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?

A ShotLink volunteer in action. Click image to expand.
A ShotLink volunteer in action

At every PGA tournament, tucked away in a parking lot among the beverage trucks and television satellites, there's a white trailer with "ShotLink" emblazoned on the side. When I climb up the stairs and open the door, it's like stepping into a Dell computer—everything is gray and black. Five guys are looking at their laptop screens and making polite requests on two-way radios. They are talking to volunteers out on the course. The volunteers, about 200 of them, are using lasers to track every shot taken by every player.

I stand behind one of the ShotLink producers, Jason Stefanacci, and watch the shots roll in. The first round of the AT&T National is in progress, and 40 threesomes of pro golfers are making their way around the course. The par is 70, which means that the ShotLink team will record around 8,400 shots today. Since ShotLink became fully operational in 2003, the system has recorded more than 7 million golf shots: shots that have landed in trees, shots that have landed in spectators' laps, four-putt greens, double eagles.

Bundled together, those 7 million shots make up the richest dataset in sports. These shots teach us about the dynamics of competition: Do golfers really play worse when Tiger Woods is in the field? They teach us about choking: Do golfers who are in contention on Sunday miss more easy putts? And they help us answer golf-world conundrums that have always floated above the fairway, in the realm of hunches and best guesses: What separates an average pro from a champion?

We're in a golden age for golf research because the PGA Tour has opened ShotLink's books to researchers. Two professors at the Wharton school, for example, looked at 1.6 million tour putts and concluded that professional golfers are risk-averse. They examined putts for par and putts for birdie from the same distances and discovered that pros make the birdie putts less often. They suggest that pros leave these birdie putts short out of fear of making bogey, and then calculate that this bogey terror—and the resultant failure to approach birdie putts in the same way as par putts—costs the average tour player about one stroke per tournament.

Advertisement

It's insights like these that offer the provoking notion that a Moneyball-type revolution awaits golf. Of course, professional golf is not analogous to baseball, where a general manager spends his days trawling for inefficiencies, coldly evaluating the players on the field and trading for those he believes will perform the best. In baseball, the groundbreaking research of Bill James and his cohort was important not just because it showed fans and math buffs how baseball works. It also changed the way baseball was played as teams used Jamesian statistical insights to earn a tactical advantage.

There are no general managers on the PGA Tour. The golfer, with help from a caddie and coaches, must evaluate himself, searching for inefficiencies in his own game: Am I putting as well as the other guys? Is my wedge play up to snuff?

For touring pros, the new statistics and research can provide clear answers to these questions. When a player qualifies for the PGA Tour, he's given a laptop that he can use to access all of his stats. But is it a good idea for an elite athlete to fill his head with numbers? When I talked to PGA Tour players, many were skeptical about how stats could help them. Some, like U.S. Open champ Lucas Glover, were openly disgusted.

Me: "Hey, Lucas, do you ever look at your ShotLink stats?"
Lucas (South Carolina drawl): "Ab-so-lutely not."

Glover went on to express a perception on tour that ShotLink is disorganized and often wrong. That may have been partly true in the system's early years, but ShotLink is now a tight ship. I watched as the ShotLink producers corrected errors in real time and asked volunteers to verify any shot that looked out of whack. Besides, even if a few errors slip into ShotLink during a tournament, it's hard to ignore 7 million shots. Those shots are going to tell a true story, perhaps one that a golfer may not want to hear.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are players who have truly scrutinized the data to find holes in their game. I spent a long time on the range talking stats with Chris Stroud, a young Texan looking to make his name on the PGA Tour. He prints out all of his ShotLink numbers at the end of the year and analyzes them with his coaching team to figure out his weaknesses. This year, he noticed his putting, chipping, and bunker play were lacking, so that's where he put in the majority of his practice time.