Monday, June 18, 2012

Analysis of WSJ Article on Golf Metrics


A reader pointed out an article in the Wall Street Journal on Mark Broadie’s statistical research study on the game of golf. Here’s the link:

Shots that originate more than 100 yards from the hole have twice the impact on score of shots from inside 100 yards—including putting. Long-game results account for about two-thirds of the variability in scores among golfers on the PGA Tour (the short game is one-third).

I’m glad to see that Mr. Broadie is coming out with a book in 2013. Broadie created the metric ‘putts gained’ and has far more credentials when it comes to statistics than I do. I plan on learning quite a bit from the book.

However, I think where Mr. Broadie may be at a disadvantage is his golfing experience. I do not believe Mr. Broadie has a lot of experience as a golfer, nor playing at a high level nor playing at the levels between a beginner to a +2 handicap. I think that lack of experience will wind up raising some questions about the applicability of his research.

We’ll have to see what the book says, but I have issue with merely breaking down the game of golf into shots from 100+ yards and less than 100 yards. In golf, the shots are really broken down into much more categories than that.

1) Driving off the tee on par-4’s and par-5’s
2) Fairway wood/hybrid approach shots
3) Long irons/hybrid approach shots
4) Mid iron approach shots
5) Short iron approach shots
6) Long wedge shots
7) Less than full swing wedge shots
8) Shots from 0-40 yards around the green.
9) Putting

The issue I take with the ‘long game sets up the short game’ and ‘shots from 100+ yards are twice as important as shots from less than 100 yards’ is that in the end, it really doesn’t tell the golfer that much.

It may wind up getting a golfer to focus their efforts towards 100+ yard shots versus chipping, pitching and putting. Although I don’t think that’s the best way to go.

Furthermore, all shots from 100+ yards are ‘not alike.’ Let’s say we measured two golfers from 100+ yard shots. I would rather have the golfer who is:

- Average on Tour off the tee
- Top-10 from 175+ yards
- 125th from 100-175 yards

Than the golfer who is:

- Above average off the tee (let’s say 75th in Advanced Total Driving)
- 125th from 175+ yards
- Top-10 from 100-175 yards away.

Provided everything else being equal, I believe the first golfer will wind up with a better ‘adjusted scoring average’ and likely have more victories. Particularly on the PGA Tour where the best on Tour only hit it to about 15 feet to the cup on shots from the fairway at 100-125 yards and the worst are still within 30 feet, which is still enough to come away with a par and a possible birdie.

Conversely, the best on Tour from 200-225 yards from the fairway are hitting it to about 34 feet and the worst are hitting it to around 53 feet. And at 53 feet, you’re most likely off the green with a more difficult up-and-in. Furthermore, the average Tour player hits about the same amount of shots from the fairway from those distances. The only thing that changes are:

- Variance in proximity to cup on those shots
- The typical reward for a ‘good’ shot from those distances
- The typical penalty for a ‘poor’ shot from those distances.

As I mentioned in my 2011 Pro Golf Synopsis, at a most basic level, the different comes from the fact that the reality is that the ‘best’ a golfer can do on those approach shots is to make a birdie (-1). But, there is no limit in how poorly they can play the hole. They can take a bogey (+1), double bogey (+2), triple bogey (+3), etc.

That’s why all shots from that range are not created equal.

Furthermore, most golfers on Tour do not hit every type of shot longer than 100+ yards well. The same goes for shots under 100 yards.


Brandt Snedeker is a pretty good example: Take a look at his rankings in certain areas of ballstriking:

75-125 yard shots: 35th
125-175 yard shots: 48th
175-225 yard shots: 145th

And we’ll use my metric ‘Advanced Total Driving’ where he currently ranks 81st.

This is actually quite typical of Tour players. One the few can stay in the top-1/2 from these 3 distances and with the driver. And that’s reserved for players like Kyle Stanley and Jason Dufner, who already have 3 wins between them.

It’s easy to see why more golfers don’t excel at all facets of ballstriking. If they did, they would be one of the top players on Tour. For a lack of better term, it’s just ‘plain hard’ to do.

That’s why I created the different zones:

Birdie Zone (75-125 yards)
Safe Zone (125-175 yards)
Danger Zone (175-225 yards)

Along with creating a metric to determine what statistics most strongly correlate with being the most effective driver of the golf ball.

I think it gives a more accurate depiction of the golfer’s ‘game’ and helps us better understand on what the key factors of the game of golf are and thus be able to better determine where golfers ‘lost’ or ‘gained’ their shots. As far as the Tour goes, here’s what I have in order of importance:

1. Danger Zone Play
2. Putts Gained
3. Advanced Total Driving
4. Short Game Play (0-20 yards)
5. Safe Zone Play
6. Birdie Zone Play
7. 225-275 yard shots
8. Clubhead Speed

From there, the Tour players, caddies and coaches I work with can better prioritize what to focus their efforts on. There’s a real dropoff in importance from #2 to #3 and then another big dropoff from #5 to #6.


But, you do see that putting is quite important once things are broken down more. The problem with the ‘Less than 100 yard shots are less important’ argument is that it lumps in putting with shots from 21-99 yards, which are largely unimportant.

As I stated in 2011 Pro Golf Synopsis, the ‘Adjusted Short Game Play’ only takes into account shots from 0-20 yards from the edge of the green. Why? Because shots from 21-40 yards from the edge of the green show no statistical correlation to Adjusted Scoring Average. My guess is that from that distance, those are usually on such poor approach shots that being able to stick it close is more or less potluck. And typically you do not see any player from 21-40 yards do consistently well from year-to-year. Unlike from 0-20 yards where some players like Brian Gay, Briny Baird and Chris Riley are consistently among the Tour’s best. Thos shows that those shots are more about skill and proficiency because these players are not just getting lucky from that distance each year.

Lastly, I think it’s incorrect to assume that what is good for the Tour pro will automatically translate into being good for the amateur. Particularly if you want to do it with any detail.

From my research, my current conclusions are that as golfers get closer to a scratch handicap, Putting and Danger Zone play become increasingly important for them to take the leap into reducing their handicap and playing better in competitive situations. Surely, improving off the tee could help, but to make that major jump the golfer that is closer to scratch should focus more on Putting, Danger Zone play and shots from 0-20 yards around the green. Of course, there is always the chance that a golfer may be close to scratch while being excellent with the putter and Danger Play, but awful with the driver. But on average, I do not believe that will be the case.

In fact, I believe the better golfer…even the Tour player…who shoots the occasionally poor round of golf will almost likely have done so thru poor driving over poor Danger Zone play or poor putting.

This is significant because it gives an indicator as to what happens when golfers shoot higher scores…the penalty for a terrible shot off the tee is generally far greater than the penalty for a poor putt or poor approach shot.

Hit one poor off the tee, you can go O.B., into a hazard, into a fairway bunker, deep into the woods where you have to punch out or perhaps incur a lost-ball penalty. You won’t get those penalties on the greens. And your chances of getting those type of severe penalties in the Danger Zone are far less.

So, it really doesn’t matter if you’re a Tour pro who has a terrible day and shoots 85 on a course or a 15 handicapper who has a good day and shoots 85 on the course; in all likelihood a big part of those 85 strokes came off the tee shots for both golfers.

In the end, the further away the golfer is from a scratch handicap, the more they need to improve their tee shot play in order to make a significant dent into that handicap. Things like Short Game play, Putting and Danger Zone play are still very important (even though the distance range for the Danger Zone will alter if the golfer plays on a course shorter than 6,700 yards). It’s just as the handicap is higher, they need to improve more off the tee from a distance, accuracy and consistency standpoint to legitimately cut off a lot of strokes off their scores.



John Graham said...

Brilliant Rich.

Loved it and need to learn more.


Josh Mione said...

This is still a great post 5 years later.

Jordan -