Recently a young reader, asking for general advice, indirectly raised the question of how many putts one should have in a round of golf. Another way to pose this weighty question is what should one consider to be par for putting in a round of golf? A seemingly simple question, but it entails complexities that cannot be ignored if one wishes to validly measure change in putting skill.
The simplistic answer is that this is obviously 36, or 2 per hole. That is the number of putts assumed in a par round of golf when one hits each green in regulation and then takes two putts for each green. But this number is too high, because hitting all the greens is extremely rare, even among the world's best players. So 36 putts would mean that one never makes any saves from the fringe, which is where most of us are most of the time.
Moreover, just as par can vary a stroke or two from one course to another, so might par for putts. On a course with large greens where one will hit more greens but have a number of putts over the 50 foot range, par should be a little higher, somewhat like the slope of a course affects handicap calculation.
Even the professional tours cannot agree on how to measure putts. To compare ones putting skills with the profesional men in the PGA or the Senior Tours, one would only count the greens hit in regulation, because the men's tours count the average number of putts on greens hit in regulation. But this is not a valid comparison in that the average club player will not be as accurate with her or his approach shots. She or he will have longer putts than the professional male does, and more than likely they will be on greens that are not as well manicured and therefore not roll as true. On the other hand, the club player may play on a course that has well manicured small and level greens and could have a quite low average when the average putt is a level putt of under 20 feet. The LPGA, on the other hand, measures the average number of putts per round. So the comparison may seem more simple. However, one should remember that again, the professional women hit far more greens than the average club player. So the women pros almost certainly have longer first putts than the player who misses most greens and then chips to somewhere in the range of 10 feet for his or her first putt. Moreover, the professionals play on a variety of courses while the rest of us play mostly on one home course, which has built-in biases, as discussed above.
So what is the average player to do? The simplest thing is to just count putts and set ones own standard. If one averages 32 putts, then a reasonable goal is to reduce that average to 29 or 30. But again, if one also keeps statistics on greens hit, one may notice that the number of putts increase as the number of greens hit in regulation increases. It is almost always easier to get down in two putts after a chip shot. The reality is that number of putts is dependent on many factors, including greens hit, approach accuracy, green size, green difficulty and quality, chipping accuracy, and finally putting skill. So it is quite possible that the number of putts could change dramatically without any change in putting skill. Putting skill could even improve while at the same time the number of putts is going up. This could lead the player to make changes in putting technique when one should be focusing on other parts of ones game.
Here is what Dr. Putt would suggest. Count the number of greens you hit in regulation and the number to which you had to hit a pitch shot (where you are 20 yards off the green or so). Par for those is 2 putts each. For greens where you chip or hit a sand shot from a greenside bunker to reach the putting surface, par could be 1 putt each, but that would require making a fringe save every time. That is a very high standard, so you should probably set it at 1.5 putts each (unless you are a very low handicap player, in which case you might have a goal of getting up and down every time). The goal would then be to get up and down half the time--a reasonable goal for most players. It you decide to use this as par, then par on putting would be the number of greens hit (or pitched to) times 2 plus the one and a half times the number of greens to which you had to chip or blast.
Suppose you hit or have pitch shots to 8 greens and chip from the fringe or blast from a bunker to the other 10. Then par for putting on that round would be (2x8) + 10 + 5 = 31. Suppose you required 34 putts to complete the round. Then you were 3 over par for that round of golf on your putting. That is the critical number--how many you were over or under par. Keep that number and look for trends. That should tell you whether your putting is improving or regressing. Do not worry about any single round or two, whether they be high or low. Numbers will vary just as your overall golf scores do. Some unexplained variation is inherent in any human activity.
This simple system not only controls for the number of greens one hits, but also for the size of greens. Chipping close and getting down in one half the time is no easier than two putting on a large green every time. However, the system, like most things in life, is not perfect. It does not control out the effects of chipping accuracy. Your putting will improve as your chipping improves. Moreover, one should expect the number of putts to go up on more difficult undulating greens, or greens that are in poor condition. Expect to be a few more putts over putting par, and do not draw any particular meaning from them. If you play a number of different courses, they should balance out over the long run. And that is the idea of this system, to keep track of your putting for the long run.
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