Moneygolf: Will new statistics unlock the secrets of golf?

Ancient game, new science.
Sept. 8 2010 5:22 PM

Moneygolf

Will new statistics unlock the secrets of golf?

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But even the pros who told me they looked at ShotLink appeared a little confounded by it. "I try to simplify everything," Stroud told me, whereas ShotLink makes the game seem more complicated. After all, the system features 47 stats just for shots off the tee. It can be difficult to locate the meaning in that sea of numbers, and it's not surprising that so many pros find it easier just to rely on their own instincts. This is where the new golf research comes in: Analytical minds who love the game are on a quest for better statistics, numbers that reflect what is happening on the course and can be easily grasped by players and fans alike.

In this effort, golf researchers follow in the footsteps of the pioneering attempt to study golf. It took place in the 1960s and was led by Sir Aynsley Bridgland, an Australian industrialist who would recall later in life that he had three ambitions as a young man: "To own a Rolls-Royce, to be a millionaire, and to be a scratch golfer." He accomplished all three, "and he always said that it was the last of the three which satisfied him the most." After a visit to America, where he heard that professional golfers were participating in MIT-led "high speed photographic studies" of the game, Bridgland decided to attack the game scientifically. He assembled and helped bankroll a formidable team of scholars, including ballistics experts, physiologists, and Britain's first professor of ergonomics. In 1968, after five years of research, they published their results in a landmark book called Search for the Perfect Swing.

The British team helped answer fundamental questions about how the game is played. They described the golf swing as a double-pendulum and examined how the shape of the club head affects swing path and ball flight. They studied the ball itself, describing the aerodynamics of dimples and how the materials respond to the impact of the club. The book had an enormous influence on golf equipment companies, who began to hire physicists and materials engineers. (Karsten Solheim, the founder of Ping, was a big fan.) But the team was limited in its ability to answer basic questions of strategy—for example, is putting or driving more important for shooting a low score?

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In our time, the search for the perfect swing has become coupled with the search for the perfect round. With GPS, laser surveyors, computers, and new mathematical strategies, we can analyze golf at a level of sophistication that Sir Aynsley Bridgland never could have imagined. Thanks to these tools, we are on the cusp of discovering the optimal way to play the game. Throughout this series, I'll explain the revolutionary research that may change the way you watch and play golf. I say "may" because golf has always been about balancing intuition and analysis. In the past, the game has leaned more toward the Zen, the mystical. In the sprit of our data-driven times, the game is about to get a lot more statistical.

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Bad Lies: Why most golf statistics whiff and how to fix them.

Watch a golf tournament on television, and you'll hear the announcers explain why Tiger Woods or Justin Rose or Ernie Els is in the lead. "He's tops in the field this week in fairways hit," they might say. Or perhaps they'll point to his stellar driving distance, or his amazingly low number of putts per round, or his excellent birdie conversion rate. But none of those statistics—the ones we're told separate the champions from the also-rans—truly reflects why golfers win and lose. At worst, they're actively misleading, giving us the wrong impression of why the best players in the game succeed.

For example, a common measure of a player's driving accuracy is the percentage of times he reaches the fairway on his first stroke. The PGA Tour's current leader in driving accuracy, Omar Uresti, has hit the fairway on 76 percent of his tee shots. But even if a golfer cracks his drive into the fairway 76 percent of the time, you can't assume that he had a good driving day. What if his misses were so atrocious that they went into the deep rough, inflating his scorecard with a bunch of recovery shots? That's the weakness of the driving accuracy stat: In recording errant drives, it doesn't distinguish between a shot that trickles just off the fairway and one that hits an unsuspecting fan in the butt.

The pros are aware of the holes in the standard stats. When I talked to players at the AT&T National, the stat that came most under fire was greens in regulation. GIR presumes to measure the accuracy of a golfer's iron play—reaching a green in regulation means landing the ball on the green in three strokes on a par 5, two strokes on a par 4, and one stroke on a par 3. Michael Letzig, a lanky, affable pro from Missouri, recalled a shot that he hit on a long par 3 that landed five feet away from the hole—except the ball was on the fringe. That counts as a missed green. If you go by GIR, Letzig's shot was worse than one that landed on the putting surface, 100 feet from the cup.

Mark Broadie, a professor at the Graduate School of Business at Columbia and an avid golfer, understood the fundamental problem with golf statistics: They don't factor in distance and location. Professor Broadie spends most of his time studying the financial markets. He knew that he could take the same mathematical tools that he uses to value an unusual security and apply them to golf. But first he needed the data. Around 10 years ago, he started keeping track of the rounds that he played with his friends and colleagues. He didn't just record standard stats such as his total number of putts and the number of fairways he hit. He created something that, with the PGA Tour's ShotLink not yet in existence, nobody had thought to construct: a database that allowed him to enter the precise coordinates of every shot that he and his golf buddies struck.

Broadie's collection has since grown to include more than 65,000 shots from golfers as young as 8 and as old as their 70s, with rounds as low as 61 and as high as 150. Thanks to his golf shot database, Broadie was able to do away with the old-fashioned, simplistic stats we hear about on TV and figure out how the game is truly played. Just as baseball's statistical pioneers overthrew the tyranny of ERA and RBI by developing more meaningful metrics, Broadie saved golf from GIR with a concept called "shot value."