AUSTIN, Texas – World No. 1 Jon Rahm winced slightly. He’s heard the same question enough to know what was coming.
Statistically, it looks like the only thing that's missing at this point is the putting. Is that how you would describe it?
It’s a unique problem for a player who is less than a year removed from his most recent and best victory (last June’s U.S. Open), who began the new year with near-misses at the Sentry Tournament of Champions (runner-up) and Farmers Insurance Open (tied for third), and remains a favorite every week he plays.
He’s done everything this season – including retain the top spot in the world ranking despite weekly chances for various players to unseat him – and yet on the eve of the year’s first World Golf Championship, it’s his putting that’s a problem.
“I'm kind of getting tired of answering the same question every single week,” Rahm said, before offering an impressively measured answer.
It wasn’t the question that stood out, although in fairness to the Spaniard it does feel like an invasive parsing at this point, as much as it was Rahm’s answer that was telling.
“When you're No. 1 off the tee and top 10 in strokes gained: approach, my putting stats are not going to be top 20,” he explained. “It's absolutely impossible unless I'm winning every single week by eight. Kind of how it goes.”
Rahm is first this season in strokes gained: off-the-tee and 16th in strokes gained: approach the green. He’s also 139th in strokes gained: putting. What appears to be lost in his answer is that those numbers are all mutually exclusive.
“SG putting is independent of SG off the tee and SG approach,” texted Mark Broadie, the mastermind behind strokes gained and a professor at Columbia Business School. “The correlation in 2022 between SG [off the tee] plus SG approach and SG putting is 0 percent.”
This isn’t about proving Rahm wrong, because there was logic to his answer, but it’s important to note that the idea behind strokes gained is to rid golf of the exact ambiguity that he was suggesting. Before strokes gained became the standard, there was a fundamental flaw in comparing putting stats for a player like Rahm, a superior ball-striker who misses few greens, and other players who did miss greens. Missing greens leads to shorter putts for par and leads to skewed putting stats.
That’s no longer the case thanks to strokes gained, which measures every shot relative to the rest of the field with no regard to the shot that came before or after. It’s a wildly simplistic explanation and one that’s not entirely fair to Rahm, who did concede there’s room for improvement on the greens.
“Is it [his putting] as good as it could be? No, but I think it shows in the stats worse than it actually feels just because I'm hitting so many greens and hitting it so good,” he said. “Again, I feel like I've said it a few times. It's not as bad as it looks. It feels a lot better than it looks. Maybe I haven't gotten the results yet, but I'm not worried about it.”
To Rahm’s point, his superior ball-striking is the baseline while his putting is the variable that determines relative success or failure. In five of his six Tour victories (the 2019 Zurich Classic is a team event) he gained an average of 2.52 shots in strokes gained: putting. That average slides but remains positive for his three top-10 finishes this season (Sentry Tournament of Champions, Farmers Insurance Open and WM Phoenix Open) to .57 shots. But in five finishes outside the top 15 this season his average drops to negative 1.46 shots per round.
Broadie also explained that even if Rahm were to improve his strokes gained: putting to rank among the top 20 that wouldn’t assure weekly victories, pointing out that Collin Morikawa is currently 11th (off the tee), 21st (approach to the green) and 32nd (putting) this season and yet has not won.
There is, however, a method to Rahm’s math. According to Broadie, if he did rank inside the top 20 in putting his strokes gained: total would increase by about .4 shots and his expected victory total would jump from about two per season to three events.
It’s not the correlation between Rahm’s ball-striking and putting that’s the key (at least not statistically), but there is a clear correlation between his putting and the winner’s circle.