Drive for show, putt for dough is one of the most common golf sayings. Its meaning is quite simple. The idea is that although hitting driver off the tee is something people will see you doing and bombing a long drive certainly looks good and feels good, we really make or break our score on the green. This is where a pro earns his paycheck. However, well you drive, you can’t putt badly and expect to score well.
This is often bandied about as advice for the average golfer too. Handicap too high? Better practice your putting. In fact, this sort of stuff is said so often that I wonder if we really think about the truth of it at all. When we look at the stats, is putting really the bottom line in good golf?
Time to Practice the Long Game
Until recently, this would have been quite hard to say. The most common reason given for the importance of putting is simply the number of shots we take on the green compared to the rest of the game. If you two putt every green, that is 36 putts. Playing level par means that it is 50 percent of your strokes, give or take. Shooting 90 still makes it around 40 percent. Seems pretty damn important, doesn’t it?
Hold on a second. Without saying that it doesn’t matter, we now have a lot more statistical information to help us get a better picture ow what really makes a difference in terms of scoring. This information comes essentially from the strokes gained statistics compiled from Mark Broadie’s research. Essentially, what this does is compare a golfer’s performance to other golfers as a group.
An easy way to understand this is with an example. We can compare a PGA tour golfer’s round with the rest of the field. If he shoots 70 compared to an average score by the rest of the field of 72, he has gained 2 strokes on the field. However, strokes gained can be far more detailed than this basic example. It can also compare particular shots.
A PGA Strokes Gained Example
The the easiest way to see this is with another example from the PGA Tour site:
Tee shot: TPC Sawgrass’ 18th hole is a 446-yard, par-4. The PGA TOUR’s scoring average, or baseline, on a par-4 of that length is 4.100. Fowler hit his tee shot on No. 18 in the fairway, 116 yards from the hole. The TOUR scoring average from the fairway, 116 yards from the hole, is 2.825. He gained 0.275 strokes on his tee shot. Here’s how:
Baseline for tee – Baseline for second shot – 1 = strokes gained: off-the-tee
4.100 – 2.825 = 1.275 – 1 = +0.275
One is subtracted from the difference between the two baselines to account for the shot that Fowler hit.
This is where life gets interesting and where we can really dig into the stats. The PGA tour will also give us information on golfers about their strokes gained tee to green and their strokes gained putting. Let’s look at example from the top of the leader board recently.
The top ranked golfer in the 2022 tour Championship was Rory Mcilroy. He has statistics over 60 rounds of golf as I am typing this. He is averaging just over two shots better than the field over each of these rounds and it is therefore unsurprising that he is sitting at the top of the leader board. He has almost 110 strokes gained in total. What is interesting is that over 84 of these are from tee to green (driving and irons, essentially) and only 25 on the greens. If putting really were key, surely this should be the other way around?
In fact, you have to go down to the 24th place (Tyrell Hatton) to find a golfer who is gaining more strokes on the green compared to the rest. Putt for dough, anyone?
I will admit that these stats don’t tell the whole story. Tee to green involves shots from the fairway, not just hitting driver off the tee. However, it certainly doesn’t paint the traditional picture of putting being far more important than the rest. There are in fact several golfers near the top of the rankings who are losing shots to the rest of the field on the greens and are still performing better than most overall!
Do Strokes Gained Apply to Average Golfers?
The other area which might be open to discussion is the fact that these stats are from professional golfers, not the average hacker. In fact, we can now compare ourselves to the rest of the golfing population too and you might be surprised to learn that improved driving, especially in terms of distance, might be one of the best ways to better scores, certainly before hours spent on the practice greens. Amateurs can use something like the strokes gained app to improve and see how various aspects of their game really stack up rather than just listen to ‘better work on your short game.’
Given my sometimes woeful putting, you might think I am looking for a reason to show how unimportant it really is. This isn’t the case at all. Bad putting costs shots. It certainly costs me shots! However, I think that too many golfers spend hours on the practice green without seeing a huge improvement in score. Improving putting will certainly make you a better golfer. Adding 30 yards to your drives will undoubtedly make you better, faster.
This doesn’t mean that putting and the short game in general is suddenly become unimportant. We all know golfers who aren’t that long but can put a score together by holing more than their fair share of putts and getting up and down from anywhere. The opposite is also true and I have lost count of the times I have scored not badly but certainly not great whilst bombing it off the tee. Never getting up and down and taking over 36 putts a round will put a dent in anyone’s scorecard!
This doesn’t prove the importance of short game and putting though. In fact, it is almost the opposite. My long game was saving my round. For the short game wizards, getting better off the tee would really make a difference. Having to get up and down and sink putts all the time is actually a hard way to play golf.
Controlled Distance is Still Important
Of course, bombing it and never finding the ball again isn’t going to help anyone. Hitting into a green from the rough 80 yards out is statistically better than from the fairway at 150. Both are considerably worse than chipping out from the trees two fairways across, however far down you might be!
So the takeaway here might really be about how to best spend your time getting better at golf. Personally, I don’t practice putting and chipping very much at all currently. This isn’t because I believe it is useless, simply I don’t have a lot of free time for practice. I will roll a few putts on a putting mat now and again and chip a few balls in the garden, but this isn’t making a measurable difference.
If your practice time is counted (and in honesty, whose isn’t?) maybe spending all your time in the short game area isn’t actually the best thing to be doing. Of course, if this is what you enjoy, than carry on, golf should be about enjoyment. However, if you are doing this because you think it is making you better in the most efficient possible way, it is perhaps time to change and work on ways to get better off the tee.