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New stat helps golf plot fresh course

3/15/2014 - Golf

Box scores produce useful data for players and fans in nearly every sport. Football. Baseball. Basketball. Hockey.

But not golf.

Mark Broadie, author of a newly released book, "Every Shot Counts" ($35, Gotham Books), just might have a solution, one that also could change how the game is played at its highest levels.

Traditional golf statistics -- such as greens in regulation, fairways hit and total putts -- are about as efficient in telling you the best players in the game as the maps Columbus used to sail to the New World. For example, a player hits 10 of 18 greens, but, of the eight missed, all stopped on the fringe. The 10 greens hit likely would mean the golfer had a bad day with approach shots, but that clearly wasn't the case because not all missed shots are created equal.

In comes Broadie, who is a professor at Columbia Business School with a bachelor's degree from Cornell and a doctorate from Stanford. As an avid golfer who has won his club championship, Broadie explains in great detail his "strokes gained" theory for golf statistics that he and others in the game have helped foster to produce a more accurate reflection of a player's round.

"It just makes so much more sense to measure golf performance this way," Broadie said.

Hard-core golf fans might have seen the strokes gained putting statistic that was introduced by the PGA Tour in 2011. The basic concept is that, from about 8 feet, half of PGA Tour players make the putt and half miss. If you made it, you gain a half-stroke on the field. Miss and you lose a half-stroke. Simple as that.

In his book, Broadie extended this concept to other shots: strokes gained driving, strokes gained approach shots and strokes gained short game. It looks at, on average, how many shots it takes a PGA Tour pro to finish a hole from certain distances.

Do better than the average, you gain strokes. Do worse than the average and you lose strokes. Count them all up at the end of the round and you can see where you stand in relation to the field in each area of your game.

According to Broadie, he believes the PGA Tour will roll out this larger suite of "strokes gained" statistics sometime in 2014.

Some liken this dimple-focused statistical renaissance to the dawn of sabermetrics in baseball, when stats such as OPS, WHIP and WAR helped determine "the best" in certain areas. Strokes gained does exactly that.

These new statistics will revolutionize how PGA Tour golfers play and practice, and it will have a trickle-down effect to whoever can get their hands on this type of data.

"There's strategy on every shot," Broadie said. "It's risk/reward trade-off. If you fire at a pin and you pull it off, you have a shorter birdie putt. But also, if you miss by a little bit, you might be in a bunker. ... The data can help analyze those kinds of strategic or course management questions."

Broadie doesn't envision these numbers replacing decision-making by players on the course, but every bit of knowledge can help. Think of it in terms of a Major League Baseball manager and his matchups book about lefties vs. righties in a late-game situation. Some skippers will go with the numbers every time, and others might use that information but ultimately will go with their gut.

For many in golf, this will be nothing short of heresy. Some will come along willingly; others will do so kicking and screaming, if at all. If they want to get better, they'll start paying attention.

A few early adopters have been Masters champion Zach Johnson and FedEx Cup winner Brandt Snedeker. Both employ stats gurus who comb through the numbers to find ways they can get that little extra edge in a line of work in which one stroke can mean hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Some players don't want to get into the minutiae of the data, so they rely on their swing coaches to do a deep dive to find out what their players should be spending more time practicing.

Are you great from 100 yards and in but can't score from 125-150 yards? That's what a swing coach might have you focus on in your next practice session together.

So, what are the real-world applications of Broadie's work for the average golfers?

Among the lessons he dispenses in his book:

  • "Drive for show, putt for dough" just isn't true.

  • Distance is more valuable than accuracy.

  • The biggest difference between pros and amateurs is the long game.

  • Amateurs should always aim at the middle of the green, no matter where the pin is on a hole.

Admittedly, there are some mind-numbing charts in the book that likely require an MIT degree to fully understand (regression analysis, standard deviation, anyone?). But clearly the author combines two of his great passions, golf and math, into something that can benefit the game.

One other issue here is that the data Broadie used don't include any of the major championships because the information is gleaned from the PGA Tour's ShotLink program, which isn't used at any major championship venue. That might hurt if you look at the 10,000-foot view, but statistically, it likely won't make much of a difference.

Broadie closes his book by saying, "The revolution is just beginning."

The only real question is, why has it taken so long?