Players turn to ShotLink stats to improve game
January 07, 2015
By Sean Martin, PGATOUR.COM
- Zach Johnson ranked 79th in strokes gained-putting last season. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
WINDERMERE, Fla. – Statistics showed Zach Johnson what he needed to improve before he began 2015. You may be surprised to learn which club gave him trouble last season, though.
Johnson is known for a sharp short game, but stats from the 2013-14 season revealed that he putted poorly.
“It was terrible. It was horrible,” Johnson said at last month’s Hero World Challenge. “I think probably most people would assume I flourish in or I am pretty consistent in and excel in … putting. Last year I actually hit the ball pretty good. … So my putting was suspect at best. It was very average.
“Obviously that needs to be part of my emphasis for the next year.”
The holidays are over and the ringing in of the New Year represents, among other things, a return to work. PGA TOUR players are not excluded.
Johnson is the defending champion at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions, which begins Friday in Maui. The first round at Kapalua Resort’s Plantation Course will mark the end of a seven-week break, the longest scheduled pause of the year.
Those off weeks are a time when many players reflect on the past year, take a sober assessment of their game and determine how to continue the ceaseless pursuit of improvement.
Stewart Cink, whose six PGA TOUR victories include the 2009 Open Championship, called the process “Whack-a-Mole golf" because a new problem always seems to pop up.
“You correct one thing, and something else flares up, and it's just constantly you're searching for where you're going to put the next fire out.” he said. “We're not robots. We're human beings.
“It's just the way golf is, and it's part of what makes it such a great game.”
There are many different ways players can attack a weak spot. Perhaps a technical adjustment needs to be made. New equipment might do the trick. Maybe it’s more time practicing that aspect of the game, or creating new drills to re-invigorate their training.
Johnson said last season’s poor putting – he ranked 79th in strokes gained-putting, 48 spots worse than the previous season – was caused by a “combination of technical, mental, probably sometimes even emotional” influences.
Most players view the process of improvement as a slow, gradual one made by small changes here and there. Large swing overhauls are the exception. Instead, it’s about refinement.
“You just have to understand your game, understand what you do well, and just keep improving on that, and weaknesses, improve little by little, and hopefully it all turns out in the end,” said FedExCup champion Billy Horschel. In two seasons, he went from 143rd in the FedExCup to No. 1.
ShotLink stats give players a deeper look at their game by calculating a ball’s proximity to the hole – instead of simply whether it is on the green – and by dividing the statistics into different intervals, i.e. 125-150 yards. ShotLink also makes more advanced metrics, like the “strokes gained” statistics of Columbia University professor Mark Broadie, possible.
The putting stats can be divided into similar intervals to show players how they performed from various distances. Johnson that he continued to putt well from 8 feet and in last season. He was “horrendous,” he said, from 8 feet to 25 feet, though. His coaches will try to pinpoint drills and games that he can perform on the practice green to improve from that range.
Players are often surprised by what the statistics reveal. Instructor Sean Foley tells a story of pupil Justin Rose, who believed he was a poor wedge player. Rose actually was No. 1 in strokes gained from 100 yards and in, Foley said.
"What happens to athletes, because they’re always in the thick of it, they start telling themselves stories," Foley said at the 2014 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, an annual meeting of the best minds in sports statistics.
Jordan Spieth was eighth in total driving on the PGA TOUR in 2013, but he was “bothered,” in his words, by his driving statistics when he looked at the numbers after last season. A change in equipment and strategy did the trick, and contributed to victories at the Australian Open and Hero World Challenge.
“When I looked back I was trying to work it too much both ways off the tee,” said Spieth, who also put a new Titleist 915 driver in his bag.
Players like Johnson, Spieth and Jason Day hold year-end meetings to analyze the past year and map out a plan of improvement for the following one.
For the past few seasons, the ShotLink statistics showed Day that his wedge game needed improvement. It’s an area he addressed and it has paid dividends.
Day, who won the 2014 World Golf Championships-Cadillac Match Play Championship, finished first in proximity to the hole from the fairway from 125-150 yards (18 feet, 7 inches) in 2013-14 after finishing 166th in that category the previous season. He averaged 25 feet, 3 inches in 2013.
“We knew that we needed to improve. It’s sheer numbers. If you have that amount of wedges in your hand and you don’t capitalize on them, you need to … do something about it,” Day said. “If I can get better at those and sneak out one to three more birdies, that could sneak maybe a top-10 or top-5 or a couple more wins a year.”
The statistics also showed him that he still needs to make strides between 50 and 75 yards. He ranked 116th (16 feet, 6 inches) in that category in 2013-14.
“You hate working on (weaknesses), but once you start getting a little bit better at it, then it starts to be a lot more fun because you’re starting to get better,” said Day, who finished 10th in last season’s FedExCup. “If you can make slow and little improvements each and every year in the categories you want to get better at, while maintaining your strengths, then you’re improving.”