European Captain Luke Donald was one of the first elite pro players to really grasp the value of statistical analysis. Working with Mark Broadie – the ‘Godfather of Strokes-Gained – the clinical Englishman attributes their work as one of the key factors in his rise to the top of the world rankings in 2011.
A professor at Columbia Business School, Broadie is also something of a golf nerd, and for the best part of two decades had been collecting data and conducting his own research into the way golfing statistical analysis could be used.
Broadie began by tracking the head pro at his local course and mapping where he was hitting the ball. With help from colleagues, students, and a wide variety of other academically inclined helpers, Broadie’s database began to take shape and he began to draw a clearer picture of why players scored what they did.
Over the course of a tournament, a full season, and an entire career, marginal gains can have major consequences, so there’s no surprise that at the Ryder Cup, arguably the biggest event in world golf, both teams are leaning heavily on their statisticians in the hope of garnering any sort of advantage that might see them over the line.
And you’ll hear time and again between now and Sunday about how Edoardo Molinari, one of Donald’s vice-captains, has become something of a statistical guru himself, and while he’s helped the likes of Matt Fitzpatrick and Viktor Hovland to elevate their games to whole new levels, I’d argue that when it comes to major determining factors this week, statistics will be well down the charts.
And while it would be foolish to entirely disregard statistical models, there is no statistical model that I’m aware of that can accurately measure the intense pressure of the Ryder Cup. What statistical model can explain how Sergio Garcia, who’s notoriously struggled on the greens week-to-week on the PGA and European Tours, can suddenly turn into Brad Faxon when he’s got the blue and yellow draped on his shoulders?
How can it predict that Tiger Woods, by the far the greatest player of his generation – and for this writer, of all time – can play so horribly in a team environment, losing almost 60% of his matches?
Sometimes, the stats don’t add up. There is team chemistry to be taken into account, there is the golf course, there is the partisan crowd, there is player form and of course, there is lady luck.
The most hotly contested Ryder Cup in recent memory was, of course, at Medinah in 2012 when Europe overcame a four-point deficit on the final day to snatch a 14.5-13.5 win. Discounting Francesco Molinari’s half-point with Woods in the final match, where Woods, having missed a four-footer of his own for the win on 18, conceded Molinari’s putt which was marginally shorter, knowing that a tie meant little to the side having to win the cup back, this was essentially a tied match.
The most important point of the Sunday 12, I’d argue, was that won by Justin Rose against Phil Mickelson, and saw Europe take a clean sweep of the first five matches. Once every few months, I’ll find myself pulling up the extended highlights on YouTube and skipping straight to the 17th hole. For those too young to recall or with ailing memories, Mickelson, from over the back of the green, had a chip to win the match, and Rose, was on the green, but a good 40 feet from the pin.
Mickelson’s chip was a thing of beauty, landing in the perfect spot and with perfect pace, turning left to right as it trundled down the hill before, inexplicably, straightening just before the hole and missing left. Quite how it didn’t go in, I’ll never know. Rose, of course, would hole his lengthy putt – a 4% likelihood according to PGA Tour statistics – and the rest is history.
So don’t sweat on the stats. This is the Ryder Cup. Anything is possible.