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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Tiger's putt was undeniably clutch, but it was merely one of 270 shots that he hit during the tournament. Shot value tells us that it wasn't that lone act of skill on the last hole that earned Tiger the first-place check. Rather, the victory was achieved thanks to a series of small things he did to put himself in a position to sink that long putt. But what were these small things?

Broadie took all of the ShotLink data collected at the Arnold Palmer and figured out the shot value of each stroke. Let's go back to Tiger's tourney-winning 24-foot putt. Broadie's data shows us that an average pro golfer hits about 24 putts of longer than 22 feet in a standard four-round tournament. It's typical to sink two of these long putts per tournament. (Yes, that's right—the best golfers in the world make just two long putts per 72 holes.) Until that putt on the 72nd hole at Bay Hill, Tiger's long putting had been below average: As Johnny Miller indicated, he'd had 21 putts from longer than 22 feet, and he'd missed them all. If Tiger could have been even an average long putter, then he wouldn't have needed those 18th green heroics.

To figure out where Tiger gained on the field, Broadie compared his shot value measures with those of his four closest competitors: Bart Bryant, who finished second, and Cliff Kresge, Vijay Singh, and Sean O'Hair, who tied for third. Tiger beat them by 2.5 strokes—where did those strokes come from?

Tiger made his name on the PGA Tour with long drives, but at Bay Hill his driving cost him 2.4 strokes to Bryant and Co. throughout the four days of play. (Indeed, just like last week at Firestone, Tiger's driving was disastrous in the early rounds.) He also lost 2.8 strokes on approach shots from 100-150 yards out. His layup shots were also slightly subpar, dropping him another eight-tenths of a stroke. That puts him six strokes down.

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But now we reach one of the strongest parts of Tiger's game: He excelled at approach shots from 150-250 yards out, allowing him to pick up an amazing eight strokes on his closest competitors. This matches the highlights of his play. On Saturday, he hit a 4-iron around a stand of trees to within two feet of the hole. And on the last hole of the tourney, Tiger summoned what he called "the best swing I made all week" to land a 5-iron from 177 yards on the green and set up the winning putt. (Even with all of his 2010 struggles, Tiger remains the world's best on long approach shots. As I wrote last month, "His remarkable ball striking from this range is what keeps him in tournaments when other departments of his game are lagging.")

Thanks to his superb long approach shots, Tiger is now two shots up as we turn to the short game. Broadie defines the short game as all shots from 100 yards and in, excluding bunker shots close to the green. Tiger loses two strokes in this department. This fits with the lowlights of Tiger's play, as when he hit a pitching wedge that flew the green and chunked a sand wedge that landed well short of the putting surface. Tiger's touch closer to the green was more assured. He gained four-tenths of a stroke from the sand.

As we finally get to putting, Tiger is fractionally ahead by 0.4 strokes. Even after that clinching putt on Sunday, his below-average long putting cost him four-tenths of a stroke. He also lost another stroke due to his relatively poor performance on putts between three and six feet. He's now one behind his nearest competitors.

Where Tiger pulls away once and for all is midrange putting. He was deadly from seven to 21 feet, gaining 3.5 strokes. Even more remarkable is that he achieved this advantage despite three-putting from inside seven feet on the 10th greenon Sunday.

In Broadie's final analysis, then, it was Tiger's long approach shots and midrange putting that "won" the tournament. So, it is ultimately fair to say that Tiger's win at Bay Hill can be partly attributed to his clutch putting—clutch putting on every single one of the 34 putts he took between seven and 21 feet. That last putt he rolled in from 24 feet just brought him closer to being an average golfer. And where did he pick up the most ground on his competitors? It wasn't on the green; it was far away from the hole, with an iron in his hands.

Broadie's analysis helps us answer a question that it's never really been possible to solve before: How do you accurately compare one player with another? Sure, there's always the final score at the end of 72 holes. But imagine if the kind of analysis that Broadie did at Bay Hill were applied to an entire PGA season. Instead of a confusing, aggregated stat like, say, "total driving," you could have a figure that truly shows who gains the most from their driving skill. You could then use this figure to make better predictions about whether a course would favor a player's strengths. You could also do what Broadie has done: challenge the conventional wisdom of golf that putting is the pre-eminent skill, the dividing line between greatness and failure.