Out of Bounds: Is ‘drive for show, putt for dough’ true?

For Rory McIlroy, average putting weeks often lead to titles due to long game excellence

There is a reason clichés take a hold, and it is often because there is a great element of truth about them. In golf, one of the most frequently quoted relates to quite different strokes: driving and putting. “Drive for show, putt for dough,” is how it goes. We’ve all heard it.

And, for the most part, it is true; because, although tee-to-green performance and hitting greens-in-regulation provides an edge, the art of putting is how titles are ultimately decided. Unless, of course, as Jordan Spieth did on the first playoff hole at the Travelers Championship, you hole-out from bunkers to take the honours. More often than not, though, it is the putter that is the weapon that inflicts most damage.

That any focus should be placed on Spieth’s recent putting woes surely highlights the fact that nobody is immune from having an issue with a putter in hand.

A great deal can be made of statistics, but an analysis of the PGA Tour overall putting average makes a simple case in Spieth's favour that the putter is his friend more often than the enemy: in 2016 and 2015, he led the overall putting average on the American circuit and, in 2014, he was second behind Justin Leonard. In each of those years, Spieth averaged 1.54 putts per green. It is a remarkable level of consistency.


This season, however, Spieth’s putting issues have seen him fall from that high level of consistency. As it stands, he is averaging 1.589 putts per round this season which has seen him drop to 40th in that particular overal average putting ranking.

Yet, that is a level you suspect Rory McIlroy would love to again reach.

Actually, it was back in 2014 when McIlroy won two Majors – the Open and the US PGA – that his overall average putting statistic for the season on the PGA Tour was, would you believe, 1.589. It put him at 30th in the overall ranking – which would seem to back up the Northern Irishman’s assertion that all he has to do is to putt “average” and he will win titles.

The problem for McIlroy this season – even taking into account his injury setbacks – is that his putting hasn’t yet reached that level. In fact, right now, McIlroy is averaging 1.75 which, given his limited number of rounds, doesn’t even get him ranked yet. But, put it this way: the 205th player in that particular ranking is JJ Henry who is a 1.649 average.

McIlroy’s liaison with the Taylormade Spider Red putter didn’t last very long but it would seem that reverting to a more traditional blade-style flatstick in the final round of the Travelers may have provided a cure for those putting ills. Hopefully so, especially with his defence of the DDF Irish Open at Portstewart next week looming on the horizon.

Whatever about the recent travails on the greens of Spieth and McIlroy, it is perhaps worth recalling former US Open champion Tommy Bolt’s observations on putting. Bolt was given the nickname “Terrible Tommy” on tour for his fiery antics and it was his habit of throwing clubs that brought in the rule prohibiting such behaviour.

Anyway, Bolt once remarked: “In golf, driving is a game of free-swinging muscle control, while putting is something like performing eye surgery and using a bread knife for a scalpel.” Not a cliché, but we know what he meant.