Analytics put golf in a different light

Posted: March 07, 2014

Fourth in a series

BOSTON - If you've spent enough time around a golf course in your life, you have invariably heard the phrase: "You drive for show but putt for dough."

Anyone who has three-putted in an important match can sympathize with the phrase coined in the 1940s by four-time British Open winner Bobby Locke.

Today, you probably head back to the clubhouse after your round, pull out your scorecard and, over the course of some cold beverages, count your number of putts to determine whether your round was a success or failure.

Nearly 70 years later, golf has evolved in such a way that we now know that simply counting putts is not a true measure of success. Tiger Woods' swing coach, Sean Foley, shone a new light on golf's emerging analytical approach last weekend at MIT's Sloan Sports Analytics Conference with the help of Columbia professor Mark Broadie.

That's why Foley, a self-described "swing geek" and "range rat," said he doesn't spend a lot of time around the putting green with clients Woods, Hunter Mahan, Justin Rose or West Chester's Sean O'Hair.

In 2013, Brian Gay led the PGA Tour in fewest average putts per round at 27.5. The tour average was 29. After one round, when Woods putted just 27 times on 18 holes, he called it "one of the worst putting rounds I've ever had." Most golfers would have been ecstatic with that number.

So why was Woods so discouraged? Not because he is exceptionally hard on himself. He knew that he didn't make a single putt in the round longer than 6 feet.

In golf, a two-putt from 60 feet is a good result. A two-putt from 6 feet is a huge disappointment. Simply counting doesn't take into account the distance covered.

To track his clients, Foley said he uses a statistic called "strokes gained." The PGA Tour leader in 2013 was Luke Donald, with an average of 0.70 strokes gained per round. Most of those are gained away from the putting green.

Strokes gained are calculated relative to Tour average. For instance, the Tour average for an 8-foot putt is 1.50 strokes. So, if a player holes out from 8 feet, he or she has gained 0.50 strokes on the field. This can be calculated from any distance and added together after each round, tournament or season to determine leaders.

Broadie said the long game "explains about two-thirds of the scoring." Woods is considered the world's best golfer, but it's not because he is the best putter.

For his career, Woods gains 0.3 strokes on his competitors from driving, 0.7 strokes on approach shots (130 yards and in), 0.4 strokes on short game (inside 30 yards) and 0.2 strokes from putting. He has never ranked lower than fifth in strokes gained on approach shots in his career, using the PGA Tour's shot-tracking software from CDW, an 11 million stroke database that measures every shot within 1-foot accuracy and every putt within 1-inch accuracy.

"Distance is far more an indicator of success than accuracy," Foley said. "That's maybe not true at the U.S. Open, but overall, if I have the choice of giving someone 5 extra mph in clubhead speed or have him hit the corresponding number of fairways, net earnings will increase more from the extra swing speed. You have a greater opportunity of gaining strokes."

For Foley, so much of what he does with clients now is less technique and more breaking down their games to a micro level. Last year's U.S. Open winner at Merion, Justin Rose, didn't believe he had the best short game on Tour in 2012 until he saw the numbers.

"When they start to struggle is when they believe they're in a slump," Foley said. "It's simple math, letting them know where they're strong as well as where they're weak. [The numbers] get them to stop with their stories."

And the numbers, in this case, get us away from Locke's timeless quote.

"So much of what we believe has been handed down through nostalgia," Foley said. "I look at this strictly as business."

Nerd nuggets

In addition to the four members of the Sixers' brass, the Eagles sent special assistant to the general manager Alec Halaby to MIT last weekend. Neither the Flyers nor the Phillies had a front-office member present . . . No surprise, so much of the analytical data collected has become proprietary, making little of the number crunching actually shared . . . Hockey is the one sport that seems to be stuck in the analytics "ice age," since it has more flow and random, undefined movement than perhaps any other.


For more information on presentations at MIT's Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, visit www.sloansportsconference.com.


On Twitter: @DNFlyers

Blog: ph.ly/FrequentFlyers

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