What can stat geeks tell us about what it takes to win on the links?

The stadium scene.
June 18 2009 1:23 PM

Moneygolf

What can stat geeks tell us about what it takes to win on the links?

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The real-world application of this insight can be seen in the "bomb and gouge" strategy on par 5s. Whereas players were once criticized for being reckless by stretching to reach a par 5 in two shots, it's now conventional tour wisdom to crush your drive as far as you can. No worries if it lands in the rough—it's better strategy to dig it out and try for the green in two.

Some gurus like Hank Haney, who coaches Tiger, hold that power is the most important factor for determining the potential of a golfer. Haney represents a school of golf thinking that's annoyed by the importance of putting. Ben Hogan is on record as complaining that "there is no similarity between golf and putting. They are two different games, one played in the air, the other on the ground." Some former pros have suggested that putts be worth half a stroke, or that the hole be made twice as big.

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This last idea caught the fancy of Mark Broadie, the golf researcher. Who would benefit from a larger golf hole? Good putters or bad putters? Your gut would say good putters. They're already burning the edges of the cup, so more of their putts would fall in. But when Broadie ran a simulation, he discovered that the bad putters would be doing more high-fives around the green. It turns out that the good putters don't have many 3-putts. They are 1-putting or 2-putting most greens and simply don't have a lot of room to improve. The bad putters would see some of their 3-putts become 2-putts and pick up strokes.

Broadie also pokes a hole in another piece of conventional golf wisdom. Many good golfers have a distance from the green where they feel most comfortable hitting approach shots—perhaps they like to hit a 9-iron from 120 yards. So, on a par 5, if they can't reach the green in two, they will often hit their second shot into that comfort zone, the strategy being that it's better to groove a 9-iron than to sweat over a 40-yard wedge. Broadie has found that the "comfort zone" feeling doesn't hold up. Everybody gets better—they hit it closer—when they are closer to the green.

Though Broadie questions some elements of professional golf strategy, he hastens to point out that the pros are significantly better at all aspects of the game than amateurs. Indeed, stats get most useful when you start to look at mortal golfers—our mistakes make more of a dent in the data. Broadie has created a software application called Golfmetrics that helps capture the rounds of weekend hackers and scratch golfers alike. At the 2008 World Scientific Congress of Golf, Broadie presented his finding that consistency is underrated in golf. High handicappers are harmed most by the few absurdly bad shots in each round, like, say the wedge you skull 40 feet sideways.

In support of Haney, Broadie says that the long game is what separates the pros from the rest of us. The ability to hit it both longer and straighter is huge. Here is Broadie's vivid example: "If a low-handicap golfer had Tiger Woods do all of the putting, the gain would be about 2.2 shots per round, but having Tiger Woods hit all shots over 100 yards would lower the score by about 9.3 shots per round." But once you start comparing pros to pros, putting becomes important again. Indeed, the margins of skill difference between great pros and slightly greater pros are so slim that you must put down your calculator and start discussing the unquantifiable mental aspects of the game. Which is to say that you have left the realm of Moneygolf far behind.

Oh, what's that, I've forgotten something? Yes, Tiger Woods will win the U.S. Open this week. Just don't expect him to make many 20 footers.

Slate V: How To Make Golf Exciting

Michael Agger is an editor at The New Yorker. Follow him on Twitter.