Golf’s New Way to Measure Putting

PuttingIn the past few years, most mainstream sports have seen a major evolution in how they use and analyze statistics to track and improve performance. Chicago golf fans are probably familiar with Northbrook-based statistical provider STATS LLC, which is a partner with the PGA Tour. Although it has taken a little longer, it looks like the PGA is finally reaching a similar stage by leveraging their Shotlink information.

Recently, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, working with the PGA Tour, have come up with a statistical formula to determine who are the truly great putters in the game. Although there have been some broad categories, until now there hasn’t been a reliable statistical method of measuring putting skill among the world’s best golfers.

The main problem is that too many external variables come into play. The most commonly used putting statistic, “putting average, ” measures the number of putts that a player takes per round when his ball lands on the green in regulation—that is, in par less two strokes (for example, in two strokes on a par-four hole). Not only does this approach exclude about 30% of putts attempted on the PGA Tour (those made on greens not reached in regulation), but it also rewards the accuracy of shots into the green as much as it does putting skill.

Two other commonly used putting statistics have weaknesses, too. Putts per round is a measure overly generous to the player who misses a lot of greens in regulation, then chips it close and one-putts. The average feet of putts holed per round, among other problems, penalizes exceptionally good lag putters who leave themselves second putts of inches rather than feet.

Moreover, none of the above statistics take into account the relative difficulty of the greens played. Players who compete on a higher percentage of courses with tricky greens, such as at the majors, get a bum deal.

A team of researchers at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, using PGA Tour data, has derived a metric it calls “putts gained per round” that corrects for these and other deficiencies and provides a more accurate picture of every Tour player’s true putting prowess.

The PGA Tour is so enthused by this new metric that it began work two weeks ago integrating it into its statistical ShotLink system. Working with its technology partner, CDW, it will take several months to write all the code and analyze feedback from players and staff, but if all goes well, “putts gained” will pop up as one of the Tour’s core reported statistics by the end of the year. Together with other new statistics being developed by MIT and other academic institutions, “putts gained” could open up a new frontier in golf record-keeping and performance analysis comparable to the sea change in baseball statistics following Bill James’s pioneering work in the 1970s and 1980s.

“Statistics can just become a big splash of numbers and not mean anything. But this, we think, will mean something,” said Steve Evans, the PGA Tour’s senior vice president for information systems. “It’s complex to calculate, but simple to understand.”

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Walter Lis

Walter Lis is the managing editor of Chicago Golf Report, which launched in 2010.

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