While eating lunch and idly scanning subtitles of today’s broadcast of golf’s PGA Championship, I saw an analyst make an interesting claim. He said that the best putters in professional golf make more three putts (taking three putts to get the ball in the cup) than does the average professional golfer. Why? Because, he argued, the best putters hit the ball more firmly and confidently, with the result that if they miss their ball often ends up further past the hole. That causes them to 3-putt more often than do "lag" putters who are just trying to get the ball into the hole with no nastiness.
It’s a provocative idea, one that matches our preconceptions of how risk-takers behave. They take chances, and taking chances has consequences, like more putts from longer distances if they miss. Outside golf a similar idea is in circulation, with it widely believed that the failures of risk-takers are more spectacular than the failures of the average person. You can hardly go down in flames if you didn’t go high and carry fuel in the first place.
While societal risk-taking is hard to measure and test, this golf risk-taking claim isn’t. I obtained putting statistics from the 2007 season, the most recent one for which I could find "3-putt" data. It showed the percentage of total holes played in the season in which a player had a 3-putt. The statistic varied between 1.6% (Sergio Garcia) and 4.9%! (Kyle Reifers). I matched this against putting skill for players in the same season, as measured by putts per green-in-regulation (GIR). The latter varied from 1.72 (Tim Clark) to 1.87 (Jim Rutledge).
To test the claim, I took the the top 25 golfers by putting skill in 2007 and found their average percentage of 3-putts per hole played. I compared that to the average number of 3-putts per hole played by average professional golfers, as measured by golfers in the middle two skill quartiles by putts per GIR.
So, are the best putters more prone to 3-putts than are average professional golfers? No. The average percentage of 3-putts for a top putter is 2.64% of holes played, while the average for less skilled putters is 3.17%. It is, in other words, pretty much what you would expect: The best putters get less 3-putts, almost certainly because they are the best putters. The idea that they take more risks and end up with more 3-putts is just plain wrong. Risk-taking has consequences, but three-putt outbreaks among skilled putters is not one of them.