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Golf’s Statistical Revolution is Here

Golf’s Statistical Revolution is Here

Jan. 21, 2013

pebbleshotlinkGolfWorld published a wonderful piece on the statistical breakthroughs ShotLink is making, now that academics and statisticians are poring through 10 years of data. You have probably heard of the new putting metric coined “strokes gained,” which — long story short — measures how good a player is at making putts from every distance, compared to the rest of the field.

Well now, Columbia professor Mark Broadie is helping the PGA Tour develop metrics for strokes gained in driving, on approach shots, and with the short game.

The Age of Golf Enlightment is here. Prepare for some myth busting:

Many of the results show that conventional wisdom is not to be trusted. For example, breaking down the ShotLink numbers for the top 40 players from 2004 to 2012, Broadie shows that approach shots accounted for 40 percent of their scoring advantage, driving accounted for 28 percent, the short game (shots off the green and inside 100 yards) for 17 percent and putting for 15 percent.

That’s right. Short game and putting combine for just 32% of strokes gained. Driving nearly matches that by itself (28%), and approach shots (40%) dwarf both. More than two-thirds of all strokes gained are through driving and approach shots. Maybe it’s not so bad to spend all day on the range, after all.

What do these stats mean? The more times you hit it close to the hole, the better chance you have to score well. You don’t have to make all your opportunities, just enough. How do you hit it close to the hole? With big drives and short irons, or elite iron play.gwar05-shotlink-feature-0113

These stats finally look at the idea that Bubba Watson’s prodigious drives are worth more than simply a fairway hit. Hey, the 2012 Masters showed us that even when Watson yanks a shot into the trees, he has an easier recovery shot than the rest of us because he only needs a gap wedge to reach the green. Louis Oosthuizen missed the fairway in that playoff, too. But he couldn’t even reach the green with his approach shot. Driving matters. Even long and crooked has its advantages.

These stats also show us that Tiger Woods is the premier iron-player in the game, as he gained 1.64 strokes per round in 2013 with his approach shots — more than a half a shot better than the next player on Tour. Maybe that’s why Woods won five times and is No. 1 in the world, even though it seems to be accepted that he is no longer the clutch putter he once was. (The stats had him 22nd in strokes-gained putting last year, if you want to confirm or deny his current clutchness.)

In the summer issue of NCGA Golf magazine, I participated in our Point-Counterpoint: Is Drive for Show and Putt for Dough True?

I knew that you could be a mediocre putter on the PGA Tour and still have a great year. The only player to finish first in strokes gained and win Player of the Year was Luke Donald in 2011. Rory McIlroy ranked 82nd in 2012. Jim Furyk was 26th in 2010. Padraig Harrington was below the Tour average in 2008, finishing 118th. Vijay Singh was the Tour average in 2005, at 104th.

While making putts is certainly valuable, it was apparent that putting is overvalued. Why aren’t Steve Stricker, Brandt Snedeker and Donald winning everything they enter? How come all three of them are still searching for their first major?

The stat I leaned on last summer was birdie or better percentage on par 5s. It’s a stat Tiger Woods dominated in his heyday, and one that a string of recent major champions excelled in. It tells a story — you can dominate par 5s and basically play the rest of the course in even par — but it doesn’t tell the whole story. What about those other 14 to 16 holes? We can’t just assume that everyone will play them the same, right?

Now we are beginning to learn more of the story. When strokes-gained was introduced on the greens, it was a putting metric far superior to anything else out there. But we were still using overly simplistic stats as we pretended to measure other facets of the game. Now we can begin to understand how beneficial it is to be a strong driver, or a better long-iron player, and just how many strokes short-game wizards save around the green (as well as how many they are wasting on the rest of the course).

But these stats are just the beginning.

As anyone who plays the game knows, not all shots are created equal. There are recovery shots, bad lies, even trees in the middle of fairways. A 10-footer straight up the hill is a little different than a 10-footer racing down a slope. Sometimes it’s better to have a 20-yard shot with green to work with, instead of short-siding yourself, even if you are just 20 feet away from the hole.

And these are all problems people like Broadie are working on.

“I’ve spent quite a long time thinking about that problem,” says Broadie, who is currently working with a grad student on a research project in that area. “We are taking a look at how we can adjust strokes gained for other factors that can be measured in the data, like whether a player is short-sided, the elevation change between the ball and the hole, the slope of the green, the angle relative to the fall line and the kind of lie if that is available.”

But no doubt, this is an exciting time. Golf isn’t on par with analytics in baseball, basketball, football and soccer, but at least it is beginning to close the gap.

-Kevin Merfeld

Author: Kevin Merfeld

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