CHALLENGING CONVENTIONAL WISDOM often leaves statheads underappreciated, not to mention undercompensated. So in conjunction with the PGA Tour, I'm happy to announce some rewarding news: Lou Riccio, who teaches business analytics at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, has won the first ShotLink Intelligence Prize, awarded by the tour and technology partner CDW for the best new application of shot data to golf science. The affable Riccio has been crunching tour numbers for more than 30 years -- you might call him the Bill James of golf, but his friends call James the Lou Riccio of baseball. His paper "The Best Fairway Ball Striker on Tour!" earned his school a prize of $25,000. It demonstrates, once again, how statistical analysis can discover hidden excellence in athletes by counting what we've never counted before.
Before delving into Riccio's research, let's appreciate the wonders of ShotLink, which debuted on the tour in 2001. ShotLink measures the latitude, longitude and elevation of a course and digitally maps it. Then, during play, one group of volunteers walks with players, recording what they do, while another group stands in fairways or near the greens, using lasers to track balls to within one centimeter and beaming that information to the command center in a trailer on the course's grounds. It's like missile defense, except it works. The result is a comprehensive record of every shot by every player. And while many fans don't even know that ShotLink exists, they've nevertheless enjoyed the system's benefits: more accurate details transmitted much faster to writers and broadcasters, better positioning of TV cameras, animated and 3-D images of courses online.
And lots of new statistics. Analysts inside and outside the tour have developed nearly 500 new metrics from ShotLink data -- in a sport that for most of its history kept fewer than a dozen. As the title of Riccio's work indicates, he has mined ShotLink to look at how golfers perform on the shots they take from fairways toward greens: from how great a distance they take the shots and how close they get them to the hole.
Approach shots can vary significantly, but you wouldn't know it from traditional stats -- such as percentage of greens in regulation or proximity to hole -- which mix together 9-irons from 150, 3-irons from 225 and everything in between. So Riccio normalized for distance: He calculated how each individual PGA Tour pro did, through September 2012, on par-4 long approach shots, compared with how the average tour pro would do from the same distance. For example, Bubba Watson gets to a lot of greens from fairways (82.5 percent this year through Feb. 10, leading the tour), but his driving skill gives him many relatively short approach shots. Riccio's method adjusts for that and drops Watson 16 slots in the percentage-of-greens-hit rankings.
There is, alas, no "Best Fairway Ball Striker on Tour!" in Riccio's analysis -- there are two. Justin Rose ranked first by hitting 77.9 percent of greens as of September 2012, 10.7 percentage points better than the distance-adjusted average of tour golfers. Lee Westwood was best in leaving just 8.39 yards to the hole, 1.65 yards fewer than the distance-adjusted average. More interesting: Relative to traditional stats, Ben Curtis' standing improved the most by either measure. Curtis hit 65.7 percent of greens, ranking just 74th on the tour, but he was 2.4 percentage points better than average, 41st best, once Riccio took distance into account. And he jumped from 75th to 16th in distance to hole: Curtis left an average of 10.6 yards to the cup, 0.79 of a yard better than average. Curtis, it turns out, is highly accurate on approach shots, but because of his short drives (264.2 yards on average, ranking last on tour this year), traditional stats mask his skill. "For Curtis to have won four tournaments while averaging less than 280 yards a drive, he has to be competing another way," says Riccio. "This shows us how."
Back when Ben Hogan and Sam Snead were driving 260, there was little disparity among golfers' games; hence the adage "Drive for show, putt for dough." Today, with various training regimens, playing styles and equipment, athletes have many ways to bring home the dough. ShotLink reveals that driving, iron shots, short approaches, putting, even hazard saves all have their own heroes and goats. And by backing research like Riccio's, the tour is making a smart bet: Better data will tell their stories.