A numbers game: The growing importance of stats
August 26, 2014
By Gene Yasuda, PGATOUR.COM
- New statistical information is not only changing how players practice and compete, it's transforming how fans view and engage in the game. (Rob Carr/Getty Images)
For Steve Evans, the "a-ha moment" came at the 1999 Reno-Tahoe tournament, when the PGA TOUR deployed a crew of volunteers, armed with laser equipment, to begin collecting data about players' performance and shot results.
The research effort's intent was to uncover ways to accelerate the PGA TOUR's scoring system so it could provide results in real time. But, as with many experiments, the unexpected occurred: In the time it took to chart one hole, the exercise debunked one of golf's gospel truths.
"If you're going to lay up, lay up to where you have a full shot – that's what you were always told," said Evans, the PGA TOUR's senior vice president of information systems. "But it was very clear on this one particular par 5 that the players who attempted to get on the green and get closer to the hole had scored much better than the players who hadn't."
News of the discovery spread through the caddie ranks, and before long, players began altering their strategy to attack the hole. Said Evans: "That's when we realized, 'Wow, we're on to something.' "
What happened in Reno provided just an inkling of the power of statistical analysis. Since then, the dawn of a new era of metrics – fueled by the TOUR's ShotLink technology powered by technology partner CDW, along with new media that make data instantly accessible to anyone almost anywhere – is changing the game in previously unimaginable ways.
The data collection, in turn, yielded innovations such as Strokes Gained: Putting that have made "putts per round" seem quaint, if not obsolete. And more new statistical measures are on the way. On Tuesday, the PGA TOUR unveiled Strokes Gained: Tee to Green, which will show how players have gained or lost ground to the field based on their all-around, ball-striking abilities. In addition, Strokes Gained: Total will now provide the overall number combined from the Tee-to-Green and Putting stats.
These enhancements not only are redefining how PGA TOUR players practice and compete, they're transforming how fans view and engage in the game. Whether it's through PGATOUR.COM or mobile apps, fans now can do their own "deep dive" into data to better understand how tournaments are unfolding or how their favorite players are faring. And soon, everyday golfers will be able to use these analytical tools to improve their own golf performance – in real life or fantasy games.
As early as next year, for example, fans can expect a "fantasy game selector" at PGATOUR.COM, which Evans describes as an interactive feature designed to help predict tournament winners. It would enable users to select a tournament venue, identify statistical categories that most closely correlated to player success, and view a list of PGA TOUR players who have performed the best at that site. Then, users could prioritize or weight statistical categories that they believe most likely will influence outcome.
"As you make those choices, your ranked list of who should perform the best at that tournament would change before your eyes," Evans said. "We think that's significantly better than looking at tables."
Indeed, the modern dissemination of statistics is magnifying data's impact. For the past decade, the PGA TOUR has pursued distribution relentlessly with the goal of better entertaining and informing viewers and spectators alike.
"When you see a CBS telecast, and they tell you that a player has a 45 percent chance of making a putt or he hasn't missed a putt inside 10 feet this week… That's typically coming from a tour analyst who's embedded in the broadcast compound to help enrich the network's storytelling," Evans said.
The PGA TOUR's investment in statistics hardly stops there: Currently, it uses 11 LED scoreboards at every tournament to display real-time data. At each venue, it stations more than 100 computers equipped with "Tournament Tracker" enabling journalists, for example, to compare a player's tournament statistics versus his performance year-to-date to provide greater depth to their stories. A sophisticated leaderboard at PGATOUR.COM provides depictions of golf holes and players' shots as well as in-depth scorecard statistics. And down the road, Evans said, it's conceivable that the PGA TOUR could "push notifications" using blue-tooth technology to tournament spectators, alerting them about players in their vicinity and sending pertinent performance statistics.
But as interesting as individual bits of data may be, they're not nearly as informative until they're mined to reveal trends and insight. That's where Mark Broadie entered the picture. The Columbia Business School professor began analyzing the data that the PGA TOUR had amassed and played a leading role in the creation of Strokes Gained: Putting, which debuted in 2011.
Previous putting standards were flawed primarily because they counted putts without factoring putt length, which is a key measure of difficulty: Two putts from 60 feet, a good outcome, or two putts from 1 foot, a poor outcome, both counted equally as two putts. But strokes gained accounts for proficiency from various distances and compares it against the performance of other players, showing how many strokes are gained or lost.
"If you say this golfer gained three strokes on the field putting, it's pretty intuitive what it means even if they don't know how it's calculated," Broadie said. "Strokes gained really has become the 'go-to' putting stat."
For PGA TOUR players and their instructors such measures have been invaluable in better assessing performance and questioning conventional wisdom. In an earlier interview with PGATOUR.COM, renown teacher Sean Foley said: "So much of what we believe is handed down through nostalgia and what have you."
Using strokes gained, he said, provides empirical evidence to recommend changes in tournament strategy. It also comes in handy when bolstering a player's psyche.
"If you look at probability, players can fall into a slump," Foley said. "When they really start to struggle is when they actually believe they are in a slump." But by showing them information validating their strengths, he added, "You can help them realize that if they just keep putting one foot in front of another they will come out on the other side."
It won't be long before amateur golfers will be able to apply strokes gained to improve their games, too.
Indeed, GPS-based technology already exists that enables golfers to record shot distance with every club they use during a round. According to Broadie, however, GPS accuracy can vary by as much as three yards, rendering putt measurements virtually worthless. By comparison, Broadie said the lasers the PGA TOUR uses to collect data measure accurately to within a foot for tee-to-green shots and within an inch for putts.
"For amateurs it's still a bit of work to enter your own data, and there's the issue of how can you make it more accurate," he said. "But the technology is progressing."
Once such systems become available, Broadie said amateurs can compare their performance with PGA TOUR statistics to gauge improvement – or the lack thereof.
With the continuing emergence of better tools to gather information and improved hardware and software to analyze it, the statistical possibilities and ramifications for golf are endless, Broadie said. For example, researchers could study data to predict the impact playing shorter courses will have on scores. He also said the USGA is attaching sensors to golfers in a quest to find ways to improve pace of play.
"There's a lot more statistical work that can be done," Broadie said. "It all depends upon what questions you ask."