Amidst the more usual recitations of gratitude towards his wife, sponsors and coach, Danny Willett this week took time off from celebrating his Masters win to tweet his thanks to a data analysis consultancy for professional golfers, who helped him plot his course strategy.
In football, data analysis units have become well estabilished at top clubs, and the sport’s followers now use terms such as Moneyball freely, if not always accurately. Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger has even felt comfortable enough to make reference to expected goals, a popular metric amongst football analysts in measuring the quality of a team’s chances.
Willett’s nod to London-based analysts 15th Club following his Augusta triumph suggests golf is following suit.
Golf’s equivalent of expected goals is strokes gained, a metric developed by Mark Broadie, a professor at Columbia Business School dubbed “the godfather of golf analytics” who has linked up with players such as Ryder Cup stars Luke Donald and Edoardo Molinari.
Strokes gained stats, which are used to demonstrate how well a golfer is playing on a hole compared to the Tour average and which part of a player’s game is driving that relative performance, are now commonplace since first being adopted by America's PGA Tour in 2011.
Traditional stats, such as putts per green in regulation, don’t take into account the distance of those putts, so a player who tends to strike the ball near to the pin on approach is judged the same as one who lands far away on the green, argues Stanford PhD graduate Broadie.
Strokes gained is said to be a more accurate reflection of skill and can be broken down to show strokes gained by ball-striking or putting compared to the expected result of any given shot, illuminating small weaknesses or strengths in a player’s performance.
|Player||Average strokes gained per hole (PGA Tour)|
|Rafa Cabrera Bello||2.272|
But the sheer amount of golf data now available thanks to tools such as ShotLink – the PGA Tour’s vast data library, which Microsoft has begun working on this year – means the task of developing new performance metrics, interrogating every area of a player’s game, and analysing variables such as weather conditions is being outsourced to analysis companies like that used by Willett.
Zach Johnson has used strokes gained analysis firm Shot By Shot, while Australian statistical analysis business Shots To Hole is used by players on both the PGA and European Tours.
The supply of intelligent data analysis in golf is growing and, with Willett toasting his own data preparation team the day after securing his breakthrough victory – and a $1.8m pay-cheque – the demand looks likely to soar higher than ever.