figured was the most I could expect from my volunteers, and PGA Tour computers keep this number for the pros.

I was curious: How many feet of putts does an average amateur make? In a lot of rounds, it feels as if I didn’t hole a putt longer than 3 feet, and if I did, it probably was my second putt.

The results of my unscientific survey were limited, because my gung-ho volunteers kept forgetting to keep track until the third post-round beverage. But the results proved my theory, which is that we suck at putting relative to tour players.

I contributed six rounds of data. My total lengths of putts made were, in chronological order, 34, 100, 80, 45, 42 and 48. The same guy who put up 34 feet one day put up 100 feet the next day? Yes, probably because I went to a private club with smoother, quicker greens instead of playing the super-slow greens at the mangy public course I normally frequent. Plus, holing putts of 30, 20 and 16 feet accounted for nearly two-thirds of my total. I accidentally made a couple of bombs in the 80-foot round, too. Remove the 100- and 80-foot totals and I averaged about 43 feet per round, or 2.4 feet per hole. Yeah, that sounds more like it: unimpressive.

My volunteers submerged in similar boats. One fellow – let’s call him Marcus (I promised anonymity to all involved) – had totals of 38 and 50 feet at his home courses. His average: 44 feet. He does, in fact, battle the yips, but golfing purist that he is, refuses to give in. “If Steve Stricker putted for me, I’d shoot 80 or better most of the time because I’m on or near 16 of 18 greens,” he said. “I hit good bunker shots, fair chips, poor lag putts and worse 5-footers.”

I feel his pain. A mid-double-digit handicapper we’ll call Randy provided two fivesomes’ worth of scores. He personally posted 44 and 59 feet (an average of 51.5 feet). Bill led the group with 72 and 53 (average: 62.5). Leo and Kevin each had one round over 70 feet but also one in the upper 40s. The group’s 10-round average was 55.6 feet.

Then there’s the long-time friend who’s my age (approaching ancient) whom I’ll call Rocco. He contributed four rounds: two in the mid-50s, one at a mere 27.5 and one with 66 feet in which he didn’t play the last three holes on account of darkness. The 27.5-foot total wasn’t helped by a chip-in, he said. “When you suck, I don’t know why it’s always a surprise,” he said.

Rocco averaged 51.4 feet and epitomized the volunteers as a group. In our tiny sampling of 26 rounds, we averaged 51.8 feet of putts holed per round.

I did not include data from John in Wisconsin, whose two regular foursomes (featuring players ranging from 11 to 23 handicaps with nicknames such as Rum Head, The Beav, Pork Face, Mr. Merengue and one I can’t print) play four-man scrambles against one another. Playing in a scramble skews putting stats because the fourth person putting already has seen three putts on the same line and has a big advantage. It’s a different kind of sample, and I didn’t want to mix apples with pork faces, but I like the way John’s group has figured out how to maximize its fun.

“I seriously can’t remember the last time we had individual scorecards,” John said. “I’ve been playing with these boys for 25 years, and we haven’t played a single hole that didn’t involve a wager. You could lose $25 or $30 on a bad day, but, of course, the winners usually take a loss after picking up the bar tab.”

One scramble team holed putts of 182 feet, 138 of it on four ocean-liners. The other team totaled 79 feet. You can guess which team picked up the bar tab. John’s group plays 95 percent of its golf on public courses. “While half the guys could comfortably belong to a private club,” he said, “you could never live that down.”

So how did our amateurs stack up versus the PGA Tour players? Not very well.

The average total of putts holed per round on the PGA Tour for 2019-20 was 72.8 feet. The leaders were Kristoffer Ventura, 87 feet 9 inches; Denny McCarthy, 85-4; and Michael Gellerman, 83-8. Andy Ogletree ranked first at the end of the year in this season’s stats at 99 feet 7 inches.

Only four of our 26 hacker-round totals exceeded the tour average of 72.8 feet. The reality was, we averaged 20 fewer feet of putts holed per round than the pros.

Twenty feet is a lot. If he weren’t careful, a fellow could three-putt from that distance.

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