If you are a golf aficionado – and if you are reading this, there is a good chance you are -- you have probably read an article or a hundred blaming Tiger Woods' putting for his major woes.
The numbers from 2013 tell a different story, however: They point to a putter-initiated cover-up.
Being that you are a golf aficionado you surely know that Tiger has won four times on the PGA Tour in 2013. You may also know that he leads the Tour in scoring average. All of this would suggest that he is playing some rather good golf. And to a point that is correct – he has won those four times after all – but the way he is winning (and the reason for it) is in fact his putter.
For the year, Tiger is ranked fourth in strokes gained putting (by far the best putting stat on the market). This has allowed him to cover up the fact that he's not hitting as many greens or fringes in regulation as he normally does, and when he misses he's not making saving par easy on himself. All of this means that Tiger is, in fact, making it rather difficult on himself to score, especially as compared to how he has typically performed.
A look into the numbers from 2004-13 tells the story. (All numbers exclude 2008, '10 and '11, when Tiger did not have enough rounds to qualify for the pursuant statistics.)
Luckily for stats geeks like myself, the PGA Tour keeps a whole host of interesting stats on its website, going back years. One of those stats is greens or fringes in regulation. This year Tiger is 58th on Tour in greens and fringes in regulation at 71 percent. In years he has had enough rounds to qualify dating back to 2004, this is by far his worst ranking. He led the Tour in this category last year, as well in 2006 and '07 (23rd in 2009, 13th in 2005, 14th in 2004).
In practical terms, what does that tell us?
If you hit the green or fringe in regulation, then you are probably putting, and, given that pros generally two-putt far more often than not (even Tiger), if you hit the green or fringe in regulation you are probably going to make par at the worst. And your expected score is slightly under par.
In 2013, Tiger is hitting about 51 greens or fringes in regulation in a 72-hole tournament, meaning that he's making it easy on himself to score par or better 51 times, and 21 times per tournament he has to get up and down for par.
In contrast, last year Woods was hitting 54 greens or fringes per tournament, so he only had to get up and down 18 times.
In 2006, he hit a ridiculous 82 percent of his greens and fringes in regulation, which translated into 58.8 greens and fringes per tournament, leaving just 13.5 up and downs per 72 holes.
Alright, so the data shows that Tiger is hitting fewer greens and fringes in regulation this year than in years past, but what happens when he misses? Is he hitting his chips, pitches and bunker shots close? Or is he leaving himself lengthy par putts? If you have read this far you will probably not be shocked to learn it is the latter.
In 2013, Tiger's average putt for par when he misses the green in regulation is 10 feet; that ties him for 186th on tour. In fact, there is only one player worse: Martin Kaymer. Going back to 2004, this is by far the worst Tiger has ever been in this area. His best year in this stat was 2009, when he left himself only an average of 6 feet 6 inches for par. His previous worst season was in 2007 when he left himself 9 feet, ranking 117th. Over this decade-long stretch, Tiger has, on average, left himself par putts of 7 feet 10 inches.
To sum it up: In 2013 Tiger is missing more greens/fringes than he has in the past when he has played well, and his par putts are longer than they have ever been.
What does that mean in terms of how easy it is for him to score? The numbers are rather stark:
- From a distance of 10 feet, PGA Tour players make the putt about 40 percent of the time
- From a distance of 7 feet 10 inches (Tiger's average), they make 50 percent of their putts
- And from 6 feet 6 inches (Tiger's best), they make a little over 55 percent of their putts
So, in 2013 an average player on Tour will miss the10 foot par putt that Tiger is leaving himself 60 percent of the time, meaning bogey or worse 60 percent of the time. Since Tiger misses 20.7 greens per tournament, that means that unless he putts better than usual he is looking at making 12.5 bogeys per 72-hole tournament.
Compare that to 2012. Tiger was hitting more greens, and when he missed he was hitting it closer. He was only looking at making nine bogeys per tournament. He was a full 3.5 shots better.
In his best year, 2006, he was only looking at making 6.7 bogeys per tournament, even if all he did was putt average. That is nearly six shots per tournament better than he has been in 2013.
Basically, Tiger's poor (for him) approach shots and abysmal play when he misses a green in regulation, are making scoring difficult. In 2013 he has to work to save par more often than he ever has in the past, and his par putts are longer than they have ever been. That places more pressure on the putter than in the past and makes it tougher for him to score. Tiger isn't winning in spite of his putter, he's winning because of it. But if he wants to regain the consistency that he has had in the past, his ball striking and short game need to return to their previous levels.
Otherwise expect to see Tiger giving many more frustrated interviews at the end of tournaments. Just keep in mind, it's not the putting.