It’s difficult to have any conversation about golf without mentioning trends.
Players are, on the whole, emphasizing physical fitness and nutrition. Massive driver heads, precision golf balls and remarkably efficient irons and shafts have reduced the fear of hitting a “foul ball” and mitigated the effect angles have when approaching the green. Because of those factors, power never has been more essential. Just look at the world ranking. Four of the current top five – Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas – finished in the top 11 in driving distance on the PGA Tour last year.
But what about putting, the eternal dark art that remains vexing to all? Have modern professionals improved on the greens like they have off the tee?
Along with most everyone else, that was Barney Adams’ assumption. Adams, the notable entrepreneur who started Adams Golf, recently ventured into the putting business by making shafts with something he calls Breakthrough Golf Technology. Being that he was intent on revolutionizing putter shafts, Adams sought to find out how much better or worse the average PGA Tour player is today at putting compared to the recent past.
The results went against what he, and almost everyone in the game, assumed to be true:
But from 2016 to 2018, all four of those percentages were lower than they had been. The discrepancy isn’t a considerable margin – the largest difference is that the past three seasons have yielded 1.87 percent fewer made putts from 10 feet than during the 2003-05 campaigns – but it’s still an intriguing piece of data.
“My initial reaction to this data was that it had to be wrong,” Adams said. “I couldn’t be looking at it right. I really had no idea that the tour putting had dropped. I see those guys and I see that everything they do is better – longer, faster, better.”
If you walk onto a practice putting green at a PGA Tour event, it sure seems as if the players have made putting a science. A good portion of players have gadgets out, practicing some form of drill. The USGA and R&A enacted limits on green-reading materials last October, but players had access to incredibly detailed green-reading information throughout the 2016-18 seasons and still have more today than they did a decade ago. That’s not to mention how advanced agronomic practices have continually improved putting surfaces.
Everything points to players making more putts. So why isn’t it happening? The best answer may be that players aren’t necessarily worse putters, but the variables they have to contend with have evolved. When asked why they think a smaller percentage of putts are being holed, most players point to green speeds and hole locations.
“Hole locations sometimes can look pretty easy, but when they do look easy, they’re normally the hardest ones,” Jordan Spieth told GGP+ before the AT&T Byron Nelson. “The grain is going one way and they stick the pin on the hill going the other way. It just makes it that much more challenging. I don’t think the pin positions are necessarily much different from back then, but when the speed of the greens goes (up) and some of those become 4, 5 feet past the hole instead of 2 feet past the hole, it’s different.”
Spieth told a story about how Lee Trevino recently approached him on the range and joked about how the turf closely resembled the greens players used to putt on. The Merry Mex may have been exaggerating, but greens have indeed gotten faster.
Consider that Pinehurst No. 2 hosted three U.S. Opens and the Stimpmeter readings increased for each one.
When Jack Nicklaus won the Jackie Gleason Inverrary Classic in 1977, the greens rolled at 6.5. Now on the PGA Tour, the majority of greens roll somewhere near 12.
“Green speeds getting faster, it has to be,” Justin Rose said. “Pin placements have been fairly standard on tour the last 10 years. I don’t feel like there’s been a big shift. I think it’s speed because it means more break. The quicker the green, the more the ball breaks. The more the ball breaks, the harder the putting is.”
An increase in green speeds may be enough on its own to knock the putting numbers down, but it coincides with a period of time when the surfaces have gotten smoother and more consistent from hole to hole. Now when greens aren’t perfect, as was the case in the 2015 U.S. Open at Chambers Bay and last year’s PGA Championship at Bellerive, it’s a major storyline.
Those two factors going against each other make some players uncertain of why fewer putts are being holed.
“I don’t know if I have a good answer,” Rickie Fowler said. “You can look at the greens getting faster and some pins in some tucked areas. But with the greens being faster and probably rolling better now, it’s odd to see it go that way. You can start talking about taking out long putters, belly putters. I don’t think that has anything to do with it. It will be interesting to see if they come up with reasons why.”
There are alternative theories beyond green conditions that may be contributing to the decrease. Putting always will be a crucial part of the game, but some can argue that being a great putter doesn’t equate to success in the same way power does. Going by last season’s stats, the top 15 players in strokes gained off the tee combined for 18 victories and 79 top-10s. The top 15 players in strokes gained putting had five victories and 34 top-10s.
Even this season, four of the top six putters on the PGA Tour as of last week were outside the top 60 in the FedEx Cup standings (and a fifth, Justin Harding, is not a PGA Tour member and does not appear in the standings). It’s the exact opposite for the best drivers.
The top nine for strokes gained off the tee were:
All nine of those players were in the top 60 in the FedEx Cup standings as of last week.
Can it be that the best players in the game are no longer the best putters? That the reliance on power has come with the cost of slightly worse putting?
It goes hand in hand with the type of courses being played on the PGA Tour. Last week at Bethpage Black is a prime example of a course that demands power and accuracy off the tee but has relatively docile green complexes. Those type of layouts have a way of showcasing bombers and neutralizing players who rely on their putters.
A year from now, there may be more data to consider. Will keeping the flagstick in have an effect on the percentage of made putts? If Adam Scott is any indication, it may. He was 165th in strokes gained putting last year and is 19th so far this season. And that’s not the only rule change that could influence the numbers.
“It will be interesting to see with the tapping down of the spike marks, it will be fascinating to see if there is an uptick,” Rose said.
No matter the case and no matter the advancements in technology, everyone can agree putting never will be easy. It will continue to confuse everyone, even the best in the world trying to master every detail of the game.
TOP IMAGE Tiger Woods, Adam Scott, Justin Rose (John David Mercer, USA Today Sports); Rickie Fowler, Dustin Johnson (Mike Segar, Reuters); Brooks Koepka (Lucy Nicholson, Reuters); Rory McIlroy (Jim Dedmon, USA Today Sports); Phil Mickelson (Butch Dill, USA Today Sports)
TOP 9 OFF THE TEE Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm, Gary Woodland (Peter Casey, USA Today Sports); Jhonattan Vegas (Eric Bolte, USA Today Sports); Bubba Watson (Jasen Vinlove, USA Today Sports); Tommy Fleetwood (Jonathan Ernst, USA Today Sports); Jason Day (John David Mercer, USA TODAY Sports); Bryson DeChambeau (Brad Penner, USA TODAY Sports); Keith Mitchell (Ray Carlin, USA TODAY Sports)
BOTTOM Gary Woodland’s son Jaxson (Lucy Nicholson, Reuters)
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