Why Women Putt Worse Than Men
Experts debate the stats, the empirical evidence and the future
When Michelle Wie came remarkably close to making the cut at the PGA Tour's Sony Open in Hawaii in 2004, missing by a shot as a skinny, 6-foot-tall 14-year-old, the undercurrent of commentary had one consistent (if politically incorrect) thread.
She played like a man.
Even back then, Wie could hit almost any full shot a male tour player could, from a 285-yard drive to a 170-yard 8-iron. It seemed she would get the first real chance to test how much the dividing line between the men's and women's games could be blurred by a powerful, athletic player who happened to have two X chromosomes.
But six years later, Wie is now farther away from the PGA Tour than she was as a ninth-grader. She hasn't played with the men since 2008, when she missed the cut by nine shots at the Reno-Tahoe Open. She finally joined the LPGA Tour full-time in 2009.
Strength differences between men and women are a matter of biology, but it turns out that one of the main reasons Wie -- or any other female player -- hasn't challenged the men has nothing to do with muscle. In the months leading to the Hawaii event in 2004, Wie says she spent virtually no time on her putting. "When I was a junior, all I wanted to do was hit balls, and that's what I did," she says. "It wasn't until I turned pro that I realized how important putting was, and now I've changed completely around."
Wie's meandering path toward putting proficiency is a good starting point for a discussion on why women don't seem to putt as well as men, at least at the tour level. The experts contacted for this story are nearly unanimous in the belief that women could putt as well as men. But the real-world deficit that exists comes from a number of factors, such as a lack of practice, limited access to quality instruction and the different competitive profiles of men and women.
THE STATISTICS MAKE A CLEAR CASE
The most striking statistical difference in 10 years' worth of accumulated data from male and female tour professionals isn't the 30-yard edge in driving distance. It's how much better the men putt. The best male putters take about half a stroke less per round on the greens than their female counterparts. If that doesn't sound like a major skill difference, consider that the men play on faster surfaces with more contour and tougher hole locations. Go farther down the putts-per-round list and the gap gets wider -- more than a full shot for players ranked 100th, and almost two shots at No. 150. That's a significant gulf, and one that can't easily be explained away by analysis of parallel statistics like greens hit in regulation -- a stat often held up as a reason LPGA players would have worse putting numbers. The thinking goes, tour players who hit more greens usually have more total putts because they're hitting more putts from farther away from the hole after their approach shots. The more greens a player misses, the more chances he or she has to chip up close to the hole for a more makable putt. The most accurate LPGA Tour players are slightly more likely to hit greens than the most accurate PGA Tour players are, but taken as a whole, male tour players hit more greens. That -- coupled with the slower, less-severe greens on the LPGA Tour -- suggests that women should be more competitive with the men in putting.
Another stat called putts per green in regulation measures only the number of putts a player takes after hitting a par 3 in one shot, a par 4 in two or a par 5 in three. This stat shows that when women are putting for birdie, they don't make as many as their male counterparts. And though the top-ranked male and female in putts per green in regulation are closely matched, the men out-putt the women significantly as you go down the list.
Statistics from a single event provide only a snapshot, but an analysis of the putting results from the U.S. Open in 2007 and the U.S. Women's Open in 2010 -- both played at Oakmont Country Club -- reinforces the conclusions above. Niclas Fasth led the men's championship in putts per round with 28.50. The best women, Brittany Lang and Amy Yang, averaged more than a putt per round worse with 29.75. Only five male players who made the cut putted worse than the women's four-round average of 32.38 -- even though the winning score on the more difficult men's setup was five over, compared with three under for the women.
Data measuring amateurs' putting is less comprehensive than that from the professional tours, but Golf Digest Professional Advisor Peter Sanders says his research shows a similar gap in putting between men and women in the middle-handicap range. On his website, shotbyshot.com, Sanders collected performance data from thousands of rounds over a three-year span, then adjusted it to account for differences in course difficulty. He found that men one-putted from four to 10 feet 41 percent of the time compared with 37 percent for women. Also, men three-putted from 15 to 40 feet 13 percent of the time compared with 17 percent for women. Those are significant differences among amateurs.
Statistics tell only part of the story, but teachers who have played and taught on tour say the anecdotal evidence supports the numbers. "I've seen only a couple of women who were as good as the bottom male tour player," says short-game teacher Stan Utley, who played 20 years on the PGA Tour and now teaches players on every major circuit. "The skill set just isn't there."
Dave Stockton won two majors on the PGA Tour and three on the Champions Tour, and works with Phil Mickelson and Morgan Pressel, among other players. He says that many female tour players don't have the short memory that confident putters need to succeed. "Emotionally, I think the women are smarter and more honest, but they're also more fragile," he says. "Women remember."
Craig Shankland, a former PGA Teacher of the Year who has played in several majors and has taught LPGA players for 30 years, says good putting is all about adapting. "The best players see the conditions and deal with them," Shankland says. "I don't see women doing that as well. The good players see things others don't, adapt and move on. The others blame things around them."
But not everyone agrees. Pia Nilsson, the top-ranked female on Golf Digest's 50 Best Teachers in America ranking, says, "In the amateurs we teach, many of the women are terrific putters. I think the differences come from handicap, not from gender."