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Whether you're trying to improve your golf game or maybe, just find an edge in your fantasy golf league, strokes gained putting is one of the most important stats you can look at.
We've all heard the phrase drive for show, putt for dough, but is that actually true?
In this post, I'm going to show you why that saying may not be entirely true.
Putting doesn't matter as much as we once thought...
The strokes gained putting (SGP) statistic tells us how skilled a golfer is at putting.
The formula for strokes gained putting (SGP) is:
SGP = Avg. Expected Strokes - Actual Strokes
Where "Avg. Expected Strokes" is a "benchmark" calculated from hundreds of thousands of putts from the tour's ShotLink system which gives an estimate of how likely a golfer is to make a putt of a certain distance.
Yes, I recommend Arccos for tracking your strokes gained statistics.
Conventional wisdom says that putting is the most important part of the game.
But according to the research done by Mark Broadie in Every Shot Counts, strokes gained data tell a different story.
What if I told you...
- On average, great putting only contributes ~35% to tour victories, while the long game contributes the remaining 65%
- On average, the best golfers in the world only gain ~15% of their advantage through putting
- The long game explains the majority of the difference between pros and amateurs, NOT putting
And to blow your mind even further, here's real data from Broadie's analysis showing the likelihood of amateurs and pros making different length putts:
|Avg. Putts (Pro)
|Avg. Putts (90s golfer)
As expected, pros putt better than 90s golfers.
But did you expect such a small margin?
In reality, the pros gain most of their strokes on amateurs with their long games, NOT their putters. You are better at putting than you think.
And now that your mind is spinning with questions, let's jump in and learn more about this elusive statistic.
Strokes gained putting is a measure of relative putting performance and is one of several strokes gained statistics tracked by the ShotLink system on Tour. You can find the official statistics on the PGA Tour website. Amateur golfers can track this through systems like Arccos as I'll explain later in this post.
In the screenshot above, you can see that during the 2023 season, Maverick McNealy led the tour in strokes gained putting. On average, McNealy gained 0.956 strokes on the field per round, and during the 2023 season, gained 46.822 strokes on the field over all his rounds.
While the official stat measures strokes gained putting by round, we can measure it in many different ways. Given the right data, we could measure strokes gained putting:
- For a single golf hole
- For a round of golf
- For a full golf tournament
- For an entire golf career
- Between two golf courses
- Between two golf tournaments
In other words, we could say that Rory Mcilroy "gained 2.2 strokes on the field during the Players Championship".
We could also say, "Over his career, Rory Mcilroy has lost 0.2 strokes against his peers on the putting green"
Or even, "Pebble Beach's greens are 0.3 strokes harder to putt on than Bethpage Black's greens".
I know, I know, this is confusing! Let's take a look at some examples to better understand the elusive strokes gained putting metric.
Putts-per-round is a traditional golf statistic that simply measures how many total putts a golfer takes in a round of golf.
The PGA Tour average for this statistic generally hovers around ~29 putts per round, and most amateurs take 32-40 putts per round.
This statistic is great for a simple measure of putting performance, but has many limitations:
- It doesn't factor in course conditions and difficulty
- It is heavily influenced by your performance in other parts of your game (i.e. if you chip it close a lot, your putts per round will be low)
That's why strokes gained putting is a much more objective and overall better method of assessing the overall putting performance of a golfer.
Calculating strokes gained putting is simpler than you think! At its core, this metric revolves around comparing a player's performance on the putting green to a statistical standard, typically derived from data collected on professional tours like the PGA Tour. It's a great way to objectively assess putting prowess.
The basic formula for strokes gained putting is:
Strokes Gained Putting = Expected # putts (benchmark) - Putts Taken
For example, if the baseline expectation for a 10-foot putt is 1.6 strokes (meaning players typically make the putt 40% of the time), and a player makes the putt in 1 stroke, their strokes gained putting for that shot would be:
Strokes Gained Putting = 1.6 - 1 = 0.6
Making a 10-footer gains 0.6 strokes.
If the player had missed this putt, the calculation would have been:
Strokes Gained Putting = 1.6 - 2 = -0.4
In other words, making the 10-footer gains the player 0.6 strokes while missing loses them 0.4 strokes.
As with other strokes gained statistics, putting is tracked using the following basic methodology:
- Establish a Baseline: The baseline is the average number of putts a player is expected to take from a specific distance. This data is usually gathered from extensive statistics on professional tours. For instance, if the average pro makes a 10-foot putt 40% of the time, the expected strokes to hole out from that distance is 1.6. If an amateur is calculating strokes gained, they will typically compare to players of similar handicaps (skill levels) through an ecosystem like Arccos.
- Compare Individual Performance: Next, we compare a player's performance to this baseline. If I sink that 10-foot putt, I've taken one stroke. Since the baseline is 1.6 strokes, I've gained 0.6 strokes on this putt against the average.
- Aggregate Data Over Rounds: This process is repeated for every putt in a round, and the values are aggregated. Positive values indicate better-than-average putting, while negative values suggest there's room for improvement.
- Adjustments: Sometimes, adjustments are made for factors like green speed and undulation, ensuring a fair comparison across different courses and tournaments.
For our baseline, let's assume that on the PGA Tour, here are the average probabilities of making putts at various distances:
In other words, if we have a 10-foot putt, we can say that on average, a tour pro is expected to take 1.61 putts from this distance, or in other words, has a 40% chance of making it.
Now, let's say that we're trying to calculate strokes gained putting for Dustin Johnson. Let's say that below are his first 3 holes of putts at a tournament:
|Tour Avg. Putts
In his first 3 holes, based on first-putt distances and tour averages from those distances, you can see which putts Dustin gained strokes and lost strokes on.
For example, he made a great 20-foot putt on hole 2, which gained him 0.87 strokes on the field, while missing his first putt from 10 feet lost him 0.39 strokes on the field.
Now that we have a table of putts, we can aggregate these. In the example above, if we add up the total strokes gained in the last column, we get a value of 0.4. This means that against a group of tour pros, Dustin gained 0.4 strokes on "the field" during his first 3 holes of putting.
You could continue this exercise through the entire round to see how Dustin putted compared to tour averages.
Additionally, you could compare this value to other rounds that Dustin played.
For example, we could get super granular and calculate how well Dustin Johnson putts on his first 3 holes of a tournament:
|Strokes Gained (first 3 holes)
By aggregating the strokes gained data for Dustin's first 3 holes each round of a tournament, we can conclude that he putts really well compared to the field on his first 3 holes! More specifically, in his first 3 holes of this particular fictional tournament, on average, he gained 0.24 strokes on the field.
Let's assume that during this round of golf, Dustin Johnson was playing at Pebble Beach, which has small and fast greens that are notoriously hard to putt on.
Let's say we wanted to compare his first-round putting performance at Pebble Beach with his first-round putting performance at the Valero Texas Open.
The Valero Texas Open is played at TPC San Antonio, which has much easier greens. It's not a fair comparison!
In order to normalize the statistics on the PGA Tour to adjust for the difficulty of the course, they calculate strokes gained normally and then make a "difficulty adjustment".
For example, let's say that over hundreds of rounds, the PGA Tour has calculated that on average, tour pros lose 0.77 strokes vs. the standard benchmarks when playing Pebble Beach, and gain 0.35 strokes while playing at TPC San Antonio:
|Avg. Strokes Gained Putting
|TPC San Antonio
Let's consider the following scenario:
- Jordan Spieth plays Pebble Beach and has a strokes gained value of -0.60 (he lost 0.6 strokes against the tour benchmark for the round)
- Dustin Johnson plays TPC San Antonio and has a strokes gained value of +0.33 (he gained 0.33 strokes against the tour benchmark)
You might look at these performances and say, "Dustin is a better putter than Jordan".
But this is wrong!
The PGA Tour reports a modified version of strokes gained putting called strokes gained putting to the field.
This stat adjusts the SGP stat based on the course difficulty. In this case, we can adjust each player's round stat:
- SGP (Jordan Spieth @ Pebble) = -1 * (0.6 - 0.77) = 0.17
- SGP (DJ @ TPC San Antonio) = 0.33 - 0.35 = -0.02
Even though Jordan lost strokes against the overall tour benchmark, the course difficulty adjustment made it so his actual strokes gained value for the round was a positive 0.17 strokes. Likewise, Dustin gained strokes against the tour benchmark, but in reality, since he played an easier golf course, he lost 0.02 strokes.
While not perfect, this is an objective way to say, "Jordan putted better than Dustin during this round".
At the time of writing, the golf industry has come a long way with consumer-grade technology. With the proliferation of shot trackers and personal launch monitors, it has become easier for amateur golfers to assess their games with real on-course data.
That said, tracking strokes gained putting statistics still proves difficult for many golfers.
Because as we talked about earlier, strokes gained calculations require benchmark data.
This means that for a 15-handicap golfer to assess their game with strokes gained putting data, all of the following things must be tracked:
- Every putt (and distance of the putt) must be tracked
- Thousands of golfers who play to a 15 handicap must also track their putts (mass tracking technology)
- All this data must be aggregated in one spot (ecosystem)
For the PGA Tour, this is easy. ShotLink tracks every golf shot from every tournament for every tour pro automatically.
For us amateurs, we don't have this luxury (and frankly, most of us probably don't want all of our shots tracked!)
There are a few options though and I'm excited to see how this evolves in the next decade!
In my opinion, automatic strokes gained tracking is the best option. Tracking every shot for every round you play is exhausting and most golfers do not have the discipline to keep this up over a long enough period for it to start helping their games.
At the time of writing, here are a few shot trackers that also have strokes gained statistics built-in to their ecosystems:
- Arccos Shot Trackers: The Arccos system has strokes gained calculations available to users (via the app) and thanks to all the amateur data they have collected, you can compare your rounds against golfers of similar skill levels. This is a huge benefit and allows for the most accurate strokes gained data.
- ShotScope Trackers: A close second to Arccos, ShotScope offers shot trackers and an app that calculates strokes gained data. From what I've seen, ShotScope does not have quite as many data points as Arccos, but is a great alternative.
Several apps allow you to track all of your shots manually and then review strokes gained data within the dashboard. While this can be cumbersome and exhausting to some golfers, it is a great option if you are highly disciplined and dedicated to improving your golf game.
Here are a few to check out:
- My Round Pro
- PinPoint Golf
- Decade Golf: This is more of a system than an app. While it does have an app, this is a premium service you pay for to help learn better golf strategy based on strokes gained data.
- Excel Spreadsheet: Yep, you heard me! Track your putts and distances while on the course and then upload them to a basic spreadsheet. While this approach is not easy when tracking all of your shots, it is very doable for tracking putts only.
At this point, you might be thinking—"Zach, we've talked a lot about putting, but what about the rest of my game?"
And you would be correct.
- Strokes gained putting (this article)
- Strokes gained around the green
- Strokes gained approach
- Strokes gained off the tee (driving)
As with any golf statistic, getting real data to measure your game can be invaluable because it tells you what to practice.
While I'd be confident in saying that most amateurs would benefit tremendously from practicing putting, I could even more confidently point at strokes gained statistics and prove that in the long run, practicing long game is the best way to consistently improve an amateur's golf score.
To put all this in action, I have a challenge for your next round. Next time you play:
- Write down every putt you take (from on the green)
- Distance of putt
- Did you make it?
- When you get home, add these stats to an Excel spreadsheet
- Keep doing this for 2-3 rounds
- After 2-3 rounds, calculate your averages at various putt lengths
By doing this simple exercise, you have built yourself a database of strokes gained putting data to compare yourself against for future rounds!