In case you missed it, Rory McIlroy had a career day last Saturday at Quail Hollow. He did it not only with his ball striking, but with a great putting day for a guy that is typically an average putter at best.
— Mark Broadie (@MarkBroadie) May 17, 2015
As Rory begins to show his dominance, the debate has begun on who would be more dominant in their prime… TIger (a la 2000) or Rory today. The two did it differently. Rory is a tremendous driver of the golf ball. Not only is he long, but he is exceptionally accurate when he is on. While Tiger was certainly long relative to the field, I don’t remember him ever being the straightest driver of the golf ball. However, Tiger was much more consistent with the flatstick than Rory is. Both are great iron players.
So which is more important? Ball striking? Or putting? The simple answer is both. You need to do both well to do what Rory did last weekend, which is shoot 61 with 11 birdies and no bogies. You need to strike the ball well to put yourself in position for birdies and similarly if you don’t finish off with a great putt, the iron shot is useless. Rory gained 4.84 strokes on the field with the putter and 5.32 strokes on the field from Tee to Green for a total of 10.16 strokes gained on the field last Saturday. Almost a 50/50 split for the strokes he gained between ball striking and putting. You can see these stats here.
This discussion led me into a debate with a buddy about which is more important, ball striking or putting? In Rory’s case, it’s ball striking. Rory is a streaky putter at best and he relies on his ball striking to separate him from the field. Rory is currently ranked 69th in strokes gained putting on the PGA Tour with the bump he received from finishing 21st in strokes gained putting at Quail Hollow. Last week was better than his usual outing, but it is largely skewed because of his performance Saturday. The other days amounted to -1.624 strokes gained. More in line with his typical performance. On the other hand, he was #1 in strokes gained tee to green, gaining an average of 4.2 strokes per day from tee to green. He won the tournament by 7 strokes.
My argument to my buddy is that if I would have putted for Rory on Saturday, he would have still won the tournament. Now I realize that I am making this argument following a horrendous putting display by yours truly on Sunday, so I’ll substitute myself with a typical scratch player using numbers provided by Mark Broadie in Every Shot Counts. It’s about to get nerdy…
The above shows how many strokes it takes the average tour pro, a scratch player, and a 90s shooter to hole out from a single distance. You can see that the gap is just fractions of a stroke from any single distance. The closer the putt, the smaller the gap in strokes needed. For instance, both a tour pro and a 90s shooter are going to make > 83% of their putts from 3 feet. As you get further from the hole, the gap is larger, but you should have less of those putts. For the sake of this analysis, we will be adding up the deltas across all the putting distances encountered over 18 holes.
I took the putting distance of my first putt on each hole for my last 10 rounds for the following calculations. This will allow for some randomization in the lengths and types of putts that were faced. I then calculated the average number of strokes it would take to hole out from that location for the average tour pro, a scratch player, and a 90s shooter. The results are shown in the plot below.
The average difference in putts required between a scratch player and an average tour player performance is < 1 stroke over 18 holes at 0.98! The difference between a 90s shooter and a tour pro is ~3.3 strokes in an 18 hole round due to putting. My point is that the talent gap in putting between a tour player and a weekend warrior is minimal. A low handicap golfer is relatively close to the putting quality of a tour pro over the course of 18 holes. The gap obviously increases with the number of rounds, but over 18 holes it is much less significant.
Back to my debate… If the average scratch golfer would have putted for Rory on Saturday, Rory’s score would have increased by 4.8 +1 = 5.8 total strokes. 4.8 is Rory’s strokes gained over an average tour pro. 1 stroke is gained by a tour pro over a scratch player for a total of 5.8 total strokes. Instead of shooting a 61, Rory would have shot a ~67. Still a phenomenal round. He still would have won the golf tournament, though by a slimmer margin. Similarly, if a 90s shooter would have putted for Rory on Saturday, his 61 would have turned into a ~69! He still has a chance to win on Sunday.
That is a surprising result to me. I would have expected the gap in putting to be bigger. However, putting does not require much physical skill and clubhead speed no longer becomes an issue. I’ve seen plenty of players with much higher handicaps than mine that were phenomenal putters. Of course, this is without the pressure of trying to win a tour event, but the point is still interesting.
On the other hand, if you had the average scratch player hit Rory’s irons or drives, the gap would be tremendous. I have a feeling that 61 would turn into something much worse. It would be a catastrophe if the 90s shooter hit the irons. Even Rory would have trouble breaking 80.
Putting is certainly important, but it is more difficult to separate yourself vs. your peers on a consistent basis with the flatstick. I have never had a round in which I gained more than a stroke on the average tour pro for my irons or driver. However, I have had a round where I gained multiple strokes on the average tour pro in putting. In the GCAT Dallas Championship two years ago I shot 38 on the front 9 and 32 on the back 9 for a score of 70. I had 27 putts, including several bombs and only one putt missed inside 10 feet. I gained over 3 strokes on the average tour pro that day. The talent gap isn’t there for putting. Even I could get on a hot streak with the flatstick and approach what Rory accomplished on Saturday with the putter. That is much more difficult to accomplish with ball striking.
Below is a comparison of my putting performances relative to the average tour pro in terms of # of putts required. It appears I am a streaky putter as well. Mainly streaking when there is no pressure… My putting shows that putting can definitely hurt. My interpretation of the data is that it is very difficult to be significantly better than your peers with putting, especially consistently. Jordan Spieth is the best example I’ve seen recently who has been able to do this somewhat. Putting is a skill that is easier to get to a level of mastery. On the other hand, it is EASY to separate from your peers NEGATIVELY with putting. If you can’t make a pressure putt or start missing short ones, you are throwing away strokes by the the bunches.
So in the end, I think my and my buddy are both right. It is more difficult to separate yourself as elite with putting. Ball striking is more important. However, poor putting will certainly separate you from the pack in the other direction. Rory is proof that you can be the best in the world as an average putter. Name me a player who reached #1 in the world being an average ball striker… It hasn’t happened yet.
Reviewing my strokes gained however, I have been consistent with ball striking and inconsistent with the flatstick. So in the mean time, I’ll be on the putting green.