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Sunday, March 16, 2014

Golf By the Numbers, Numbers, and More Numbers

Should you go for the green or lay up? Putt aggressively or die the ball into the hole? Who scores better, a good driver or a good putter? Quantitative researcher Mark Broadie, a professor at Columbia Business School, member of the USGA handicap research team, and former club champion at Pelham CC, applied the same rigorous statistical methods used by Wall Street’s quants to the game of golf to find the answers to these and other major questions of golf strategy.  You’ll be surprised at the answers as he reports them in Every Shot Counts.

Even though there is a foreword by Sean Foley, this is NOT a book about how to swing a golf club.

It is rather an extremely detailed analysis of the game using a measure Broadie developed, "strokes gained." You may have heard the term used on PGA telecasts, particularly in the context of "strokes gained putting," but Broadie has expanded the concept to cover nearly aspect of golf using data from the PGA Tour's ShotLink database as well as one he developed to gather similar data for amateurs, the Golfmetrics system. The result is about as easy to read as a set of IRS instructions, but just like slogging through the tax code, if you stick with it, it will pay off.

I won't go into all the details of how he reached his conclusions, but suffice it to say Broadie convinced me that many of the "truths" about golf I heard and believed for decades are just flat wrong. "Drive for show--putt for dough," for example. WRONG! Broadie's analysis shows that tee shots account for 28% of the shots gained in a round as opposed to putting's mere 17%.

How can that be, you might ask, if putts represent about 50% of your strokes in a round? The answer is that Broadie is comparing performance to the field of golfers, not to par. If you're playing competitive golf, whether on Tour or against your buddies at your local muni, your score relative to theirs will be more strongly affected by your driving than your putting.

That's not the real surprise, though. Broadie's most important conclusion is that the approach shot--not your drive, not your putts, not even your dazzling wedge play--is the most important factor in the game when it comes to beating your opponents. The approach accounts for a whopping 40% of the strokes gained on the field.

Add in the drive, and 68% of the strokes gained can be traced to the long game. This is based, by the way, on his stroke-by-stroke analysis of the top 40 pros during the 2004-2012 seasons.  Interestingly enough, Broadie's research shows that the same ratios hold for amateurs at every level, too!
"Contrary to popular belief, this research proves that the long game explains two-thirds of the difference in scores between beginning and skilled amateurs, between amateurs and pros, and between average pros and the best pros. Academics call this a robust result: It holds for many different groups of golfers. It's the closest thing to a universal truth in golf."
Laying up to a full-swing wedge distance is another truism that Broadie proves is a "falsism."  Haven't we all been taught that the key to a good lay up is to not necessarily hit it as close to the green as you can but rather to a distance where you can take a full swing with your favorite wedge?  Here's what Broadie's research revealed:
"...most golfers will score worse from 80 yards from the hole than from 30, even if every layup to 30 yards lands in the rough, and every layup to 80 yards lands in the fairway."
Actually, I've been a believer in taking my chances with a half-wedge for several years, but felt like I was violating some rule or something every time I did it. Now I know I have been right all along--and the feeling is excellent.

If you can slog through the numbers, Every Shot Counts may well change the way you think about your game.  Broadie spends a good portion of the book applying his analysis to strategic choices like where to aim when there's out-of-bounds on the hole and how to read and putt greens. He's got a section on drills, too, although some are perhaps not for the math-impaired.

Even if you need to take off your socks to calculate your winnings on a round-robin Nassau with three presses, you'd be well-advised to spend some time working on your game with Broadie's numbers in mind.

Among many other books, Dave Donelson is the author of Weird Golf: 18 tales of fantastic, horrific, scientifically impossible, and morally reprehensible golf

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