Moneyball

Ivan Morris
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Shane Lowry in Pebble Beach, California. (Photo by David Cannon/Getty Images)

Seve was great because he hit so many great shots no matter where he found himself on the golf course. Faldo was great because he hit so few poor shots and was rarely out of position. Crenshaw was the greatest putter, but his long game did not put him in contention often enough to cash in. Rory’s superior long game puts him in contention more often than most, but average putting prevents him from winning almost every time.

Previously, statistical record keeping in golf was flawed. Keeping track of the number of fairways and greens hit and the total of putts is far from being the full story. New data is debunking long held theories like “Drive for show: putt for dough.”

The number crunching Columbia University professor, Mark Broadie, has produced evidence based on Moneyball theories in his book, EVERY SHOT COUNTS that prove hitting the ball a long way matters ‘more than anything’, provided, of course, that the long hitter stays out of trouble.

All of this information that Broadie gathers is due to the PGA Tour’s ShotLink system, which tracks every shot by every player at every tournament. It’s a statistical revolution similar to what we see in other sports. No sport lends itself better to the gathering of such information than golf.

It doesn’t matter if a golfer stays off the fairway – as long as he has a free shot at the green. It doesn’t matter if he misses a short putt occasionally or doesn’t hole any long putts as long as in every round, he ‘stiffs’ a couple of approaches. It doesn’t matter if he misses a few greens, as long as he chips within four feet every time because it has been statistically proven that there is a dramatic difference in success rates in holing from 4-feet over holing from 5-feet.

Perhaps, the most surprising fact to be uncovered is that professionals are not that much better at putting than a ‘good amateur’. Pros ARE better but not by much. The big difference is in the tee to green shots, especially the number of times the pro will fire one close to the hole from long distances. Watching pros sinking putts on TV is misleading because that medium concentrates on those having a good week. If more attention was paid to the also-rans – you’d see plenty of putts missed. The long game is the separator between the best and the average and when some extra distance is involved, even more so. It’s hardly a surprise to be told that the better players are that little bit better at everything, especially hitting the ball further and closer.

Broadie maintains that putting is overvalued and an extra five miles per hour in club head speed is undervalued irrespective of finding fairways. You’ll meet many disbelievers in that theory except it isn’t a theory, it’s a scientific fact. ShotLink measures and records every shot that is played on the PGA Tour these days. The facts are there; all that is needed is for them to be collated, separated and analyzed.

It is not so much that someone is rated 1st or 150th in driving distance or putts per green gained that counts – but why? Personally, I’ll never undervalue good putting because if you boil it all down, while you have to play well to be in contention, you always have to putt better than usual in order to win. Also, you can play humdrum golf and win with extraordinary putting. Most golfers have done that at least once in their lives. Hitting the ball well doesn’t equate with playing well. Every good player bar none is a long hitter these days, but every long hitter isn’t a good player. There are ‘intangibles’ to be considered such as the emotional side of golf; managing your thinking habits and strategies efficiently – including the way you practice, train and prepare. Measure those ShotLink!

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