Luke Donald, Edoardo Molinari and the small edges that win the Ryder Cup: Team Europe’s latest frontier into embracing analytics
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Written by Paul Hodowanic @PaulHodowanic
Luke Donald and Edoardo Molinari glanced at each other and smiled.
Asked how they might use analytics to gain an advantage at the upcoming Ryder Cup, the two locked eyes briefly. It wasn’t something to answer right then. It was for the media, fans and the U.S. Team to find out themselves.
“Well, there’s a lot of things you can do with data these days,” Molinari said with a grin.
The Ryder Cup is won and lost during three days of intensely passionate and unconscionably nerve-wracking match play. It’s three days that can define careers, conjures tears and fuel a two-year news cycle until the next one comes around.
Yet, in between, there is a different battle. One shrouded in secrecy. One of the numbers. One designed to tilt the scales for those three days of play. One Donald and Molinari are uniquely suited to fight – and win.
The Ryder Cup is perhaps the event where analytics can have their greatest impact. The course can be manipulated to the host team’s liking. Pairings for Foursomes and Four-ball have become an exercise in optimization. Both teams have a half-dozen captain’s picks as they seek the flexibility to choose complementary skill sets instead of simply looking at results. All these decisions are heavily influenced by numbers.
For more than a decade, Donald and Molinari have been at the forefront of advanced statistics in golf. Donald credits Strokes Gained data for playing an integral role in his rise to world No. 1. Molinari is a former Ryder Cupper himself, as well as a U.S. Amateur champion and DP World Tour winner. He still plays professionally and runs a burgeoning golf analytics business that boasts some of the game’s top players as clients.
Their careers were built on finding fractional advantages using statistics. Now the two are at the helm of the European Ryder Cup Team – Donald as captain, Molinari as an assistant captain – and ready to do the same at Marco Simone Golf & Country Club in Molinari’s home country of Italy.
“This game is all about finding those incrementals,” Donald said. “You add those all up and hopefully it results in a trophy for Europe.”
Vice Captain Edoardo Molinari (left) smiles with Ryder Cup Team Europe Captain Luke Donald (right) during an interview before the Zurich Classic of New Orleans at TPC Louisiana. (Alex Sturgill/PGA TOUR)
Donald and Molinari reached out to Mark Broadie independently of each other. It was 2010 and they were in search of an edge.
Even back then, distance ruled golf. Neither Donald nor Molinari possessed the raw power or innate talent to reach the pinnacle of the professional game without finding another avenue to excel.
They had an affinity for data, though. And Broadie, a Columbia Business School professor, was on the precipice of releasing the Strokes Gained model, which would become a critical advancement in modern golf statistics.
Molinari was doing his own numbers – tracking every shot he hit since 2003 and inputting it into his custom software. But he struggled to convert it into actionable insights. Stats like total putts, greens/fairways hit and sand saves weren’t telling the whole story. Was it because of the bunker shot or the putt that he converted a sand save? Did he hit a green in regulation because of a great approach shot or an amazing drive that made his next shot green much easier?
He and Broadie spent a few days together and hit it off. Molinari, an engineering major in college, implemented Strokes Gained into his system and found the conclusions he was looking for. It informed him of his practice habits and helped him win twice on the DP World Tour in 2010 and make that year’s European Ryder Cup Team.
“Edoardo was Matt Fitzpatrick before Matt Fitzpatrick,” said Broadie.
Fitzpatrick has become well known for charting every single shot he hit. He was also the first client of StatisticGolf, the analytics consulting company that Molinari started in 2020.
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Donald was introduced to Broadie through Pat Goss, his college coach at Northwestern, who remained his coach after turning pro. Goss studied economics in school and had long emphasized the importance of stats. When Donald turned pro, the duo had access to the TOUR’s ShotLink data, which helped their efforts. But like Molinari, Broadie’s Strokes Gained completed Donald’s puzzle.
They concluded that Donald would need to gain two strokes on the field daily if he wanted to reach No. 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking. With his slight frame, it wouldn’t come from the driver. Instead of trying to chase distance, Donald structured practices to strengthen his strengths. Iron play, short game and putting became the priority. He started using the data in 2010 and became the world No. 1 in May 2011. He held the top spot for a total of 56 weeks, seventh-most since the OWGR was introduced in 1986.
“He needed factual proof of where he needed to be better. You couldn’t sell Luke Donald B.S.,” Goss said. “It gave him an advantage. Luke gained confidence from knowing he was using data and others weren’t.”
Over the years, understanding and embracing data has gone from a niche strategy to a necessary task. Molinari and Donald are no longer the outliers they once were. The game’s top players have data analysts. Strokes Gained has become a widely used statistic known by casual fans. Both Ryder Cup squads have statisticians on hand to crunch the numbers.
Team Europe was the first to prioritize it in the mid-2010s. It peaked in France in 2018. The Europeans were lauded for how they set up Le Golf National to maximize their players' strengths while tugging at the weaknesses of the Americans. They deemed the U.S. Team had a distance advantage off the tee but was less accurate. So Europe narrowed fairways and grew the rough to make misses more punitive. They pushed back the gallery ropes, noticing when the Americans did hit it offline, it was by an average of 30 feet. They didn’t want the United States’ wayward shots landing in rough that had been trampled down by spectators. The Europeans also strategically moved tee boxes to avoid specific approach yardages that the stats deemed more favorable for the Americans. Europe won 17.5-10.5.
The European Team has historically been very good at using data to determine successful partners for Foursomes, also known as alternate shot. Europe has won the Foursomes sessions in nine of the last 14 Ryder Cups. They went 6-2 in 2018.
However, Europe’s supposed advantage came into question after the 19-9 loss at Whistling Straits in 2021. With control over the golf course, the Americans accurately assessed and exploited the European Team’s faults. The U.S. set up the course to maximize length and dominated in Foursomes, winning six of eight matches against Europe.
“Every little bit of innovation that Europe has introduced to make an edge, (the United States) now have,” Padraig Harrington, the European captain in 2021, told Golf Digest. “They do what we do. So it’s going to be hard to find an edge going forward. I’m not sure there is one.”
In decades past, the European team was comprised mainly of DP World Tour players who consistently played different styled golf courses that required different skill sets.
But now, with the European team comprised mainly of players who compete primarily on the PGA TOUR, the playbook from Le Golf National may already be outdated. The average driving distance of the U.S. Team is 305.6 yards. The European Team averages 308.5 yards. The U.S. Team is slightly more accurate, hitting 60.3% of fairways to 59.7% for Team Europe.
“It’s not (as) much of a huge difference as it used to be 10 years or so ago,” Molinari said.
A cynic might call that a smoke screen – a bit of gamesmanship as Europe devises a plan to answer. While big-picture distance trends are converging, the details could be different. If someone is going to find them, it’s Molinari. His stats dive much deeper than basic driving distance and accuracy ranks, making the potential course changes even more advanced and harder to detect. He can calculate any combination of scenarios, like how often players short-side themselves from 150 yards when the pin is on the front left of the green. He can analyze who is better on downhill, left-to-right 7-footers or 25-foot putts when the green Stimps at 12. The European Team can run predictive models, too, using a repository of player data from ShotLink combined with data gathered at the Italian Open, which was played at Marco Simone for the last three years. If there are any trends to mine from the troves of data, Molinari has found them.
He’s even exploring concepts more ambiguous, like the order the U.S. Team will send out its pairings.
“There are hints here and there,” Molinari said with a coy chuckle.
Maybe the advantage is simply just Donald and Molinari. The statisticians on the U.S. side are capable. They have access to data very similar to the European side. But they don’t have the same cache.
There’s a weight when Donald and Molinari speak to the players about stats. They have been in the players’ shoes. They understand the feelings involved in playing a Ryder Cup. Molinari knows what it is like to be asked to sit a session when you would rather be playing. Donald has seen how difficult it can be for players to change partners in the middle of the competition.
In an event as emotional as the Ryder Cup, what the data says is less important than who relays it. And there’s full buy-in from the players on Team Europe that this is the right strategy. They are not using numbers just to use numbers.
Justin Rose embraced that fact in his pursuit of a captain’s pick. He couldn’t get by with his experience alone.
“You have to play good enough golf statistically,” Rose said. “They look at things very much in depth these days rather than reputation.”
“There’s a big level of trust that (Molinari) obviously knows what he is talking about,” Rory McIlroy said, “and what he’s giving us is good information.”
It helps that Molinari works with more than 30 golfers spanning the PGA TOUR, DP World Tour, PGA TOUR Champions and the LPGA. The list includes three Ryder Cup participants – Fitzpatrick, Viktor Hovland and Nicolai Hojgaard. If there’s any skepticism in the room, it is quickly quelled by their testimonials.
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Hovland called Molinari “a genius with the stats.” Fitzpatrick said he’s “one of the smartest people I’ve ever met.” He can memorize a full deck of cards within a few minutes.
Molinari sent biweekly reports to Donald during the season, detailing how potential Ryder Cup players performed, how their statistics were trending and analyzed whether their games fit Marco Simone. Molinari has spoken with most of the players on the team, devising a plan on how to communicate information best to each individual. Some may want to know everything; others may just want to play golf. To fully understand analytics is also to understand its limitations. At some point statistics and intuition have to meet.
In that way, Molinari and Donald seem like an ideal pairing. Molinari is the quant: a classic left brain who can make the numbers do anything but understands it isn’t the only factor. Donald has embraced data throughout his career but maintains a cerebral side. He went to school as an art theory and practice major. He focused on organizing the week for players, wives and caddies – everything from accommodations to team-room decor and gifting. He read over half a dozen books on team building and leadership before the event.
There’s still work left. Pairings need to be finalized, last-minute changes to the golf course are still possible. Yet when the first tee shots are finally hit Friday, their jobs are largely complete. Their battle is over. The next three days are determined by the players. All Donald and Molinari can do is watch.