Should pro golfers pay attention to statistics?

Ancient game, new science.
Aug. 13 2010 10:02 AM

Zen Golf vs. Moneygolf

Should the pros pay attention to statistics?

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This isn't the first time that a new technology has descended upon golf, promising to change the game. In To the Linksland, * Michael Bamberger's 1992 book about caddying on the European tour, there's a passage in which Bamberger seeks the counsel of a wizened Scottish pro named John Stark. Here's the short version of their first encounter:

"Tell me what it is you seek to accomplish," John Stark said.

"I want to get better," I said quietly.

"You want to get better, a worthy goal," Stark said. "But what makes you think tuition is the way to improvement? I've seen many players ruined with instruction. I've seen instruction rob a player of all his natural instincts for the game."

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Stark then begins a long monologue in which he dismisses American players as "outstanding golf robots" and argues that the fad for high-speed photography of golf swings corrupted the game in the 1950s: "It all seemed so obvious: there was a correct position for everything, all the points in the swing." But that was a false path. The game became too "technical" and the players lost their way.

In golf, there have always been those who side with "instincts" and those who side with analysis. I love the stories about 1920s professional golfer George Duncan, who would swing at his ball as soon as he reached it. He considered practice strokes tantamount to cheating. (Those early pros would also be amazed at how today's top players stalk the green for days to line up a putt.) In our time, the most instinctual golfer would be putting enthusiast Ryan Moore, who, at times, will disdain even to consult a yardage book.

When I talked to players on the PGA Tour—the alleged "golf robots"—I was surprised by how skittish they were about stats. Players certainly understand the importance of gaining a fractional advantage on the competition. When Phil Mickelson approached short-game guru Dave Pelz for help in 2003, Pelz was surprised that the game's pre-eminent player from short range would need his help. Mickelson's answer: "I want to be a quarter of a shot better per round in the majors." Most golfers don't seem to believe, though, that scrutinizing stats will get them the fractional gains they crave.

Tiger Woods works on his swing. Click image to expand.
Tiger Woods works on his swing with his caddie Steve Williams

In my conversations with golfers, I would get a lot of staring at the ground once the word "ShotLink" came out of my mouth—as though I had mentioned Voldemort in the land of Harry Potter. Industrious pro Michael Letzig spoke for many of his peers when he said he never looks at his numbers during the season: "The stat is not going to change my swing." Letzig also had a touch of John Stark in him, telling me: "What's different from the people inside the ropes and the people outside the ropes is that, in here, golf is easier because we keep it simple." (True enough, Michael—though it's easier to keep it simple if you have transcendental talent.)

Several pros told me, in so many polite words, that they don't need a laser beam to tell them how far they hit their 5-iron. They play golf every day. How could they possibly be ignorant about their game? They can see what they need to do with their eyes.

This is the same prejudice that Bill James crusaded against in baseball—that the numbers can tell you what your lying eyes refuse to see. A golf game is actually hard to analyze. While I doubt most pros can recall their last 100 drives, ShotLink remembers them all. And you need to look at 100—or 200 or 500—drives to see whether you're losing fractions of a stroke. You don't even have to know the new stats I've been discussing to acquire useful insights. Golf consultant Mark Sweeney helps break down the ShotLink numbers for his pro clients. He told me of a player who, it was clear from the stats, was deficient with his 8-iron. All of his other iron play was good; the numbers revealed a blind spot.

I talked to a few players who had more favorable things to say about ShotLink. Brian Davis, an Englishman currently ranked 41st on the PGA Tour's money list, was the savviest pro I ran across. Davis says he looks at ShotLink every week and does a more in-depth analysis at the end of the season. He knows from ShotLink that he's lacking compared with others in driving distance, so he tries to "ramp it up" from the tee on holes where a long drive would clearly help. This is an ideal use of stats—a golfer using the numbers to fine-tune his strategy. He takes the risk of trying to really smoke a drive (and potentially end up in deep trouble) because the stats tell him he needs that distance to keep pace.