Traditionally golf statistics track putts per green and putts per round
Broadie's style considers the proximity and possible outcome of every shot
Innovative strategy arguably introduces the Moneyball mindset into golf
Golf is a game of skill, sportsmanship, and numbers.
From counting strokes that are over or under par to calculating the proximity of the shot’s distance to each hole, numbers play a vital role in understanding the sport.
While some fans are satisfied with the surface of golf entertainment, others desire to dig deeper into the numbers – using them to predict, quantify, and speak for a majority of the action.
Golf’s chief number cruncher is Mark Broadie.
A professor of business and vice dean at Columbia Business School, Broadie’s expertise is rooted in years of working in finance assessment and risk management. As an avid golfer he uses the same analytic tools from his line of work to try to understand and predict player performance.
“It turns out that this old expression in golf, ‘drive for show putt for dough’ is wrong,” says Broadie.
Length is important
Traditionally, fairly simple statistics have been used to gauge performance such as putts per green and putts per round, but Broadie’s style considers the proximity and possible outcome of every shot. He calls it the Strokes Gained method and argues that an aggressive long-game approach to the hole is more important than the putting game.
“Sinking a one-footer does not require great skill. Almost everybody can do it all the time,” Broadie said. “Sinking an eight-footer is a better performance. And sinking a 30-footer is an even better performance.
“So instead of just counting, you want to measure performance relative to the difficulty of the shot. And for a putt, sinking a longer putt is harder than sinking a shorter putt. And all Strokes Gained does is recognize and quantify that fact.”
Moneyball for golf
The PGA Tour incorporated Broadie’s Strokes Gained: putting analysis into its statistics package in 2011, and three years later added Strokes Gained: tee-to-green. On June 1, the tour went further and now breaks this down into strokes gained off the tee, strokes gained with approach shots and strokes gained around the green.
The Tour’s data is provided by ShotLink, which compiles detailed information on every shot played on the circuit. The outcome of each shot is measured against the historical benchmark.
A similar story of pioneering data analysis occurred in baseball in 2002 when the Oakland Athletics’ general manager Billy Beane and his head assistant Paul DePodesta relied on sabermetrics over traditional scouting to select a cost and performance effective squad. The experience was captured by Michael Lewis in a bestselling book titled “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game”, and later turned into the feature film “Moneyball”.
One could argue that Broadie’s strategy introduces the Moneyball mindset into golf and innovates the future of evaluating and predicting player performance.
The data is already changing the way players and coaches prepare. Putting stats that may not stand out under the scope of putts per round sometimes show improved results through the lens of putting distance.
“It turns out that the best players win and they gain the most strokes because of their approach shots, not because of their putting ability,” Broadie said.
Working as a self-described “Golf Doctor,” Broadie has advised the coaches of Tiger Woods, Jordan Spieth, Jason Day and a number of others.
“They want to see, ‘has this swing change improved my ball striking in a given area? Has this change in my putting stroke, or the club that I’m using helped or hurt?’” He explained, “It’s more trying to figure out a player’s strengths and weaknesses, and then it’s up to the coach and the player to figure out how to turn those weaknesses into strengths.”
Broadie’s research is currently in the spotlight with the Ryder Cup quickly approaching. Though he is not working directly with either team, his Strokes Gained method will help the coaches determine which pairings are best for each team and will be especially useful for U.S. captain Davis Love III and his European counterpart Darren Clarke in selecting their Captain’s Picks.
This year’s tournament is unlike any other due to there being more data to use for analysis. In the past strategies have been formed on the traditional statistics rather than calculating all possible percentages.
“There are a lot of different places including course strategy – how aggressive or conservative to play a hole – where an analytical approach can sometimes give you a little bit of an edge that might in the end make a difference. Or the difference.”
While Broadie’s work is specific and innovating, he is not alone in his commitment to better the game. Former leading amateur Bryson DeChambeau recently signed as a professional and said golf is 10 years behind other sports in its use of data.
Also referred to as the “Golf Scientist,” DeChambeau’s research and experiments with designing his own single-length sets has worked for him personally, but has yet to be picked up by major commercial markets.
“Bryson DeChambeau and I have spoken and we certainly have similar opinions about the role of analytics and physics in golf,” said Broadie.
Strokes Gained could be the key to helping advance the game at a professional and amateur level.