Misinterpreting Strokes Gained: Putting does indeed win tournaments.

May 16, 2019- by Steven E. Greer, MD

I so disagree with the conclusions being drawn from the Strokes Gained movement based on the Mark Broadie book Every Shot Counts. The author has been convincing people that distance off the tee, even if the drives are wayward, matters more than the short game. He thinks that it is a myth to believe one “drives for show and putts for dough”

I disagree. Putting wins tournaments. Period.

Tiger and Brooks played in the same pairing today. Brooks shot a course record -7. Tiger was +2.

Tiger had 31 putts (well above PGA average of 28). Brooks had 25 (well below the average). Brooks was making long putts. The stats were not flukes due to close approach shots.

Brooks beat Tiger by six-strokes in putting. He beat the field by several shots due to putting.

In medicine, there is a movement to practice “personalized” medicine based on all of the unique differences in patients. Prior to this, it was thought to be smart to use the outcome of a few big studies, as if they were the bible, and extrapolate to the entire population. A similar mistake is what I see happening with strokes gained.

The strokes gained stats are broad brushstroke concepts. They are useful if applied properly (e.g. such as, “driving far is important even if one misses the fairway”, or “seven-foot putts are important to practice”). However, they do not apply to specific scenarios, like a major championship on Sunday.

By the way, how many people can really explain the real-life meaning of strokes gained from the tee, for example. It is poorly defined, uses predictive modeling, and somewhat arbitrary. It is basically a meaningless number. As scientists and engineers say, it is “junk in, junk out” (see footnote) (In contrast, strokes gained putting is a bit more meaningful, well defined, and not calculated from predictive estimates).

I know of what I speak. As a Wall Street analyst focusing on drug and device stocks, I had to learn to forensically analyze statistics. I see smart MD’s misinterpreting medical trial data all the time. In sports, the athletes are extremely vulnerable to some Wizard of Oz false guru pushing a theory.

Ironically, Brooks Koepka and Dustin Johnson exemplify best how driving distance matters more than putting, according to those who misinterpret strokes gained. But yet it is their putting that is allowing them to win.

If distance off the tee were the key factor, then Brooks Koepka today, or Tiger at Augusta in April, or Nicklaus at Augusta in 1986, would have been tapping in 3-footers to win because their big hitting resulted in close approach shots. But no. They all made huge putts to score well, and did so several times per round. Also, look at the demise of Jordan Spieth as his putting magic left him.

While it is true that aspects of the game other than putting can lead to dominance (such as Tiger’s awesome approach shot superiority), putting (and chipping) is the most common skill that allows one player to rise above the rest of the field. It is not foolish to believe that, “One putts for dough”

Footnote: “Strokes Gained 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.” But there are numerous variables that are not accounted for after the tee shot, making this a silly stat.

Update June 16, 2019- Brooks one-putted the first five holes on Sunday at the US Open to almost win.

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