Down To The Putt: Golf Analytics Gain Traction

Numbers crunching has become a big deal in sports. Analytics have been slower to take hold in the tradition-bound game of golf, but it is happening. NPR's Tom Goldman reports on the phenomenon from the tournament most steeped in tradition, the Masters.

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JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

And now, a report from the Masters Golf Tournament in Augusta, Ga. Not about the azaleas and history that tug at our hearts. This is a story about the head.

Numbers-crunching has become a big deal in sports, particularly baseball; where data whiz kids have worked their way into Major League front offices. Analytics has been slower to take hold in the tradition-bound game of golf, but it's happening. NPR's Tom Goldman reports on the phenomenon from the tournament most steeped in tradition.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: There are moments that stop you in your tracks at Augusta: a warbling bird perched in one of those stately Georgia pines, a breathtaking vista as you cross the fairway, the beauty and romance of golf at its finest. Certainly not a place for stat geeks, but, shh, one walks among them.

SEAN MARTIN: You know, there's romantics who think that all these guys are just coldhearted number crunchers sitting in a basement just banging away. But I think they're really people that love the game and just want people to understand better what they're seeing. And that's what it's all about.

GOLDMAN: Sean Martin is the managing editor of GolfWeek.com and a guy who loves counterintuitive thinking. And that's why he wants to see the money-ball phenomenon spread through golf as it has most successfully in baseball.

MARTIN: You're learning things that went against the old-school knowledge that, you know, helped people find new ways to win, new ways to succeed. And I just found that stuff fascinating.

GOLDMAN: Money-ball-like analytics became possible in golf in 1999. That's when the ShotLink System started collecting detailed stats on the PGA Tour. Volunteers with surveying equipment started tracking every shot, every putt. It turned what Martin calls vague stats, simply shots from the fairway, into specific ones, how good the player was from 125 yards, 100 yards and so on.

Martin says a major breakthrough came a few years ago when Columbia University Business School professor Mark Broadie created a stat called Strokes-Gained Putting.

MARTIN: It's the best putting statistic around. It's the best measure of who's actually the best putter.

GOLDMAN: Essentially, it breaks down the average number of putts by players from each distance, then it measures how many putts you had against those averages. If less, you're picking up strokes on the field. If more, you're probably falling behind. Martin says it helps players parse the details of a critically important part of the game.

MARTIN: Some guys might realize, you know, I'm not making enough 15 footers. I'm three putting too many times from 40 feet or, you know, maybe I'm making a lot of six footers, and that part of my game is good right now.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Good shot, Luke. Good shot. Luke.

GOLDMAN: England's Luke Donald started his day at Augusta five strokes out of the lead. From 2011 to 2012, Donald was the number one ranked player in the world for 56 weeks. And part of his success is due to his embrace of analytics, an easy embrace considering his coach since 1997 has been Pat Goss, who also teaches the men's team at Northwestern University.

PAT GOSS: You know, I was an economics major at Northwestern, and I've always had a brain that was very wired that way towards numbers, towards statistics. I've always liked it.

GOLDMAN: And he uses it to develop practices for Donald. ShotLink, says Goss, showed in Donald's best years, Donald was one of the PGA Tour's best putters from four to eight feet, making just over 70 percent.

GOSS: So we developed some drills where he's hitting 20 individual pots between four to eight feet, all at different holes, all different putts. And he does it most every day with a goal of making 15 out of 20. So he knows he needs to be at 75 percent in that. And sure enough, the more we did this drill, the better his statistics got on the course. And that was part of his continued improvement.

GOLDMAN: Goss says there are still roadblocks when it comes to widespread use of analytics and professional golf. The major tournaments, including Augusta, don't collect ShotLink stats. The stats measure distance, but don't take into account the different contours on a golf course. And there's still resistance by skeptical players and coaches and fans. But within the next couple of years, golf may have its money-ball moment.

A couple of golf analytics books are coming out - one of them is a collaboration between Goss and "Freakonomics" economist Steven Levitt, a golf junky, says Goss. He says the book will attempt to show amateurs how to get a hold of ShotLink quality data and then show them empirically how to improve. Tom Goldman, NPR News, Augusta.

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