New PGA Tour putting statistic aims to take bias out of previous stats

By Doug Ferguson
Published on

Dean Wilson always believed he was a good putter, whether he was in Japan or on the PGA Tour. The trick was finding proof of that in the statistics.

He finished no higher than 31st in putts per round over the last five years, but Wilson never put much stock in that because it doesn’t account for how often a player is putting for birdie or getting up-and-down from just off the green. He once was 13th in average putts per greens in regulation, although that didn’t account for proximity to the hole.

So the 41-year-old from Hawaii was not surprised when told about a new PGA Tour statistic that became official Monday, one that uses Shotlink data over an entire year to measure how well a player putts compared with the field.

The statistic officially is called “Strokes Gained-Putting,” and it’s the first time in 15 years that the PGA Tour has introduced a new core statistic. Wilson would have been among the top 11 putters in four of the last five years.

“I always felt like I’m a good putter,” Wilson said. “I’m confident in my technique and the theories I use. I just don’t know what the correct way would be to measure it. They’re all skewed one way or another. I could never think there was another way to do it.”

That’s where Mark Broadie comes in.

Broadie, who plays off a 4 handicap when he’s not working as a Columbia Business School professor, has been crunching Shotlink numbers for the better part of a decade as he tries to find the most meaningful measure of a tour player’s game.

“A good putting stat should provide a pure measure of putting skill,” said Broadie, who developed the stat and then honed it with a team from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

His philosophy is simple -- the quality of every shot should be based on where it started and where it finished.

The math is a little more complicated.

It starts with determining how many average putts it takes a PGA Tour player from each distance. Broadie discovered that at just under 8 feet, players have a 50 percent chance of making the putt -- in other words, the average stroke for that length is 1.5. The average gets higher for the longer putts.

So if Nick Watney makes an 8-foot putt, he will have gained 0.5 strokes on the field. If he takes two putts from that distance, he will have lost 0.5 strokes to the field. The average for a 20-foot putt is about 1.9. If he makes the putt, he gains 0.9 on the field, whereas if he misses the putt, he loses only 0.1 strokes.

Add these up at the end of each round and you have “Putts Gained.”

Watney is used as an example because he is the current tour leader at 1.215. All that number means is that Watney gains an average of about 1.2 strokes on the field through his putting.

The numbers might not make a lot of sense, but the names do. Luke Donald would have led the tour in this statistic the last two years. Ben Crane would have led the tour twice. Tiger Woods for years was regarded one of golf’s best putters. With this statistic, he ranked among the top 3 in three of the last five years he was eligible.

Others who were around the top 10 just about every year were players whom their peers consider good putters -- Woods, Steve Stricker, Donald, Crane, Brian Gay, Aaron Baddeley -- and yes, even Dean Wilson.

The tour awards a medal to each player who leads a major statistical category, just as driving distance and greens in regulation. Starting this year, “putts gained” will determine who wins the putting category.

It’s not a perfect system, although it’s designed to take out the bias from the previous putting stats.

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