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March 19, 2008

Swing or Putt: Which Matters Most?

Mark Broadie
Carson Family Professor of Business
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Imagine you could have a PGA Tour player hit one of the following for you: all your putts, your short game, your long game or your sand shots. Which should you choose? I’ve asked this question to a number of golfers, and judging from the various responses I’ve received, the answer isn’t obvious.

So I decided to find out with a research project that combines my academic and golfing interests.

Using a unique dataset containing thousands of individual shots of amateur and professional golfers in regular and tournament play, I developed a method to analyze these and other questions related to the play of golfers of various skill levels.

It’s probably not surprising that professional golfers are better than amateurs in every aspect of the game. But having a PGA Tour player putt for a single-digit handicap golfer would only help by about two shots per round. The short game accounts for less than two shots per round. And the sand game accounts for less than one shot — not enough to make a big difference in the overall score.

However, the long game accounts for over nine shots in an 18-hole round — by far, the biggest contributor to scoring differences between pros and low-handicap amateurs.

Now suppose we split the long game into two groups: tee shots on par-four and par-five holes, and all other shots over 100 yards. Long tee shots account for a four-shot difference per round, and the other long-game shots account for about five shots per round. Either group is more important than putting or short-game shots.

Why isn’t putting more important? It’s partially because the amateur golfer has almost 12 putts per round within 2.5 feet of the hole that are rarely missed, so having a pro hit those putts wouldn’t help much. Of course, the difference in the number of putts taken is greater between pros and higher-handicap golfers — a difference that would be made greater by the very fast greens of the Masters Tournament.

The long game is more important because PGA players drive the ball about fifty yards farther and straighter than low-handicap amateurs.

Now if I could only figure out how to drive the ball fifty yards farther.

Professor Broadie’s research will be presented at the fifth World Scientific Congress of Golf in Arizona at the end of March and will be published in a proceedings volume. A PDF of the paper can also be downloaded here.


by Fred Chung | March 19, 2008 at 11:50 AM

Very interesting. It is counter to what I would have thought to be true. Perhaps that is because I average 4 putts per green and am a very very long ways from being a single-digit handicap golfer.

by Nicholas Ricci | March 19, 2008 at 7:34 PM

This is a neat experiment and well-researched. I would argue that the short game, especially putting, is more important than the long game. As of March 16, 2008, Tiger Woods, the number one golfer in the World, was ranked Tied-140th on the PGA Tour in total driving (a combination of driving distance and accuracy averaged). He was, however, ranked number one in scrambling percentage. He makes par or better when he misses the green 75% of the time. Of the greens in regulation he missed, he saved par more than anyone else on Tour. The next closest person in scrambling percentage is Ryuji Imada at 70.45%. That means that out of 100 shots, Tiger saves five shots from the next closest competitor in scrambling. That is a lot on the PGA Tour! This is attributed to his amazing short game and putting, which was ranked 11th on Tour as of March 16, 2008. There is a reason Tiger has won his first four events in 2008. It is because even though he may not hit the ball his best everyday, his short game and putting save him, and that is what keeps him at the top. Just to point out, Bubba Watson is ranked first in driving distance, yet he is ranked 101st in the World (no offense at all, that is very good!). This just shows how driving distance and accuracy comes secondary to a great short game. Not everyone can hit the ball 300 yards and hit a 5 iron to 3 feet from 220 yards. However, everyone can have a good short game. That is what separates the Tour player from the high handicapper. If one wants to lower his handicap, he can make large strides by improving his short game. I am sure there are plenty of single-digit golfers that hit the ball a long way. However, I challenge you to find a scratch golfer with a bad short game and week putting.

by Mark Broadie | March 20, 2008 at 10:07 AM

Fred wrote: "Perhaps that is because I average 4 putts per green and am a very very long ways from being a single-digit handicap golfer."

I can't believe you average 4 putts per green! It might seem like that, but I bet if you kept track of your putts, you'll see that your average is far lower. The research shows that long game differences are more significant than putting differences even between typical middle- and high-handicap golfers. However, these results for 'typical' golfers don't necessarily apply to particular individual golfers.

Nicholas makes a number of interesting comments. Tiger Woods is better than other PGA tour players in just about every aspect of the game. Part of the reason he has been doing so well these past few months is that he is hitting his drives straighter - his years of work with Hank Haney are paying off. It is rare that short hitters win on the PGA tour these days.

If you look at the results in the paper, it does show that between the top-half and bottom-half of PGA tour players, putting, short game, and long game differences are about equally important.

"If one wants to lower his handicap, he can make large strides by improving his short game."

I agree completely. It may be impossible for us mere mortals to drive the ball in the same zip code as PGA tour pros. But improving our short game and putting are very realistic goals.

by Po-Hsuan (Paul) Hsu | March 20, 2008 at 11:10 AM

Dear Professor Broadie, This is Paul, previously the finance PhD students on 4th floor and an assistant professor in UConn now. Your research results are really inteeresting but also conroversial. Anyway, it gives us a good reason to keep working on long game in driving range. I will be back for commencement in May and look forward to chatting with you there again then. - Paul

by Lucius Riccio | March 21, 2008 at 3:24 PM

Mark is right on the button. I have been studying this question for nearly 4 decades and my research supports his "unpopular" or "unconventional" conclusions. Putting is important but not in the same way tee-to-green play is. Of the 24 strokes that separate a 95 shooter and a 71 shooter, on average only 8 (one third) are putts and much of that difference is due to the 71 shooter being closer to the hole when it is time to putt, not absolute putting skill. Tee-to-green play is by far the strongest predictor of score. RIccio's (Simple) Rule is Score = 95 - 2* GIRs. Three greens break 90, 8 greens break 80 and 13 greens break 70. No other factor comes close in predicting score. A famous builder of golf courses (and tall buildings) has for years razzed me whenever I say putting is not nearly as important as tee-to-green play and my response to him is "if putting is so important, why do you build 7,500 yard courses?" Ben Hogan said there are two games of golf, one in the air and one on the ground and any 9 year old can roll a ball on a carpet (his characterization.) He understood that the tee-to-green game separates the best from the rest. Putting is important (or seems important)because it determines your score for the hole. If you miss a putt, you must take at least one more stroke. If you miss a fairway, you still have a chance to avoid a "lost" stroke and as such you might not recognize the "cost" of that bad stroke, even over the long haul. So putting appears to be more important than it is. Of course if you have a 10 footer on the last hole to win a match, putting is critical. But why do you have a 10 footer instead of a 1 footer? Another reason putting seems so important is that the handicapping system enables many matches to go to the final putt for a determination. Take away the handicapping system and see how many matches are won by the great putter who can't hit a green in regulation. For more on the research behind my comments, I discuss these issues in my chapter in Johnny Miller's book "Breaking 90" and in several Golf Digest articles dating back to the mid-1980's and the World Scientific Golf Congress publications dating back to 1990. I also mention some of this in my article in the upcoming May 2008 Golf Digest. Full disclosure: I am a colleague of Mark's and a great admirer of his work. But the reason for that is I have had the pleasure of seeing his research in detail up close and can attest to his diligence and comprehensive approach to the study of this and other golf questions. I think his research will stand up to any scrutiny. Lucius Riccio ljr14@columbia.edu

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