While it's easy to see how a miracle putt or an inside-the-leather miss can make the difference in a round, it's tougher to determine how the relative putting strengths of various golfers affect their rounds.
(Aside: non-stat geeks are free to check out right here. We're getting into number theory now, and you can punch out and come back to rant about Tiger soon enough.)
While there are statistical methods to measure exactly how good a putter an individual golfer is, all of them have limitations. Putting average, for instance, doesn't include putts on greens not hit in regulation, and unduly rewards players who have a deft touch in approaching the green.
Now, though, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has developed a new putting statistic, "putts gained," which measures exactly how a player's putting skill aids or hinders his game. Like the relatively new baseball statistic VORP (Value Over Replacement Player), putts gained measures an individual golfer's level of success against a hypothetical "field." Also like VORP, it's insanely statistically complex, but yields an easily comprehensible number.
MIT took the data from the PGA Tour's existing ShotLink service to create the new metric. Researchers began by setting baseline putts from 10-foot increments up to 100 feet. (FYI, pros average 1.63 putts from 10 feet and 2.15 from 40 feet.)
Beyond there, the math gets a little thick as you adjust for the strength of the field and the difficulty of the greens, but it boils down to a figure that demonstrates how many strokes a player "gains" on the field simply by his putting skill.
The winner? Luke Donald, who could count on gaining an extra 0.905 strokes on the field by his putting skills in 2009. Steve Stricker, who ranked No. 1 in putting average, ranks No. 69 in putts gained, mainly because he's exceptionally good with his approach shots.
Down the line, we'll see how these stats impact players' decisions on strategy and between-round practice regimens. For now, though, if somebody points a gun at your head and says you need to pick one golfer to putt for your life, go with Luke Donald.