Using data in sports isn’t a new concept. When the movie “Moneyball” was released in 2011, many people got their first inside look at analytics in sports. To recap, Brad Pitt portrays the Oakland Athletics’ general manager Billy Beane during their 2002 season. Jonah Hill acts as assistant GM Peter Brand. The movie shows the journey behind assembling a competitive MLB team with a limited budget by using sabermetrics, rather than intuition. The result is a record breaking 20 consecutive wins and a division title. While analytics were introduced to baseball in the early 2000’s and widely accepted shortly after, the story is much different for golf. Even today, coaches, pundits, and players alike are wary of using analytics. However, the new digital age takes no prisoners. Despite golf’s origin being traced back to 1457, there’s always room for improvement.
Deeper Than Odds
Listed as a 66/1 longshot to win the British Open, Irishman Shane Lowry overcame the odds this past weekend to capture the 2019 British Open and hoist the Claret Jug. While odds are certainly fun to analyze and debate, they offer nothing in terms of analytical strategy. Despite their use in Vegas and in writing underdog stories, most golfers couldn’t care less about their odds. The numbers they do care about are those that help them improve their game. That’s where strokes gained comes in. In 2003, Mark Broadie coined this term for a metric he created during his time as an Ivy League Professor. Despite his research of 100,000+ pro and amateur golf shots being purely academic, Mark’s findings completely revolutionized the game of golf. Officially recognized 8 years later, this breakthrough analytics tool was adopted by the PGA Tour ShotLink System in 2011.
Strokes Gained Analytics
The general idea behind strokes gained analytics is that from all points on a course, there is a calculable amount of average strokes it takes to get the ball in the hole. For example, say that the average amount of strokes to get the ball in the hole on a 440 yard par 4 is 4.08. If your drive goes 290 yards into the rough, the average strokes left from this position is 3.28. However, if your drive goes 270 yards onto the fairway, the average strokes left is 2.98. Based on the starting average strokes of 4.08 minus the average strokes left of 2.98 for the fairway shot, you get 1.1. Since you took one shot, 1.1-1=0.10. This means your shorter tee shot gained 0.10 strokes. This is opposed to a longer drive which loses 0.20 strokes (4.08-3.28-1). While these numbers are made up, the lesson remains.
When it comes to strategy, coaches and trainers have begun utilising strokes gained analytics to weigh risks. Stats guru and golf coach Peter Sanders offered his insights. “The message I give to the players I work with is that if you have to lay back 25, 30 or 35 yards to avoid the rough or trouble, you are not giving up any shots,” Sanders said. “You are gaining shots.” He went on to explain, “the average difference between playing from the fairway and hitting the rough is about a quarter of a shot.”
2nd Shot Par 5
Sanders offers another nugget from strokes gained analytics when he discusses your 2nd shot on a par 5 with a green free of hazards. According to the numbers, in this case, you should go for the green rather than laying it up. Sanders shows why this is the case with the chart below:
According to Golfweek, Tour players who go for the green in two shots on a par 5 and hit their third shot from within 50 yards hit the green with their third more often. Their third shot finishes closer to the hole too.
“They cut their error percentage in half, and they cut their average putting distance in half,” Sanders said. “So my message is that if there is no obvious downside, go for the green every time.” Perhaps this advice is worth trying next time you hit the course.
Drive for Show, Putt for Dough?
One of the most convention breaking insights from strokes gained analytics is that your performance on longer approaches is more important than your short game. Founder Mark Broadie explained, “Of course, every golfer has their own DNA, with different strengths and weaknesses… But the basic idea is that if you tell me your median leave from 150, I can tell you how good you are.” Based on Mark’s model, on average, the strokes-gained putting differential between a golfer who shoots 70 and one who shoots 80 is relatively small (1.5 strokes) compared to strokes gained or lost from 100 yards and out (6.5). A similar differential holds true in comparisons of golfers across the board. The takeaway: In a battle of importance, ball striking is king.
Analytics Moving Forward
The use of analytics in golf is still relatively new. However, it is growing. Since the PGA Tour adopted Mark Broadie’s strokes gained in 2011, they’ve expanded the analytics into what it is today. Many other categories have been created in the Tour’s ShotLink database, including strokes gained measures on tee shots, approach shots and shots around the green. Mark believes there’s still room to grow. Limited solely by data availability, Mark is interested in strokes-gained categories that account for factors such as wind, turf conditions and the contours of a shot. Another subject of his latest research has been quantifying performance under pressure. While the work done so far is groundbreaking in itself, the possibilities yet to be discovered are endless.
No matter how you look at it, strokes gained analytics has changed golf. As Rory McIlroy put it, “I’m a big believer in stats… and strokes gained is the best stat that has come into our game for the last, well — ever.” Strokes gained has changed how Tour pros play and practice, how coaches coach, and how caddies caddie. Shane Lowry is no exception. While analytics can’t pick up the club and hit the ball for you, they certainly can inform your strategy and assist your preparation. As we move forward in this new data-enlightened era of golf, we must be prepared to take advantage of all the insights offered. To read more on the matter, click here or here. If you want to check out our last blog, you can find it here. Until next time, cheers to Shane!