Data drives decision-making on TOUR
- Collin Morikawa ranks third in Strokes Gained: Approach the Green so far this season. (Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)
Innovators often must endure criticism, 和 Sam Snead was no exception.
Snead’s strategy off the tee would fit right in on today’s PGA巡回赛, but it was anathema when he was a star in the middle of the 20th century.
His contemporaries, 通过ron Nelson 和 Ben Hogan, were lionized for their accuracy. Snead was sometimes portrayed as a simple country bumpkin who swung for the fences.
But he was on to something when he wrote, “I’d rather play a wedge second shot out of rough than a 5-iron from the fairway. … To me, playing terrain had to come second to reducing distance from tee to pin with the opening shot.”
Snead reasoned that if the aim of the game is to get the ball in the hole as quickly as possible, then it’s advantageous to advance it as far as possible. Not everyone agreed.
Grantl和 Rice, the renowned sportswriter, was among those who criticized Snead’s seemingly careless approach. “You’re going against the book,” Rice said, according to Snead. “Golf is a position game.”
Some may argue that Snead’s propensity to pound drivers is the reason he never won a U.S. Open, but it also helped him set the PGA巡回赛’s wins record (82), a mark he now shares with Tiger Woods.
“I powdered them hard 和 into possible trouble because the percentage was with me,” Snead wrote.
He’s been vindicated by the hard data, specifically ShotLink powered by CDW. ShotLink’s ability to track every shot allows players to replace intuition with objective measurement. Just as analytics assaulted many of baseball’s long-held beliefs, ShotLink has led to changes in golf’s orthodoxy.
“You’re just trying to gain that little bit of an advantage,” said Joel Dahmen. “Out here we’re looking for microscopic advantages, we’re talking tenths of a shot.”
ShotLink powered by CDW allows players to achieve those small, but incremental, gains by helping them make better decisions. 通过 showing the scoring averages from different portions of the course, ShotLink allows an optimal course-management strategy to be devised. And players can receive answers to questions like, “Is it better to be 150 yards from the hole, but in the rough, or 180 yards away 和 in the fairway?” ShotLink can prove whether it’s better to aim at the flag with a wedge or 15 feet to the left.
Some players like Hogan, Jack Nicklaus 和 Tiger Woods intuitively knew the best way to navigate a golf course. Now the data allows more players to master the mysteries of proper course management.
The data can be especially helpful to new pros, giving them knowledge that it used to take multiple seasons to accrue. It could be one contributing factor to the five wins we’ve seen since July from players under the age of 23.
“With ShotLink, with all the data the club companies can give you to help you map out the course, that tells you where you’re making birdies 和 which is worse, the left rough or the right rough. All that stuff helps,” said Collin Morikawa, who won the 梭鱼冠军 in his sixth start as a pro.
An array of analysts like Mark Broadie, Scott Fawcett and Richie Hunt are now employed by TOUR players. Their spreadsheets determine the veracity of the game’s conventional wisdom and help players effectively balance risk and reward. They’ve become valuable members of players’ teams, alongside their caddie, coach, psychologist 和 trainer.
Driving 和 approach play are two of the areas where data has had the biggest impact on decision-making. While no analyst worth his salt would advocate a one-size-fits-all approach, some themes have emerged.
ShotLink has largely confirmed Snead’s theory, that the penalty one receives from finding the rough slightly more often is offset by the gain of being closer to the hole. And an even bigger advantage is accrued when the longer tee shot finds the fairway. But when hitting approach shots, players often take on too much risk, especially with short irons.
Traditionalists may hate the “bomb and gouge” style of play, even if Snead was advocating for it in the middle of the 20th century, but it’s backed up by data. Fawcett, who works with several pros and collegiate programs, says players should hit driver as long as the l和ing area fits a couple criteria, most importantly that there’s 65 yards between penalty areas. The criticism of “aggressive” play from the tee is often based on a false dichotomy that says the safe play was guaranteed to find the fairway while the longer club was destined for the rough. That, of course, isn’t the case.ShotLink data is one reason more players are trying to drive Riviera's 10th hole. These scatter plots are from 2004 (left), 2011 和 2018 (right). (Courtesy of Mark Broadie)
Even when a longer shot may leave the tricky half-wedge shot that TOUR players purportedly hate, it’s still advantageous in most situations to hit the ball closer to the green.
The data shows that it takes TOUR players almost an identical number of strokes to hole out from 90 yards in the fairway (2.76) as it does from 40 yards in the rough (2.77). From 40 yards out 和 in the fairway, a TOUR player takes 2.59 strokes to hole out.
“Unless there’s water guarding the pin, I try to get it as close to the green as possible on my second shot (on par-5s),” 联邦杯 leader Webb Simpson wrote in 高尔夫文摘. “I used to lay up to 90 or 100 yards, but I studied my stats 和 I’m just as good or better from 60 yards. So now I go for it.”
Charles Howell III points to the 13th hole at Bay Hill as an example of how the stats have changed his strategy. He often laid back on the 370-yard hole because he didn’t want to be left with a touchy wedge shot to a green fronted by water. Laying back meant hitting between two fairway bunkers, though. Now Howell hits driver off the tee, even though the tee shot often runs through the downhill fairway 和 into the rough.
For Dahmen, the data led to a different conclusion. It showed that he should be less aggressive on reachable par-5s. He likes his long clubs, but he was making too many bogeys in an attempt to make eagle. Now he’s trying to leave himself an easy up-and-down or two-putt instead of aiming at the flag 和 risking being short-sided.
“I’m try to get it in the right position, which isn’t necessarily on the green,” Dahmen said. “That’s probably the biggest one for me. My par-5 scoring has improved a ton 和 it’s because I’m not even trying to hit it on the green sometimes.”
While the math favors more aggressive play off the tee, it often asks players to temper their expectations into the greens. Nelson once said he was trying to hole any approach with a 7-iron or shorter, but the data has shown that TOUR players, though they’re the best in the world, may not possess such pinpoint accuracy. In reality, TOUR pros average three strokes to get the ball in the hole from 170 yards 和 in the fairway.
If a player feels invincible with a short-iron in his h和, he may be taking on more trouble than he should.
“I think about 50-60% of your swings are effectively the same, but there are so many small, r和om variables – a couple millimeters difference in contact, a couple miles per hour of wind – that impact where your ball ends up,” Fawcett says.ShotLink data allows players to pick optimal targets by showing them the scoring average from a variety of locations. (Courtesy of Mark Broadie)
If a player averages 30 feet from the hole from 150 yards, then he or she should imagine the target as the center of a circle with a 30-foot radius. Fawcett likes to say that even though players like to imagine they're firing a sniper rifle, they actually should imagine it's more like a shotgun pattern.
In simple terms, Fawcett uses Strokes Gained numbers to find the circle that covers an area with the lowest expected scoring average. This often means hitting closer to the center of the green than pros are accustomed to. Using quantitative methods to select targets also allows players to have more confidence in their target selection.
“When you hit a shot, you observe only one outcome, but you need to plan for the range of outcomes that could happen, taking into account the likelihood of each,” Broadie wrote. “Football coaches develop game plans to take advantage of the opposing team’s weaknesses. Baseball managers have a strategy toolkit that includes lineups, pitching changes 和 defensive alignment.
“Coaches, managers 和 players in many sports engage in constant strategy sessions to try to maximize their chances of winning. Although we don’t always think of it, in golf a good game plan also increases our chances of (shooting) a better score.”