Adam Scott’s dramatic fall from the top 10 on the world rankings, coinciding with issues on the greens, has again focussed attention on the putting of Australian players.
Former player and commentator Jack Newton, for one, has said that Australia is producing too many players with great golf swings but inferior ability to get the ball into the hole.
A glance at the United States PGA Tour statistics will tell you that by the numbers, Australia has three of the worst in 2015 – Robert Allenby (190th of 202), Scott (193rd) and Geoff Ogilvy (199th), so Newton’s point has merit. All three are great ball-strikers, and the same could be said for John Senden (126th). Aaron Baddeley and Greg Chalmers are the only Aussies in the top 20.
Are Australians generally just poor putters? Or, as Newton once said, is it a failure of coaching? The answer, most likely, is yes to both questions. But the good news is that it is turning.
According to Brad James, head of Golf Australia’s high performance unit, there has been a shift of emphasis among elite young players and coaches toward getting the ball into the hole.
James, who previously worked in the US college golf system and in Europe, is part of the system driving the change. “When I came back to Australia there was this culture of having great golf swings and physically ticking all the boxes,’’ he said. “But there wasn’t always a culture here of how to get the ball in the hole quickly. It was more about the physical and the technical aspects. These processes were the primary discussion points.
“When I spent time in the US and Europe it was very obvious. With the coaches there, it was about short game and putting, wrap it around your head if necessary, but get the thing in the hole. But our culture has really changed.’’
World No. 2 Jordan Spieth is the best modern example of what they are seeking. Spieth, the reigning Masters champion and Emirates Australian Open winner, does not overpower golf courses but he is an incredible putter and rarely makes bad mistakes. In short, he is a genius for getting the ball into the hole.
In Australia, the change at elite amateur level came in the past two years especially. The national coaches under GA’s banner are all using a statistical-system called ShotsToHole developed by former tour player Stuart Leong in Melbourne. ShotsToHole analyses players on the United States Tour as well as national squad members to give the coaches a guide to work off. They now know precisely how close to the hole every player from best to worst will hit every club, from every distance.
From there, they apply it to strategy on-course; in particular, it is about hitting the golf ball to the right place. When the Australian contingent of players turned up at Royal Melbourne for the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship (won by Antonio Murdaca) last year, they were equipped with maps of every green with quadrants marked; places to go, places not to go. It was all about keeping the ball in position, as they say, giving yourself an uphill putt, avoiding the places where double bogey was a possibility.
“Our short game numbers don’t stack up,’’ said Leong, twice Victorian PGA teacher of the year. “Of course we’ve had people who were great, and Jason Day does a good job right now. But you could pick on one hand the number of really great Australian putters. Probably a Craig Parry would come to mind, or a Nick O’Hern who’s made the most of what he has. Most of our guys are unbelievable hitters, but the other part lags behind.’’
Leong ran his numbers over the current GA national squad and compared them with a bunch of world class professionals. In putting, the Australians lost a full shot per round, by far the worst result. In other areas – wedge play, for instance – they were comparable.
Paul Skinner, another national coach is a believer in the system. Skinner is a former touring professional who was mentored by a former Australian Open champion in Peter Fowler, a methodical player who is still performing well on the senior tour in Europe. “Here’s a guy (Fowler) with minimal talent, he’s the first to admit it, and he had to work out a way to get it in the hole, manage his way around the golf course,’’ he said.
Skinner caddied for Ryan Ruffels, the Australian junior champion, at the Asia-Pacific, and interestingly, Ruffels was slightly resistant at first. A lot of young players hate firing away from pins, as the system sometimes demands. “The first battle I had with them was ‘it’s too conservative’,’’ said Skinner. “But it’s not conservative, it’s playing to the numbers. If you’re going to hit a driver, you need 58 feet (just under 20 metres) of fairway to hit it into if you’re the best on the US Tour and you want to hit that fairway. It’s a fact, you can’t argue with it.’’
The same principles apply to putting. “People come off the course and say ‘I had 34 putts, I putted terrible’,’’ said Skinner. “But as ‘Chook’ (Fowler) used to say: ‘Yes, but 10 of them were downhill left-to-righters. You’re in the wrong spot. I’ll take the 20 footer straight up the hill. Stop hitting it in the wrong spot, mate’. Chook would say: ‘On my ideal day, I’ll have 18 uphill putts for birdie’.’’
On a national camp in the US last year the coaches played a game with squad members where they lost points for short-siding themselves, even by less than a metre, and gained points if they missed a pin on the long side. Todd Sinnott, who recently turned professional, shot three-under for nine holes using the method, as Skinner recalls. “He said ‘I wasn’t allowed to fire at a pin and I shot three-under. That’s really strange’.’’
Players are allowed to attack, but they are required to choose their moments. The easier pin position, for instance. “There’s no doubt, I’m huge on having a good technique,’’ said Skinner. “It’s imperative if you want to get to the elite level. But this side of the game was being overlooked. I was out there with the kids when I started this and they’re hitting five irons, and Greg Norman told me once 20 years ago at the Masters ‘mate when I hit a great five iron it goes to 25 feet’. Jack Nicklaus said ‘I only ever hit it close when I push it or pull it’. What a great statement.’’
Some of the numbers are a surprise. According to Leong, the average US Tour player hits his wedge from 75 metres to 18 feet (or six metres) from the flag. “What we want players to understand is how good, good is.’’
Skinner says that on the greens, the top players make fewer putts than people imagine. “With my club golfers, I say ‘from eight feet, how many would the best player on the US Tour make from 10 tries’? They say ‘eight or nine’, but it’s actually 50 percent of them. You can’t argue with it. On TV, they are holing everything, but that’s because the TV cameras follow the leaders and they are holing everything that week.’’
Another national coach, Western Australia’s Ritchie Smith, agrees that the shift is occurring. “Scoring’s become more of a focus,’’ he said. “The danger in that is that we become so data-driven that we lose sight of the fact that the game is an art form. But scores matter, don’t they? You could be the best-looking player in the world, but what’s the use of playing like that if you can’t score?’’
Smith, coach of Minjee Lee and Oliver Goss, uses the data but “sporadically’’ only, rather than as a constant companion. “We use it for benchmarks, but I don’t want players on it all day, every day,’’ he said. “I’d rather look at what’s actually happening. I like to see players work it out with their own nous and artistic flair to get the job done.
“It’s definitely changed though, and it’s a good change. If you broke a player’s day into two-hour blocks, you might have two hours’ on the range, two hours’ putting, two hours’ chipping and two hours in the gym and that’s about what it should be.’’
Brad James says the data is critically important. “The coaches have got ammunition now. They can show the players that ‘it’s not your driving or your iron play that’s moving the needle. It’s your putting, your wedges’. The culture has changed in a year and a half and that’s a massive positive. You’ve got to give the kids ammunition, or they won’t buy into it. If you’re going to make changes you need to show them something to back up what you say, whether it’s a player or a coach.
“It’s a total shift in culture not just for the players but the coaches as well. You’ve got to be looking at every part of the game, developing an athlete, and this is another cog in the wheel. It’s just as important as where they are technically or physically. Before, the level of importance was all about technical and physical, strength and conditioning. It wasn’t about getting the ball in the hole. The balance is better now and if you can do that, it’s a very powerful tool.’’
AUSTRALIAN PUTTING ON US PGA TOUR 2015
(Strokes gained/lost per round)
Rank Player Strokes gained/lost
6 Aaron Baddeley +.662
20 Greg Chalmers +.473
29 Jason Day +.411
34 Matt Jones +.368
66 Marc Leishman +.192
78 Steven Bowditch +.114
85 Stuart Appleby +.073
126 John Senden -.102
134 Cam Percy -.142
190 Robert Allenby -.796
193 Adam Scott -.829
199 Geoff Ogilvy -1.104