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Original Issue

Perils of Putting

Duffers, take heart. A new study by the PGA Tour reveals that when it comes to putting, the pros aren't so hot either

Joe Pro has a six-foot putt on the final hole to win the Pizza Time Soy Extender Classic. He's nervous, but for the last four days he has regularly made crucial putts just like this one. He sees the line clearly, and the hole looks bigger than its actual 4¼-inch diameter. His last thought before impact is, Smooth and solid.

He misses.

Should Joe consider himself:

a. A spineless choker?
b. Cursed forever with bad luck?
c. Just an average Joe Pro?

The correct answer is c, but not simply so Joe can retain the will to live. According to a new study, PGA Tour players make only 54.8% of their six-foot putts. That's all.

In other words, from a body length away the best players in the world have about the same chance of getting the ball in the hole as a tossed coin has of coming up heads.

If you're a golfer, you are probably surprised. Don't pros routinely drain 10-and 15-foot putts and don't they almost never miss from shorter distances? Don't golf's masters tell you that a six-footer is virtually automatic for a good player?

Then again, as a golfer, you are a member of a subculture plagued with unrealistic expectations, particularly about putting. That's one reason for the PGA Tour's putting study, which was designed to provide golfers with a true standard against which to measure themselves. The study was underwritten by SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, but the magazine had no involvement in the way the study was organized or in the gathering of the data. At each of 15 tournaments during the latter half of 1988, a Tour field staff chose one green with a smooth and relatively flat surface on each course. Then, for the four days of competition, every putt was measured (using the triangulation method to estimate the distance, to the nearest foot, from ball to hole) and recorded. The statisticians also compiled figures for the number of birdie putts made and missed, par putts made and missed, and the total number of putts taken.

Altogether they measured 11.060 putts. For statistical purposes. 2,593 tap-ins of a foot and a half or less were eliminated from the study. And the number of putts from distances longer than 25 feet was too small to provide accurate conclusions. But for distances from two to 25 feet, at least 118 putts were hit at each one-foot interval, giving the statisticians sufficient data to work with. According to the study, the pros made:

•four out of five putts (or 83.1%) from three feet.

•a little better than half of their putts (54.8%) from six feet.

•one out of three (33.5%) from 10 feet.

•one out of six (16.8%) from 15 feet.

•one out of 10 (10.2%) from 25 feet.

Curiously, when putting from the same distances, the pros were consistently more successful at making putts for pars than putts for birdies.

Similar studies have been done over the years. The USGA measured putting from specific distances at the 1963, 1964 and 1988 U.S. Opens. In 1977, Dr. Clyne Soley, a research chemist from San Jose, published How Well Should You Putt?, a book based on data compiled from the performances of some of the top players in competition. And teaching pro and golf researcher Dave Pelz did his own study of putting in the late 1970s. The results of those studies closely match the recent PGA Tour statistics.

The Tour's staff has confidence in its findings, in part because the percentages it came up with halfway through the survey were essentially the same as those it finished with. Says Steve Evans, a Tour computer programmer who crunched the numbers for the study. "I don't think that the numbers would change measurably if we had done 50 tournaments."

Until now the Tour's putting statistics were far from definitive. When the Tour ranked players according to who had the fewest total putts per round, the criteria favored those who hit the fewest greens in regulation and thus usually had fewer long putts. Two years ago. the Tour changed the criteria to "average number of putts on greens hit in regulation," but this favored the bolder tee-to-green players, whose approaches tended to either nestle close to the flag or miss the green altogether. Neither method meant much to the players.

The pros were eager to see the results of last year's study, to find out their collective batting average, so to speak. "This is interesting," mused Curtis Strange, the 1988 U.S. Open champion and leading money-winner last year with more than $1 million, as he looked over the stats. "How good are we?"

Not as good as they thought they were. When 20 pros were recently asked what the Tour average would be for a six-footer, the proverbial make-or-break putt, nearly all erred on the high side.

Most of the players guessed that at least 70% of their six-footers would drop. Tour rookie Billy Mayfair, a former U.S. Amateur champion and a very good putter, thought the success average was above 80% and his own average "around 91 or 92 percent." Ah. youth. Veteran Dave Barr. who was more typical, said. "If you aren't making at least 85 percent of your six-footers, you aren't making any money." Told the actual average was 54.8%, Barr said, "I don't believe that."

The only player who guessed lower than the Tour average was the acknowledged best putter among the pros, Ben Crenshaw. "I would guess between 35 and 40 percent," he said, and added, not immodestly. "For me. about 50 percent." Crenshaw did not claim special insight, but his lower expectations might be instructive. The man his peers say holes more 15-footers than anyone else takes a no-lose approach to such putts. "For me. a 15-footer is like a freebie." Crenshaw said. "I just put a good stroke on it, and if it goes in, that's a bonus. You can't expect to make those."

One man who wasn't surprised by the figures was Pelz, who has made a career of studying putting and who works closely with 15 Tour players on their short games. "These figures blow people's minds," says Pelz, a former NASA research scientist. "In golf, there is a huge disparity between perception and reality."

Pelz has determined that no matter how perfect your stroke and how good your mental attitude, putting a golf ball into a 4¼-inch hole is a difficult endeavor. "There's a lot of serendipity in the game, especially in putting," he says. "Anytime the ball is rolling along the ground, even on what appear to be near perfect greens, it can do something unpredictable."

Pelz once built a putting machine he called the Tru-Roller, which produced putts that rolled in the perfect direction every time and could also be set to roll the balls at the perfect speed. When the machine hit several putts from the same spot 12 feet from the hole, it wore a path to the hole and almost never missed. But when the path was brushed away after each putt, even the Tru-Roller could sink the putt only about 70% of the time. When the variables and uncertainties of grain, slope, speed, wind and spike marks are taken into account, 54.8% from six feet isn't bad.

As a player's handicap increases, the percentage of putts he makes generally decreases. Among amateurs, only those with single-digit handicaps made more than 46% of their six-footers, according to Soley's study. "You must not despair if you miss from 10 feet." says Soley. "You could hit it exactly right and still not have it drop."

"There's a myth that says 10-year-old kids with uncluttered minds make the best putters." says Pelz. "But that's simply not the case. Putting takes athletic ability, the kind that is manifested in great eye-hand coordination, precision and touch. And it takes great mental discipline. Putting is hard."

It is also, as everyone knows, crucial. So much rides on putting, it is understandable that pros think they are better than they are. It's a simple calculation: A professional will use his putter an average of 30 times a round, which translates to 43% of the game.

Mechanics and technique play important roles in putting. But they alone do not make a good putter. "A lot of guys with great strokes aren't great putters because they've never had the nerve to be," says Tom Weiskopf.

It is axiomatic that good putters have a strong mental attitude. Of the players who have won two major championships, few have hit the ball as unimpressively as Dave Stockton, the 1970 and 1976 PGA champion. But few players have been as relentlessly positive on the greens as Stockton, who once said. "I think I deserve to get the ball in the hole every time I stand over a putt."

Mac O'Grady, one of the finest ball strikers in the game today, is Stockton's opposite when it comes to putting. O'Grady has been so bedeviled by the short stick that he says he will retire from competition after this season. "Putting is driving me out of the game." he says. "It's just become too painful. You can do everything perfectly, and the ball still won't go in the hole. When I putt, my emotions collide like tectonic plates. It's left my memory circuits full of scars that won't heal."

Thought processes like Stockton's win championships, and those like O'Grady's don't. Which brings us to the most intriguing part of the PGA study. At all distances from two feet to 34 feet (except, inexplicably, from 18 feet), the success rate on putts for pars was higher than on putts for birdies; in some cases, dramatically higher. At five feet, it was 25% higher; at 11 feet, nearly 17.5%; and at 21 feet, more than 21%.

This set off a debate. "There shouldn't be any difference," says Tom Kite, this year's leading money-winner and one of the best putters on the Tour. "I know I don't approach a par putt any differently than a birdie putt."

George Archer, who holds the record for fewest putts in a 72-hole event (94, at the 1980 Sea Pines Heritage Classic), agrees. "I try real hard to approach each putt the same way," says Archer. "Each putt is just another stroke. Actually, the most difficult putt is the one for triple bogey, because by then you've lost your composure."

Others suggest physical reasons for the discrepancy. Soley points out two possible factors. First, many par putts are second putts, where the player has had a chance to observe how his ball reacts on the green. Particularly if his first putt went past the hole, the player has a good idea of the break coming back. Second, when a good player has missed the green and is chipping, he is likely to try and place his ball on the side of the hole where he gets the most advantageous putt. This is borne out by the statistics gathered in the U.S. Opens. According to Dean Knuth. director of handicapping for the USGA, the success rate on those greens with a severe slope is 50% higher putting uphill than downhill, and the players take pains to leave their shots from off the greens below the hole.

But those points don't explain everything. Remember, the Tour staff deliberately selected relatively flat greens for its study. And Pelz contends that the easiest putt, on a relatively smooth green that is not as fast as a U.S. Open green, is slightly downhill, rather than uphill. Although Soley's point about putts after greenside chips would seem to account in part for the greater success rate on relatively short par putts, in the Tour study par putts were made with more frequency on putts that were longer than those commonly left after greenside shots.

No, something psychological is going on here. It's interesting that while most of those players questioned had little idea of how often they actually made six-footers, almost all the golfers guessed correctly that they generally putt better for par than for birdie. It's often said that two things that don't last are dogs that chase cars and pros who putt for pars, but the pros seem to intensify their focus when they are trying to avoid the dreaded bogey.

"Survival," says CBS commentator and 1964 U.S. Open champion Ken Venturi, in a one-word explanation. "It's the urgency factor," says journeyman pro David Ogrin. "It's amazing how well guys putt out here when they have to. Yes, you have to make birdies, but you really have to make par."

Ogrin says many players fall into the trap of being comfortable with pars, which makes them less aggressive on birdie putts. "Urgency is good, comfort zone is bad," he says. "I think the average touring pro starts getting into his comfort zone when he gets four under par. Then the urgency to make putts lessens, and he makes fewer."

Pelz theorizes that birdie putts may be harder to make because of the extra responsibility they entail. "Making the birdie putts means you are taking on one of the toughest things in society," he says, "the pressure of success. A lot of people are not prepared to handle that, and they unconsciously back off. If every putt the PGA Tour had measured had been to win the U.S. Open, my guess is the percentages might be down another 10% or 20%."

True champions, of course, want success. Says Strange, "I think my ratio on putts to win the tournament on the last hole on Sunday would be better than what I average on Thursday morning. When I'm in a position to win, my concentration is better. My desire is higher. Everything is tuned in."

It is a good bet Strange is right about himself. But the putting percentages in the survey probably go out the window in certain situations.

"Sometimes you just know when a player is going to make a putt," says touring pro and television commentator Gary McCord. "If Mark Calcavecchia [one of the Tour's best putters] has just made a 20-footer to tie for the lead, and now he's standing over a six-footer to take the lead outright, I guarantee you the odds just went from 50 percent to about 100 percent."

Even if you believe there are lies, damn lies and statistics, the findings of the putting survey are provocative. After all, putting is the biggest imponderable in a maddeningly mysterious game and needs all the enlightenment that can be provided.

"This PGA study is a dose of truth, and that's always good," says Pelz. "If nothing else, it might get people to stop wanting to cut their throats every time they miss a putt."