This week, the PGA Tour unveiled its long-awaited new putting statistic "Strokes Gained -- Putting." The rumor mill had been spinning regarding this new metric for some time, and stat geeks like us at Numbers Game have been excited about it since the concept was introduced.
Trivia questionWhich player has five of the nine lowest "putts gained" totals by a tournament winner since 2004? (Answer below.)
Traditional PGA Tour putting statistics have always had an inherent bias by not giving completely accurate reflections of players' performances on the greens and how they directly impact their scores.
For example, let's look at putts per round. This basic stat tells you how many putts a player averages per round they complete on the PGA Tour. The problem with this stat: If you miss the green with your approach shot and chip the ball close to the pin, your putts per round number will be better. Not exactly an accurate reflection of how your putting stroke is impacting your overall score.
How about putts per green in regulation? The issue here is that eliminates a large number of putting opportunities in a player's round and will favor a player who is more accurate with shots approaching the green. Because the success of a prior shot makes a difference in how the putting stat is calculated, it's not a true measurement of putting performance.
Then there's the stat "total distance of putts made." This stat is hugely influenced by making a very long putt, which is almost always an aberration in a round. Any golfer will tell you that whether or not that 40-foot bomb drops in the hole or stops three inches short is largely a product of luck. Less than 6 percent of putts outside 25 feet are made on tour.
So how is this new statistic better? An attempt at explaining:
The average number of putts a player is expected to take has been calculated from every distance (by inch). This is based on the oceans of data that the PGA Tour's ShotLink technology has accumulated from the previous season. The actual number of putts taken by a player are subtracted from the average value to determine strokes gained or strokes lost on the green.
Let's use the example the PGA Tour has provided in its explanation. The average number of putts used to hole out from 7 feet, 10 inches is 1.50. If a player 1-putts from that distance, he gains 0.5 strokes (so, 1.5 -- 1). If he 2-putts, he loses 0.5 strokes (1.5 -- 2). If he 3-putts, he loses 1.5 strokes (1.5 -- 3).
Then, for the final statistic, a player's strokes gained or lost putting is compared to the field. If a player gained a total of 3.5 strokes over the course of a round, while the field gained just a half-stroke, the player's strokes gained against the field would be 3.0.
So who leads the tour in this putting strokes gained in 2011? John Merrick is 57th in putts per round this year (28.75) and is 177th in one-putt percentage (27.08). However, his strokes gained per round -- 1.046 -- lead the PGA Tour so far.
Merrick's position is a testament to this new system. Stats like putts per round and one-putt percentage are directly impacted by a player's approach shots. Merrick is in the bottom 20 on tour in fairway proximity -- the average distance a player has to the hole after hitting an approach shot from the fairway. Meanwhile, he's is second on tour in putting percentage inside 10 feet (90.50).
So what does this mean? Whereas the other aspects of John Merrick's game impact his traditional putting statistics, the best measurement of how good he's been putting the ball (while struggling with his irons immensely), comes from this fancy new putting metric.
Meanwhile, some of the other names near the top of the "strokes gained -- putting" leaderboard are ones you would expect if you follow the traditional putting numbers. Brandt Snedeker (third in SGP) is sixth this year in putts per round and second in putting average. Steve Stricker, long regarded as one of the best putters in the world, is fourth this year in SGP. Nick Watney (first in total putting this year) is seventh; Luke Donald (first in putting average) is eighth.
Speaking of Donald, he's actually led the PGA Tour in this statistic each of the last two seasons. Not surprising -- Donald was third in total putting in 2010 and fourth in putting inside 10 feet. In 2009, he was second in total putting and tied for fourth in putting average.
Baseball has been introducing new metrics for years in an attempt to better evaluate the worth of players. For example, WAR (wins over replacement) is an advanced formula that deduces how many wins an individual player is worth to his team. Often, the ability for fans to understand how the statistic works is the determining factor for how prominent the number ends up being on game broadcasts.
Albert Pujols has led the National League in WAR for six straight seasons. Any fan can understand why.
Question: Which player has five of the nine lowest "putts gained" totals by a tournament winner since 2004?
Answer: Vijay Singh
In a sport so laden with numbers, it's tough to imagine this trend not continuing into other aspects of the game. The tour even stated that in its explanation for the name "strokes gained -- putting," saying that in the future, the same principles could be used to create similar stats for tee shots, scrambling and approach shots, too. So don't be surprised if down the road we see "strokes gained -- driving" or "strokes gained -- scrambling."
If those future statistical strides are as well thought out as strokes gained-putting, then golf fans can expect a better, deeper understanding of the sport they love.
Numbers Game is a weekly stat-centric look at the PGA Tour.
Justin Ray has been a studio researcher for ESPN since June 2008 and is the lead researcher for "The Scott Van Pelt Show." Send comments and suggestions to Justin.Ray@espn.com.