We all know that the goal on the green is to get the ball in the hole in the fewest putts. We also know that one-putts are good and three-putts are bad -- but which is more important? That is, should you try to drain that first putt, or is it smarter to lag putts nice and close so you can avoid dreaded three-jacks? The answer could save you strokes.
Let's first take a look at the Tour pros. From eight feet, the world's best players one-putt half the time and average 1.5 strokes to hole out. A one-putt gains a Tour pro only a half stroke against the field, while a three-putt loses him 1.5 strokes. Ouch! The three-putt loses three times what the one-putt gains. That means avoiding three-putts should be your first order of business, right? Wrong. What's missing in this example is the frequency of three-putts: The less it happens, the less it matters.
For the pros, getting the ball in the hole in one putt is far more important than avoiding a three-putt.
We can learn a lot from the best putters, so I gave Brad Faxon a call. From 1992 to 2002, Faxon was the No. 1 putter on the PGA Tour (see table). "I never cared about three-putting," he told me. "I didn't like to three-putt, but I didn't stand over a 15-footer for birdie worrying about three-putting."
That's a great mindset from one of the greatest putters ever, and the stats bear Faxon out. I compared the best putters on Tour today -- that is, the leaders in Strokes Gained Putting -- with the Tour's average putters. The bottom line? The very best putters have 0.6 more one-putt greens (7.5 versus 6.9 per round) and just 0.15 fewer three-putt greens (0.40 versus 0.55 per round). The elite putters gain about four times as much from more one-putts than they do from fewer three-putts. (Granted, pros rarely three-putt.)
Here's another way to see it: The best Tour putters sink 55 percent of their eight-footers, compared with 50 percent for an average Tour putter. Five percent is a lot. The difference in three-putt rates from eight feet is just 0.2 percent (0.4 percent for the top putters, versus a Tour average 0.6 percent).
The best putters have something in common: They're aggressive. They one-putt more often, they leave fewer putts short, and they leave slightly longer comebackers. "In my great putting rounds," Faxon said, "I noticed that when I missed, I always had to mark the ball, because it would go far enough past the hole that it wasn't a tap-in. I made most of those three-foot comebackers, but it always made for a little more angst than just tapping in."
I do have some three-putt caveats. From 30 feet and beyond, the best on Tour gain more from fewer three-putts than from more one-putts. But how about better (80-shooters) and average (90-shooters) everyday players? The 80-shooters gain more from frequent one-putting than from fewer three-putts from 13 feet and in. (From 14 feet and beyond, it reverses.) Overall, for weekend golfers, about half of the gain comes from more one-putts and about half from fewer three-putts.
Takeaway 1: Get short putts to the hole. The better-putting 80-shooters leave 12 percent of their 10-footers short, compared with 17 percent for 90-shooters. [For pros, it's only 7 percent.]
Takeaway 2: Short putts [say, three to eight feet] matter most. Better short putting leads to more one-putts and fewer three-putts.
Takeaway 3: Distance control matters. As Pat Goss, Luke Donald's short-game coach, has said, "I don't think there's a more important skill in golf than controlling distance in putting."
Takeaway 4: Compare your putting with the benchmark: 80-shooters average about one three-putt per round, 90-shooters average about two, and 100-shooters about three. If you average more three-putts than your benchmark, consider a putting lesson.