“Silly question,” you say. “They should all go in.” Well, yes, but the question is really the title of a book by Clyne Soley, who collected extensive data on amateur and professional putting the the mid-1970s and published his findings in 1977.
Most of what he found confirms what you might think about putting, but here are some facts that might surprise you.
The number of putts per round varies directly with a player’s handicap. Scratch golfers, he found, average 30.8 putts per round, and 20-handicappers average 34.7. That’s not a surprise, but that means putting is a greater part of the scratch player’s score (42.7%) than it is for the 20-handicapper (34.7%). You might not have thought of that before.
When a player who is 20 strokes better overall is only four shots better on the green, this is further evidence of what many golfers believe, that the key to improvement lies in becoming a better ball-striker. Good putting starts making a difference only when you get good.
Soley’s next finding is truly amazing. The number of two-putt greens does not vary with a player’s handicap. A scratch golfer averages 11.67 two-putt greens per round, and a 40-handicapper averages 11.59. That’s a difference of one two-putt green in 225 holes, over 12 rounds.
The difference in total putts, then, comes in the breakdown of one-putt and three-putt greens. Scratch golfers average 5.31 one-putt greens per round, and the 40-handicappers average only 2.42. When it comes to three-putt greens, the averages are scratch, 0.90 per round, 40-handicap, 3.60.
Soley then goes on to ask how good professional golfers are at putting (pretty darn good, actually). As you would expect, pros are better from any distance than amateurs are, but here’s something about short putts that you might not have guessed. For any given distance, Soley found that the success rate (sinking the putt) for professionals for putts of five feet and under is lower if it is a first putt than if it is a second or third putt. It is lower by almost half.
The probable explanation is that a four-foot second putt is left over from an initial putt that went by the hole, giving the player a chance to see what the break coming back would be. Amateurs, take note. Missed putts that go by the hole had a chance to go in, and they give you an excellent indication of the line coming back, if you watch the ball until it stops. Putts left short will never go in, and you might still not be sure of the line.
A final note is on sidehill putts. Most right-handed golfers feel that putts breaking right to left are easier to make than putts breaking left to right. Soley found no difference favoring the right-to-left putt. Putts breaking in either direction are made, and missed, at the same rate.
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