Slate has a fascinating series on how state of the art statistics tracking has changed the game of golf. From the introduction:

Since ShotLink became fully operational in 2003, the system has recorded more than 7 million golf shots: shots that have landed in trees, shots that have landed in spectators’ laps, four-putt greens, double eagles.

Bundled together, those 7 million shots make up the richest dataset in sports. These shots teach us about the dynamics of competition: Do golfers really play worse when Tiger Woods is in the field? They teach us about choking: Do golfers who are in contention on Sunday miss more easy putts? And they help us answer golf-world conundrums that have always floated above the fairway, in the realm of hunches and best guesses: What separates an average pro from a champion?

We’re in a golden age for golf research because the PGA Tour has opened ShotLink’s books to researchers. Two professors at the Wharton school, for example, looked at 1.6 million tour putts and concluded that professional golfers are risk-averse. They examined putts for par and putts for birdie from the same distances and discovered that pros make the birdie putts less often. They suggest that pros leave these birdie putts short out of fear of making bogey, and then calculate that this bogey terror—and the resultant failure to approach birdie putts in the same way as par putts—costs the average tour player about one stroke per tournament.

It’s insights like these that offer the provoking notion that a Moneyball-type revolution awaits golf. Of course, professional golf is not analogous to baseball, where a general manager spends his days trawling for inefficiencies, coldly evaluating the players on the field and trading for those he believes will perform the best. In baseball, the groundbreaking research of Bill James and his cohort was important not just because it showed fans and math buffs how baseball works. It also changed the way baseball was played as teams used Jamesian statistical insights to earn a tactical advantage.

A few surprising—or perhaps not so surprising—findings.

  • There isn’t much difference between players on the tour in terms of putting.
  • Drive for show, putt for dough turns out to be an old wives tale. It’s Drive for Dough, putt so-so
  • Tournament winners are the recipients of 9.6 stokes of “luck.”
  • Tiger’s accuracy on long approach shots are the key to his wins

You can also download and print out a pdf version of the entire series here.

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