Putt Probabilities

Like many others, I was incredibly jazzed by Tiger’s victory on Monday.

But I was frustrated that the commentators routinely failed to mention the putting distance to the hole. It would be nice to know, “It looks like Rocco has a 25-foot putt.” But I, for one, would like commentators to go further and routinely give us information about the probable outcome of the next stroke. If the golfer is putting, I want to know the probability that the put will go in.

Analogous information is an old hat in basketball. When Kevin Garnett goes to the free-throw line, we are told what his FT percentage has been this season and in the playoffs (and in this very game).

Putting is not as standardized as shooting a free throw. But it would be useful to know that pros generally only make 60 percent of five puts. At least that’s what’s shown in this article (based on pre 1995 data):

Golf Chart

It shouldn’t be insurmountable to give player-specific probabilities conditional on distance to the hole or even real time predictions that take into account distance, player, and even place on the green. You can double check after the fact that your predictions are unbiased — simply by looking at the times when you predicted a 60 percent make probability and seeing if the ball sank 60 percent of the time.

Real time predictions could also be made about the probability of hitting the fairway on a drive or probability of hitting a green. Letting viewers know the probability that an ordinary pro (or that a particular player) will make a putt doesn’t take the drama out of the game. Just the opposite. They let us know when players make a truly improbable shot or blow what should be a gimme.

For example, I bet few in the viewing public would have been able to formulate a very accurate assessment of the odds that Tiger would have made the last putt on Sunday.

After the fact, it’s too easy to say, like Mediate, “I knew he was going to make it.”

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  1. Gary says:

    While the statistics might shed some light on the probability of a golfer making a putt, ther variability in golf really makes the statistics a poor indicator. A 5 foot putt headed down hill on a fast green that breaks left is much different than a 5 footer at the local mini golf course. Basketball statistics are useful because there’s so little variability from court to court.

    I would be interested to see the data though… it seems one would have a better chance of making a putt on Sunday than they would on Friday, seeing as the golfer would (in theory) have a better feel for the course and the greens.

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  2. Mitch says:

    The data for this is all widely available; the PGA tour sponsors a data collection service called ShotLink that records every single shot a player takes. On putts, the distance to the hole is measured to the inch using a laser system (Notice those green towers behind the greens? They are staffed by volunteers charting each shot).

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  3. jonathan says:

    What they could do is the kind of real-time tracking that MLB offers, where you can see the actual pitch trajectories. They could note each player’s putts and then put that info up: here’s how the putts from this area break, how many have gone in, where they go if they’re short, where they go if they’re long. You could then generate probabilities for each golfer based on his history (and then you could see the hot streaks and bet on them in real-time).

    This info could be made available in more than one form. MLB gives some away but charges for more data. That could then make the webcasts more valuable, especially given the combination of subscription and ad revenue.

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  4. cephyn says:

    Sometimes broadcasts will throw out some stats – you often get information on putting average, driving distance, fairways hit, greens in regulation. but as for putt/distance info – it’s just because every putt is so unique, stats don’t mean much. they WILL however – very often – mention when a player is doing very well or very poorly. I know they mentioned that Rocco hadn’t hit a putt outside of 10 feet.

    but the variability is a problem. maybe a player sinks 77% of his 10 foot putts – but this putt is 10 feet on a slope above the hole. its not very relevant that he hits 77% of his 10 foot putts – it’s really only relevant the % of downhill putts he hits from 10 feet, when the greens have a stimp rating of -whatever this green is-.

    either you have to be very general in the putting statistics, or you have to be so specific as to severely limit your sample size.

    @Gary- the only issue with your theory is that they move hole locations every day. on many greens, that means the look of the putts is VERY different. plus, at the US Open, they even moved tee locations on some holes to further throw the players off their game.

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  5. Jim says:

    The PGA tour now uses Shotlink, a GPS based system, to record every shot hit on the PGA tour including putts. NBC could easily announce Tiger’s 5-10 ft percentage of made putts over the last 3 years if they wanted to.

    Generally, the variability of putts gets worse later in the day as more foot traffic tramples the area near the hole. Its called the “lumpy donut” by Dave Pelz and is why even when using a machine, beyond 6 feet from the hole, the percentage of made putts drops below 50% and dramatically declines.

    Currently, shot link does not record whether the putt is downhill or uphill or left-to-right or right-to-left, so the difficulty of the putt is not measured, but is a significant factor.

    The one stat I would love to see is Tiger’s percentage on those dramatic putts that matter. It seems like he can muster amazing skill at the particular moment. I suspect the data reveals that he is a very good putter all the time, whether on the 4th or 18th hole and the reason it seems like they “matter” so much is because he is in contention so often, not because he has an extra gear. If anything, his consistency shows that his persistence is as significant as his dramatic flair in the moment of truth.

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  6. smperk says:

    Yeah, I’m curious for that data on (what looks like) the 14 ft putts

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  7. Charles D says:

    I would love to see this. Guys always need numbers to talk about sports, it gives us something to do and argue about. They don’t have to be a good predictor since puts can be so different, but it would be a starting point.

    Statistics have come a long way though and I could see golfers really benefiting from it. I’d like to see some specific statistics like they did in the movie Major League.

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  8. Ken D. says:

    I agree with with the post, but there was actually a rare exception on this telecast. An announcer, I think Johnny Miller, referred to a 20 foot putt as being about a one in five chance; it caught my attention because reference to such probabilities is indeed unusual. It was on one of the crucial concluding holes, but I am not sure which one.

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